More allegations have surfaced about the Night Owl Cinematics boss. Will there be a second ‘apology’? Or would this be the fall of one angry Ah Lian?
This past week has perhaps been a bonus for those who are voracious readers of news about influencers who have not fared as brilliantly as they have made themselves so on social media. Earlier in the week, TikTok sensation Koh Boon Ki (许文琪) was called out for facilitating the dissemination of damming information of men that a group of women wanted excluded from the dating market. Doxxing and cyberbullying were bandied about in relation to what Ms Koh initially allowed before it grew too big to be contained within a group chat. Before her, Sylvia Chan (陈思华) was exposed to have allegedly used offensive language against the staff of Night Owl Cinematics (NOC), the company she runs. This, to many, was seen as bullying too. Although she took a while, Ms Chan issued what was assumed to be an apology on Instagram and removed herself from NOC’s list of artistes, but she remained, as far as it is publicly known, the boss. Less than a week after her peace offering, former and present employees of NOC “gathered… to break their silence on the allegations” with Must Share News. In addition, present and ex-staffers (it is not known if they are the same people who shared their experiences with MSN) started a blog, End the Silence, on Google’s blogging platform Blogspot to “to shed light on (their) workplace encounters over the years with Sylvia Chan”. At the same time, the blog creators also started a YouTube channel of the same name, on which they shared a video of clips of Ms Chan’s reactions during what appears to be meetings conducted via video calls or Zoom. The post has attracted 255, 543 views and 414 comments in less than a day, or while we write this.
That more verifications have appeared to bolster the initial accusations suggest the extent of her offensive behaviour and how deep the displeasure among those affected ran. There was no corporate disciplinary committee to act. The transgressions are now determined publicly, with many Netizens asking for her to be met with what her pal Xiaxue passionately disapprove: cancellation. Charges against Ms Chan on End the Silence were preceded by a disclaimer: “we have exhausted all means of trying to get our voices heard in NOC by talking to key members of the management team as appointed by Sylvia – such as Sylvia herself, the accountant, her lawyers… and more but to no avail”. The optics have not been good for Ms Chan. On the video shared on YouTube, there was no mistaking her disdain, disapproval, and displeasure with the participants of the Zoom call. There was even talking down to reportedly her husband Ryan Tan (it is not certain if they were divorced at the time of the heated interlocution) when the exchange did not go her way. Details of her management habit too were revealed, such as messaging her staff “at (sic) Sunday 3am”. While Mr Tan spoke, she was seen smoking and smirking. Her behaviour seemed to commensurate with the bubbling public perception of her now: “boss from hell”.
Sylvia Chan striking a pose in the style of the covers of I-D magazine
Sylvia Chan was born in Johor Bahru in 1988, the year Singapore and Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding on water and gas supplies, which set out the terms of their future sales by our northern neighbour to us. According to her YouTube post Draw my Life (then under her debut channel Ryan Sylvia), she grew up in Kampung Saleng (now Kampung Baru Saleng). This small town in the Kulai district, with a population of about 92,223, sits just 50 kilometres to the north of our city. Its residents are mostly Chinese and many speak the Hakka dialect. She lived in a house not situated in the heart of town, and the family “had a durian tree, a rambutan tree, and a vegetable gardens (sic), and lots of chickens walking around all the time”. She considered those days the best part of her life. Village days were blissful: “I would feed turtles in the temple, steal fruits from my neighbours’ tree, collect chicken eggs, and get scolded by my grandmother all day, but it was awesome, and I love my grandmother a lot.”
She started schooling late (K2, when she was six) because “when you live in a kampung, you don’t need to study, lah”. Little is known about her parents (except that her mother, who calls her “geer” (girl), is Peranakan and “worked in an office job (sic)”), but when she was in Primary 3 back in JB, they sent her to Singapore to continue her studies after she told her parents she “didn’t want to study anymore” because “the teachers were really scary and they had canes and they scold (sic) me all the time”. She admitted that it “sounds really bad but I was actually at the top of my class, but I was really stressed”. She did not say which school in Kampung Saleng that she went to, but, according to public records, such as Kemudahan Carian Sekolah-Sekolah di Malaysia, there is only one primary school in the town: Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (C) Saleng (沙令国民型华文小学) or SJK (C) Saleng, a national (government) school, with medium of instruction in Mandarin. In Singapore, her parents managed to secure a place for her in Fuchun Primary, a school in Woodlands (three hours by bus from Kampung Saleng) that was founded in 1985, three years before she was born.
