A PATÉMAR MINI-SERIES : TASTEMAKER #02 : MR. JOHNNY TIEU
Words by: Lens of Passion
Johnny is scouting for a plot of land in Bali to build a villa and he has just opened a bar in Berawa. The Brooklyn-born is getting engaged to Indonesia. “Apparently, yes. It’s being a home base now. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York and my friends there, it’s my ‘home’ forever but when I went back to the city it just reminded me why I’m not there anymore,” he reasons. “For one I’m not sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
We have bike traffic here, but it’s not nearly as bad.” After living in Asia for seven years, Johnny has transplanted part of himself close to his parents’ birthplace. They left during the Vietnam War.
It is 2:00 in the afternoon and Johnny sits across my screen in a modern, well-lit hotel room, with a maroon and white wallpaper behind him that profiles the Hindu temples. “The cost of living in a hotel long-term is very affordable in Bali,” he says, “I don’t really need a kitchen because I like to eat out and explore. I love all my foods!” After stalking Johnny’s social media and seeing the Spartan Pro athlete’s physique, I feel silly yet compelled about asking him if he snacks at all. “I eat anything! Honestly, I think there’s a misconception because of the way I showcase myself on my social media, which is partially my fault.” Right off the bat, Johnny’s introspectiveness is setting the tone. “I’m open to eating anything from bananas to granola bars to chocolate to ice cream and donut for a snack. There is really not a thing I hold back on too much,” he adds as he fixes his black baseball cap backwards.
Once upon a time, Johnny was a suit-and-tie guy who made it in Corporate America, specifically, at a bank in New York City. For five years, everything seemed fine as the digits expanded on his passbook and then, a flight deal in 2015 changed his life forever.
“Thanks for having me. I am curious to see what my answers are as we get into the conversation, or what my mind decides to dive into. Growing up in an Asian family, deep discussion hasn’t been that big of a thing,” says Johnny, “but as I grow older I think it becomes very important to self-reflect and take another step further from imposter syndrome. This is going to be great.”
We certainly hope that you will find this to be great, as well.
Q: We are all evolving entities on earth. We wear many hats and the hats change through time. Who is Johnny Tieu, now?
Okay, the Johnny now is someone who has definitely opened up a lot more than when he was younger. Currently, what I do is fitness and business consulting work while I am also a professional hybrid endurance athlete doing Spartan racing and other competitions. My passion for physical training and my professional analytical background merged and became a career path that grew and gave me a lot of fulfillment. Johnny enjoys seeing people identify, evolve and develop their utmost potential. On top of all that I also coach. Currently coaching athletes around the globe, including the top podium Spartan Athletes in Asia.
Q: And you’re ranked no. 1 in Asia for Spartan Race. What is Spartan?
According to the podium rankings prior to the pandemic. Spartan race is a competition brand that falls under obstacle course racing and also hybrid endurance racing. The sport challenges one’s ability to run, lift, swim, jump and push past their limits to overcome obstacles. Are you fast, durable, strong and flexible all at the same time? Think of it as the an extended military bootcamp race training you to adapt to your environment or a zombie apocalypse, haha!
Q: I’m aware that you’re a cultural chameleon. Can you share with us a little bit about your family and linguistic heritage?
My family is ethnically Vietnamese and they left during the war. Because of certain situations, my family and other families we hung out with decided not to teach us. I was born and bred in Brooklyn, New York. English is the main language we speak at home but growing up I learned Cantonese because of the neighborhood I lived in so people often confuse me as Chinese-Vietnamese but the reality is I am just Vietnamese! [laughs] I know all dishes’ names in Vietnamese because as I said I love food. My Spanish and Indonesian are okay.
Q: Languages are invisible keys to the world, aren’t they! If you could take a pill and speak a language fluently forever, which one would it be?
Oh, interesting! I think Indonesian given the region I’m in, but generally I would love to have full control of Mandarin.
Q: How long have you lived in Bali and how did it happen?
I’ve been traveling in and out of Bali for the past five years and I’ve lived here officially since 2020 November. It started off as a project in Jakarta to Bali in the middle of the pandemic, working with previous clients in Hong Kong. Twos weeks turned into three months, and I really enjoyed my longer term stay in Bali this time aroundsoI thought, “Yeah, why not just explore what I can do here?” It was a blessing in disguise during the pandemic for sure.
Q: Do you have a favorite Indonesian word and snack?
