Brandon Leung of Baisun Candles: Home is Where the Nose Is
What smells like home to you? Maybe a hot cup of chrysanthemum tea? Or freshly cut dragonfruit? How about a dab of healing white flower oil? They all smell like home to Brandon Leung and so he developed the scents into candles. Thus his company, Baisun Candles, was born.
We had the chance to talk to Brandon about the motivation behind starting Baisun, what it was like to launch a business during the pandemic, and his favorite smelling city he can’t wait to visit again.
Tell me about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I grew up in Wilmington, DE. I was born and raised there. After graduating from high school, I went to the University of Delaware, and after college I moved to the DC/Maryland area. That's where I experienced a lot of homesickness, which was a driving factor of why I started this business.
I didn't launch Baisun Candles until October 2020, but always had this idea. I wanted to create a brand to showcase what I grew up with — something that would alleviate that homesick feeling. I didn't have my mom's cooking and couldn't get dim sum with my family every Saturday. So I wanted something at home with me to scratch that homesick itch.
During the pandemic I moved back home to Delaware which is where I started diving into this business. I had lost my job, but was able to spend more time with the family and reconnect with my cultural identity. It was a difficult jump going from a nine-to-five job to running my own business since this was the first time I was really betting on myself. Fortunately, I found a great community and new friends to lean on whenever I need a source of inspiration or motivation.
This product that would scratch that homesick itch, as you put it — was it always candles?
Pretty much. Growing up we always had candles although my brother had a sensitive nose. We couldn't burn paraffin. Nowadays there's a move toward soy candles, and that inspired my own soy-based candles. In college I majored in hospitality and business management, and was always surrounded by food and wine. The idea of being able to experiment and blend different scents together had always piqued my interest.
Have you always been into smells?
It’s weird to admit, but I was a kid who was into sniffing everything. [Laughs] On trips to Hong Kong, when we were walking past the flower markets, my mom would always tell me to catch up with her because I was always sniffing every flower in sight. Some of my floral candles — wisteria, Japanese cherry blossoms, and chrysanthemum — are based on those smells.
What's your most unusual smelling candle?
Probably white flower oil! Some people may think it's too much, but I grew up around it all the time. My grandmother rubbed it on me after school without thinking twice about how I’d smell like a walking car freshener. I've always had this nostalgia with that smell.
You mentioned that making the jump from a nine-to-five job to running your own business was a challenge. Can you talk more about that?
When I had a regular job, I wasn't doing it purposefully. Sometimes I felt like I was just putting in the hours, like I was working for someone else, doing a job that could have been done by someone else. Now I feel like I have another purpose other than just sitting at a computer, doing the same thing over and over.
My superfans really got it. They understood what I was doing and let me know how proud they were and that maybe I'm doing something that themselves wish they could have done. That's what drives me to wake up every day.
It's also nice to have my own schedule and not have a boss I have to touch base with every other day. I love talking with people who interact with the business, to be able to be the face of the company, building relationships, and being held accountable. It's really important to me how I treat people. I'm not just putting on a face to make others look good.
Where does the name "Baisun" come from?
When I was in Hong Kong, we would practice baisun, praying to ancestors. We would make these long treks into the mountains and make pit stops where we would baisun.
What's the most surprising thing you learned while starting your own business?
Just to take every win that I get and not take it for granted. Some days I have really high highs while others I’ll feel like I haven't gotten anything done all day. It's okay to not have a single sale that day. It's not a straight path. Setting realistic expectations with my business’ growth helped me understand my positioning in the grand scheme of things.
Do you feel like starting a business during the pandemic had even more resonance or meaning?
It certainly taught me perseverance. It really couldn't have been worse. The supply chain was bad and constantly changing on a weekly basis. But it taught me that where there's a will, there's a way. I had to DIY everything to figure out how things work and be flexible.
During the pandemic, there really was a sense of camaraderie within the candle makers community. We would all share tips, recommendations, leads — anything we could help each other with that we all were struggling with. It was incredibly inspiring seeing the candle makers and small businesses coming together to lift one another up.
With the rise in AAPI hate crimes happening in the U.S., I felt like I had a platform to help spread awareness and give back to the community. With the help of our supporters, Baisun Candle Co. was able to raise more $4,000 to support Hate is a Virus, a nonprofit community of mobilizers and amplifiers to dismantle racism and hate.
Were you already familiar with Pearl River?
Oh yeah, I've been following you guys on Instagram for a while! You guys have such a feel good account! In Delaware, there aren't a lot of Asian markets. You have to go out to surrounding neighborhoods.
My dad remembers Pearl River too. The other day, he even told me that when he was a student studying graphics design back in the ‘90s, he entered a Pearl River logo competition.
No way! Did he win?
No, but he liked the idea of designing a logo for an Asian-owned business.
If Pearl River were a Baisun candle, which one would it be?
Hmmm... Well I always think of colors first. With Pearl River, I think of red and gold so it would be the Candied Plum candle.
What's your favorite city in terms of smells?
Definitely an unconventional answer, but Hong Kong! I love it all. The weird subway smells, wonton noodles on the street, the quick blast of A/C and perfumy air from high-end stores. I really miss it and hope to go again soon.Check out the whole Baisun Candles collection. You can also read our other interviews with Asian American entrepreneurs.