Ms Chan told Quan Yifeng (权怡凤) in the 2020 talk show Hear U Out (权听你说) that the entire Chan family budget was spent on sending her to school here. Back then, she woke up at four in the morning so that she could make the three-hour commute by bus—sometimes alongside pig delivery trucks (a fact she seems to be proud of as she is wont to repeat it)—to cross the causeway to get to school. She claimed that she was afraid in those early years as she felt the weight of her entire household’s financial sacrifice on her. When asked if her family “算是小康 (is considered moderately affluent), she replied, “其实算是辛苦 (actually, considered hard)”. The early years here were tough also because she had to use “full English from full Chinese back in Malaysia”. She added that in Singapore, she discovered that Singaporeans were all very wealthy because the people could shop for clothes frequently while, for her, purchasing new garments was only for the first day of the Lunar New Year. Despite their thrifty way of life, it appears that she was very much doted on at home in JB. As she once said on the social network Ask.fm, “I grew up with two brothers and five male cousins in my childhood (sic), plus I was the only girl in the neighbourhood”. She wanted so badly to have sisters, she recounted in an episode of the podcast The Thirsty Sisters, that when her mother was at work, she dressed her two brothers in half-drag (high heels and handbags were involved too) and created “different scenes” so that she could say, “today, ladies, we’re going to the market and another day, ladies, we’re going to work”.
After her PSLE, she went to Nanyang Girl’s High School. Although she had spent more than three years in the school system here, she did not enjoy her time at NYGH. She considers it “a very sad period”. Again, on Ask.fm, she said that it was “one of the most difficult part (sic) of my life. Everyone was super competitive and I was bullied a lot by my school mates and teachers alike”. Secondary school was similar to her first three years in primary—it was “super stressful and competitive and some of my teachers are (sic) more demon than human so I thought I was gonna die from the pressure. I even pon (first syllable of ponteng, Malay for playing truant) school sometimes (on rainy days) cos I couldn’t muster any more strength to continue”. But she did, as she performed well at the ‘O’ levels, scoring seven points. While her peers would have not hesitated to go to junior college with that, she was contemplating something else. “A diploma in visual effects from Temasek Poly. Did I go ahead with that choice? No. Because I was young and impressionable and I followed what people told me to do.” So she enrolled in Anglo Chinese Junior College. While she said she enjoyed her JC days, she did not complete her education there. She told Quan Yifeng that her grandmother’s death (when she was in JC2) impacted her severely, so much so that she suffered “depression, OCD, and rage disorder”. She then decided to stop her studies at ACJC. Despite her mental health, she considers herself to be “a super sensible teen, and I gave my mom an update every 3 hours if I’m out”. After a hiatus from school, she decided to enroll in University of London (Singapore campus) to read economics. According to some media reports, she did not complete her studies.
Ryan Tan and Sylvia Chan as Xi Guay Ong and Xiao Bitch respectively
Modelling, too, was in the picture, and it was during this time that she met her future husband Ryan Tan (陈伟文), a Kent Ridge Secondary School alum. Both were 16 then, but neither revealed what modelling jobs they did. However, Mr Tan was “also doing model management jobs and other odd jobs”, as Sylvia Chan recounted on Draw my Life. “It just so happens that I was also working as a part-time model to earn some money, and that’s when I met Ryan”. But it was not until five years later, when Mr Tan became a franchisee of an American-themed restaurant (in the drawing, “New York New York” was scribbled on the whiteboard. There was such a place in Citilink back in 2008, but it later folded) that he started dating her, as she put it. She told Quan Yifeng that during this time, she assisted him—“有菜捧菜，有碗洗碗”, serve and wash dishes, whatever needed to be done. But in one episode of On the Red Dot in 2015, both regaled host Cheryl Fox with a far more dramatic story that was worthy of a Niu Chengze (鈕承澤) movie. Ms Chan said that an ex-boyfriend had stolen her money, so she asked “Ryan, who was just a normal friend, for help, because he looked more ‘gangster’ (suggesting that she was drawn to the more paikia type)”. Despite the confrontation that involved the other party’s family, the money was not returned. Mr Tan’s version, as he told Today in the same year: “I saw her on the streets and she was scolding some vulgarities to her ex-boyfriend, who seemed to have cheated her of some money. After that I tried to help her get her money, but it didn’t succeed”. They made a police report and went for lunch. Mr Tan described that meal together as their “first date”, to which she’d say, “That’s what he likes to tell people”.
