Facing controversy, influencers tend be defiant till the end… until they cannot be. Sylvia Chan’s strategy is no different
Warning: this post contains language and descriptions that some readers may find offensive
Like so many people, we too have been following the Sylvia Chan (陈思华) saga. This is far more compelling than her own scripted “content” for Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) and anything that the writers of the won’t-conclude Kin have dreamed up; this is real life, this is hot-blooded harshness. But Malaysian-born Ms Chan is neither Ella Shelley nor Loh May Wan, nor any of their children. She is a bona fide influencer. Major, or depending on how easily influenced you are. And like so many of those who chose this line of work, she is no alien to controversy or behaviour of doubtful propriety. As you would have read, Ms Chan was ”exposed” on the Instagram page @sgcickenrice (yes, chicken spelled without the ‘h’) for language used against employees, including their looks, that are, at best, impolite (the posts have been removed). “Vulgar” and “abusive” have been bandied about in the media, social or others, but, in the newest post on her Instagram page (which enjoys 231K followers), Ms Chan wrote somewhat euphemistically that her “expressions may have been harsh” (may?). One target of her ungentle ways was purportedly NOC’s own talent and fellow influencer Samantha Tan, who is described as a newbie, as she joined NOC only two years ago—but not new enough to benefit from the clemency of an old bird.
In case you think influencers are those who really have nothing better to do than take selfies of themselves and post the photos on social media, as well as aligning themselves with brands for enviable income, Ms Chan is also the co-founder and chief executive (sheEO?) of Night Owl Cinematics (in Facebook, she calls herself “big sister” of NOC), a media company that is (self-)touted as creators of “content with a cause”. In fact, co-founding seems a particular professional flair of hers. In 2012, she co-founded her earliest digital media venture, a YouTube channel named Ryan Sylvia—the former, Ryan Tan, now her former husband. With him, she also co-founded NOC in 2016. A year later, she co-founded Food King, another YouTube channel, this time dedicated to the F&B scene. Ms Chan was also co-listed with Mr Tan on the Forbes’ 2016 salute to young achievers in Asia, “30 Under 30”, which capped a career of accolades for NOC, including numerous “Top Trending Videos”, among them the weak-minded, stereotype-perpetuating, and unfunny 12 Types of Classmates. Eleven months after the two co-s announced their divorce on YouTube (garnering 2 million views to date!) in May last year (it was finalised in March), Ms Chan received her Singaporean citizenship.
In an IG post on 30 September, Sylvia Chan shared what could be a first: a photo of her unsmiling self, with another influencer Joanna Lim, a chum from her “all time top 10 friendship list”. The accompanying message read: “Just because someone chooses to smile instead of cry, it (sic) does not mean that she is not struggling with mental health problems”. Almost all of Ms Chan’s selfies on IG offer a smile, sometimes with teeth baring between amply plump and coloured lips, even when she isn’t hawking client Yunnan Baiyao’s (云南白药) toothpastes (we won’t mention Colgate since the company has “decided to terminate all related collaborations with her”). Oftentimes her mouth gapes so she’d look goofy. Is it possible that beneath the smiles, evident since her third IG post in 2014 (she joined the social media four months earlier), there are struggles with mental health, as in the cases of quite a few women of this past year, who were prone to outbursts and social disobedience, especially the recalcitrant? If you, like most, know her only through Ryan Sylvia or the videos of NOC, Ms Chan comes across as a joker or a fun seeker, who can’t be separated from her Ah Lian self.
As it turned out, what she wrote in her post was from first-hand experience. In one edition of the Chinese talk show Hear U Out (权听你说), televised last year, Ms Chan agreed with host Quan Yifeng (权怡凤) when the latter said, “…其实你本人不搞笑, 很严肃 (…in fact, personally you are not funny, very serious [or, as we now guess, even mirthless?]). Speaking in mostly halting Mandarin, breathing with hints of unmistakable Federation accent, she soon revealed that when she was 17 and studying in Anglo Chinese Junior College (ACJC), she was diagnosed as clinically depressed, following the death of her maternal grandmother, to whom she was close to. By her own revelation in English (that peppered much of her chatter), she was suffering from “severe depression, OCD, and rage disorder”, which she said was caused by “hormonal imbalance”. Her doctor gave her “两年的MC, 不是两个月 (a medical certificate for two years, not two months)”. The Johorean quit ACJC after the diagnosis, and later enrolled in an unspecified eight-month course to learn about depression, partly to heal herself and partly because she thought she wanted to be a doctor. But, that fell through once she discovered that she “不是当医生的料 (is not doctor material) as studying science, she 根本都不喜欢 (does not like at all)”. She did not say if she is still suffering from (or receiving treatment for) any of the three diseases mentioned.