Hah, a basic word. Sedikit, it means “a little”. I use it when the locals ask if I speak Indonesian and they always laugh and say, “Oh you say this word so perfectly, you must understand more than this!” And I absolutely love beng-beng, it’s like Rice Krispies and Twix combined. It’s chocolaty, caramelly and it’s small.
Q: Take us through your journey: academics, career, turning points and creating a path of your own.
I come from a low-income family and grew up in a part of New York City which at the time was pretty dangerous. You’d hustle and bustle, always cautious. I was limited to which schools I could study at. I ended up going to a city university called Baruch College, receiving assistance from the government. The first year was quite easy for me and my then-girlfriend encouraged me to transfer to another school so I became a sophomore at NYU’s Stern School of Business with enough scholarship money to study Investment Banking and Finance.
As I got deeper into finance, I already knew I didn’t like it but at that time I wasn’t focusing on what I liked, rather what would make me the most money. Eventually, Bank of America came back earlier than all the marketing firms I had applied to with a two-year risk management offer, which later turned out to be a five-year path.
The next turning point was when a flight deal showed up on my phone in the middle of one night in 2015. It was a US$200 roundtrip from New York to the Philippines, so I went ahead and booked that for myself and my friends. This was when I finally quit banking, something I wanted to do for a long, long time, to close this chapter. Bank of America came back with a better offer but, no, I knew there wasn’t going to be anything tangible or close to the things that I was craving for. . What started as a catalyst flight to the Philippines, ended up spending eight months backpacking and exploring off the tourist path around Asia.
The next turning point happened at my last stop on this trip, in Hong Kong, when a friendly gathering became an invitation to help build a gym business. I didn’t say yes at the dinner. I flew home, thought about it and went, Yeah, nothing is holding me back,” and decided to move to Hong Kong in 2016 to do that for one year, which again turned into a much longer ride and stayed five years there. This opportunity allowed me to consult, manage, and grow a fitness gym business while also focusing on myself as an athlete, racing, reaching out to brands and building partnerships.
Q: What have you learned from your journey so far?
The more open and prepared I am, the more things and opportunities would pour my way. I am not afraid to build everything from the ground up again anymore, rather I am excited by the unknown of what I can provide to the communities I am entering and the joy that comes with it.
Q: Preparation and belief. That’s great advice as many of us may have been reinventing ourselves during the pandemic, we certainly need to work and believe hard in the psychological wilderness. Which 3 people who believed in you or otherwise, have impacted you most on your life story?
I think my core group of friends, them as a collective really pushed me to take on the next level. Because before I decided to leave New York, they saw that glimmer in my eyes and said, “Why not just go for it? You’re young, nothing is holding you back.” Then, my dad, who has never said no to things I wanted to do. He has his hard exterior but deep down, he’s a softy. What he says has a whole lot to it. And the third person would be my previous partner for her inquisitive perspectives and the high EQ. I’m definitely grateful for those three categories of people in my life.
Q: What is your passion? Is there a message that comes with it?
My passion is to help create crucial healthier paths in our society by helping business and individuals focus internally on ourselves. These days, we focus so much externally. We’re bombarded by notifications on our phones, sales, visual stuff, etc. but in reality people are not focusing on the main vessel of life, which is their crucial being and body that can do so much else than the distracting things.
Fitness is an encompassing entity and looking good is not the be-all-end-all factor. I stress very heavily on saying that I do not train people to look a certain way. The definition of fit changes from person to person and the notion of perfect sometimes creates a lot of problems. My belief is balance in the realm of fitness, because we live here and we want to enjoy life. My calling is to create wellness impact on individual levels and help evolve the market environment for the fitness industry.
The bigger dream I have is to help represent and elevate the Asian ethnicity beyond the mindsets of sports. Self-improvement, career, relationships, family, who you are what you do, or even just yet your physical body. I stepped into the professional racing realm kind of early and I was the first Asian by blood to step on the court. It’s a humbling experience and a calling I want to continue, to inspire and support people who see part of themselves in me.
Q: One of the objectives of this miniseries is to re-introduce and display sustainability in light of your story. There’s something similar between sustainable living and a healthy lifestyle that you advocate. Both will start to show a long-term result after a while. How do you interpret “Sustainability”?
The biggest sustainable thing you can do is every small step because the sum of small steps will get you where you want to be long-term. Progression is key in achieving sustainability.