The Protestor in 12 Types of Classmates
It is not easy to reconcile Mr Chan’s revelation of last year with the revelation on social media of the past two weeks. On one audio recording (as well as text messages) attributed to her that was leaked, Ms Chan appeared to swear as fervently—and naturally—as Xiaxue (aka Wendy Cheng), and with as much gusto. If her tendency to eff anyone who crosses her was, for many, disconcerting, it is harder to imagine how the victims would feel, especially when one was shown to have been called “fuck face”. While the exposé on @sgcickenrice (and, according to vigilant Netizens, also TikTok) was incriminating, Ms Chan did not respond publicly. But three days ago, NOC did share a four-page post on IG, addressed to “valued artistes, employees, clients, partners and viewers”. It called the online accusations “attacks that have been carefully crafted and mounted on” the organisation and those under its employ. And that they are “serious breaches of the privacy laws”. On the same day, @sgcickenrice received a cease-and-desist letter from her lawyers. Yesterday, two weeks after the accusations surfaced, Ms Chan posted a near-apology on IG.
In the aberrantly-constructed, nine-page post, she wrote “apologise” once. “Sorry” fared better; it appeared twice. But the apology was not extended to Samantha Tan and others at the receiving end of her ready-to-dispense expletives, rather it was for not responding to the online charges soon enough. She was also sorry that she “did not step up to the standards” expected of a person in a leadership role and to her team, whose “good character and excellent work” were “undermined by (her) past action”. Is it any wonder Netizens thought the apology insincere? As for the rebuke of Ms Tan, “strong language”—as Ms Chan called it—was admittedly used, but, she assured readers that there was no “intention to harm, abuse or discriminate against her or anyone”. To the end (and in the last paragraph), she considered what she was accused of as “allegations” (which, together with its verb form, did as well as “sorry”—it showed up twice too). These include whatever was said to make her out to be a person—whose own “notable on-screen personas include Xiao Bitch, Luciana”, as stated in her LinkedIn profile—who was “rude and had used vulgarities”. There was no mention of rage disorder.
In all the characters that Ms Chan plays, few, if any, could be considered to be of model behaviour (are these birthed by mental health issues?). In 12 Types of Classmates, she played “The Protestor”, a delinquent agitator, who tells her teacher, “我忍你很久了 (I’ve had enough of you)”. But via social media, and as she underscores in the lengthy IG post, she projects herself as one who “give(s) back especially to youths, women and mental health causes”, while selling/promoting tons of stuff. In the Forbes listing mentioned above, it was shared that she and Ryan Tan were supposed to “start a fashion brand”. Nothing, it seems, came out of that desire. Ms Chan, whose clothier-clients include Love, Bonito and H&M, is not a fashion influencer in the same mould as, say, Yo-Yo Cao. With her predilection of letting her hair go unmistakably pink (and in ombré too), her style is more akin to pal Xia Xue’s, but, perhaps, with the sexiness and doll-likeness considerably dialled down. In her lively posts, the content and message take precedence, rather than the clothes. In fact, her vivid hair is often more the focus than what she wears. But, as she told Quan Yifeng in Hear U Out, she does not think she’s “loud”. Perhaps its myriad colours, like her smile, do not reveal her state of mental health, nor a predilection for profanity, even by her own admission that when it comes to work, “如果哪里做不好，不管是谁我都会骂 (if something is not done well, no matter who it is, I will scold)”.
That questionable influencer behaviours, which digital life shows abundantly, still surprise is, in itself, surprising. The fascination with the slip-ups of individuals who are socially influential won’t wane for as long as followers by the hundreds of thousands consider what the former wields to be influence. Unseemly speech and conduct deemed as undignified are all part of the mix. So are mental health issues as underlying issues. Decorum, online or offline, are going the way of punctuation in text messages: dispensable. Ugly manners and action, like ugly fashion, have ceased to be. Ugliness is no longer even recognisable. However, this post is not to identify it. Shortly after what @sgcickenrice shared two weeks ago, an SOTD reader sent us a message to ask who Sylvia Chan is. This answers the question based on what is already out in the public domain, and not intended to cause, as her lawyers asserted about the recent online exposés, “harassment, alarm and distress to many” (they did not say whether what their client supposedly said about others could effect the same). In her last IG post, Ms Chan wrote that she would be “removed from NOC’s lineup of artistes”. Even if so, she would still be seen as an influencer, an Instagrammer, a YouTuber. In one thread on a messenger chat that is still available on the web, Ms Chan purportedly wrote, “I can’t talk to influencers they are stupid (sic)”. Just with that, she could be encouraging many to agree with her. Let’s hope not.
Illustrations: Just So