In the fitness world, sustainability is connected to something that can constantly be done over and over again, something that you can really live by, something that doesn’t bore you, and something that makes dramatic impact that you cannot discontinue. To achieve this, it comes down to every little action. Introduce something new to your meal, remove one sugary drink from your diet, remove sugar slowly, etc. to reprogramme your brain’s addiction to something that is actually healthy for you. You’d start feeling better as a being and you won’t ever stop maintaining this happy, healthy, nutritious mind, body and mindset.
Also, sustainability to me means giving back and working with the local communities. It is to think of ways to provide as much value as possible, when resources are being taken away by me, you, us.
Q: Any health hacks that lead to sustainable wellness you can share with us?
Recovery is the most important factor for the things we do because we’re constantly damaging our bodies. Just as much as you train, you need to recover just as much because that recovery aspect is is crucial, and most people value the workout part beating their bodies breaking them down, but they don’t think about how much more they should recover to gain the benefits of it. I recommend things like foam rolling, myofascial release, stretch the tears in your muscles out, give them fresh blood flow.
Other things can be information that you’re given to really understand your body and give you more insight into longevity. So whether it’s a heart rate monitor, HRV monitor, glucose monitor, these are things that’s considered biohacking because you are providing yourself with more information that you would ever had before and they’re not commonly available to. Of course they are generally used for patients but they can be used for performance sports and regular well-being upkeeping too.
Q: Among your many projects you’ve also become the Head of Fitness for Potato Head. Can you comment on the sense of sustainability in the fitness community in Bali?
Yeah, Bali is very much embracing sustainability in all aspects in the fitness world, whether it is sustainably providing a value, giving back to the community or working out with the patient, progression mindset.
Potato Head’s true pillar is sustainability. Anytime you walk through the door, they’ll take away your plastic bottle to give you a recycled bottle and you use that throughout your stay there. Everything that’s in their facility is recycled. They work with local purveyors who create sustainable products that belongs to their respective true ethos. They hire locally and collaborate with local artists to create new areas, to build out architecture bricks to mortars to everything and anything you see, paying a lot of respect to the local cultures. Currently I’m working with them to build sporting and weight equipment by recycled trash to provide added value for our clientele in the workout space.
Q: After living there for a year and a half, do you see a disjoint between the community you live in and the other groups in terms of their view on sustainability?
I definitely do feel that there’s a sense of disconnect even among the foreigners you see here. Some of them are very into recycling and treasuring the beauty of Bali and you also have tourists and expats who don’t care and they treat this island as their playground. They throw trash everywhere.
The Balinese people are very smart about recycling certain things. They reuse all the types of leaves and plants as decorations, they reuse a lot of wood but they also put a candy with plastic wrapping in their daily offering to the gods. Overall there’s certainly a lack of information and lack of income to purchase a certain way and it’s not a priority as a society I don’t think. This is their land and they inhabit their lifestyle. I don’t think anybody has fully provided a solution for sustainability across all industries, groups, functions etc. on this island.
Q: Advice for people out there who feel stuck in the hamster wheel, and they read your story and go, “Wow, I want that but where do I start?”
Safety can be good but it can bring you to stagnation, and you’ll never know what you’re capable of. For me I wouldn’t be who I am today without taking that massive leap to move from New York to Asia. We as Americans are told, “You better know what your career is, better make lots of money or you’re a complete failure!” but I think what real failure is when you’re not happy doing all that and having all that money!
Obviously, if you have a family and have many obligations then it can be harder but if you’re in your 20s and 30s, take the risk, don’t say no easily.
Q: What’s next for Johnny Tieu?
I’m looking forward to so many exciting projects this year. I’m thrilled to be doing more with the Potato Head, training and racing. Oh, I just opened a bar in Berawa, it’s called Bar Goose. I don’t drink that much personally but a business opportunity came about and I did the financials and I was like, “Why not?”We’re coming close to the end of this interview and here’re a few fill in the blank questions for you!
Fill in the blank
Success is achieving what you want but also making you happy at the same time.
My favorite spot in the world is wherever I snowboard above the clouds (previously) and (now) walking on the beach in sunset.
What we all can do to be a bit more sustainable is take one step at a time, every little bit counts.
One trivial thing about Johnny is…I’m a walking Google?
Editors Note: The Patémar Mini-Series Tastemakers will be published on the first week of each months of the season. Stay tuned and follow our instagram @patemarshorts and @lensofpassionofficial to receive the latest update on our interviewees. #PATEMARTastemakers #LensOfPassionOfficial
See more Mr. Tieu’s work at @quacktieu