But it did not end there. As he recalled on On the Red Dot, “I had to drop her off at the checkpoint for her to go home. Before the long tedious journey to the customs, we stopped by at my home, where she came by (but nothing happened)”. After sending her to the checkpoint, he return home and found a bottle of perfume in his room. Thinking that Ms Chan had left it behind by mistake, he contacted a common friend to have it returned to the owner, but was told that he had to do it himself. When he met her to pass the perfume bottle back to her, “that’s when we got together and started dating,” he said. The story, again, does not end there: more was revealed on their wedding day. “The common friend got so drunk… she told me that Sylvia left the perfume bottle there intentionally, and she asked me not to take it back from you so that you will see her again”. Those with a flair for strategising may find possible kinship with her in her methods.
Even when Ryan Tan’s restaurant business was in full swing, his girlfriend-by-then, Sylvia Chan, was unable to say what her interests truly were. “In fact, I did know what I would like to do,” she said on Hear U Out. “The restaurant was not doing well and incurred losses. It became Ryan’s turn to be depressed.” She asked him, “Eh, how about you (sic) learn from my experience: firstly, ask yourself what would make you happy.” He told her that, as a matter of fact, he likes filming and editing videos. Mr Tan then took on a few freelance jobs, and the more filming and editing he did, the happier he became. “It came to a point when he said, ‘eh, I want to do this (making videos) as a career’.” She supported his decision. “Anyway, it was not that I had a big career waiting for me.” They started making wedding videos. At the start, they charged S$300 per production, a low price justified by the lack of wedding videography services back then, according to Ms Chan. But apart from weddings, the couple accepted jobs to record funerals too. As Ms Chan told Quan Yifeng, “You cannot laugh. We had to make money, okay. We had only two small cameras; we had to earn more to buy a bigger, better camera, which cost S$3,000.”
Sylvia Chan modelling when she was 17
At this juncture, it should be stated that there seems to be some contradiction in terms of chronological order of events, or who said what and did what. It is possible that the couple led such a hectic life that they told different people or different members of the press different dates relating to the important milestones of their lives together. Even Sylvia Chan herself has not been consistent with the sequence of the happenings in her life. In any case, after they “stead” for eight months, the Chens (陈) got married and became the Tans (陈) in 2010 (many conservative Singaporeans believe two people of the same surname should not come together in matrimony). On why she was attracted to Ryan Tan, she said on Ask.fm, “he complements me in every way and he has a fat baby smell that I love.” She said on Draw my Life, “one day, while we were driving, he asked me if I want to marry him (sic). So I said, are you sure, and he said yah.” She then called her “cool mom” to break the good news. The first question she asked her excited daughter: “you diao kia (unplanned, pre-marital pregnancy, in Hokkien) or not?” Ms Chan responded swiftly. “I said no and she replied (in the illustration, she wrote ‘I am a legit woman’), ‘Okay, lor. You want marry then marry, lor. K, bye’!” When this was revealed, the question on many lips was, who’s mother would ask such a question unless her daughter is known to her to be promiscuous?
But marry, the love birds did. By most early accounts, they were happy. Not only were they partners in life, they were partners in business. Before Night Owl Cinematic took definite shape, the couple dabbled in the F&B business again with Shi Wei Tian (食为天), a retro-themed Chinese restaurant in Joo Chiat Place—based on Mr Tan’s Malaysian grandmother’s recipes—that also served Malay street food, such as the fried rice, nasi Pattaya. As Ms Chan recounted in Draw my Life, her husband’s “food business was doing pretty well”, which seemed to contradict her claim to Quan Yifeng that “the restaurant was not doing well and incurred losses”. In any case, things appeared encouraging enough for Ryan Tan to open Shi Wei Tian. “It did well at first,” according to Ms Chan in Draw my Life, “but then the rising rental and the manpower loss (she did not elaborate) caused him a little bit of trouble and he was soon bleeding money from the business.” Things became so bad financially that, as the video telling continued, Mr Tan took money from the till, went to a casino “just to win a little bit more money to pay our staff. It worked but it was really a risky and scary part of our lives.” Despite the enterprising method, in the end, they “had to sell off all (their) businesses (listed as three)”, which led both to be in such bad financial shape that they had to “share their hawker centre meals together (sic)”.
Although editing on the side was enjoyable, Ryan Tan was “soon frustrated with the shots and he felt it wasn’t (sic) good enough to be edited, and that’s where he started doing videography on his own. NOC was thus born. According to her narration in Hear U Out, NOC came about in 2013 when a wedding planner approached them “to film his own set-up”. But he had some requirements; he did not want anything “basic”; he wanted to have “cinematography”. This stumped Ms Chan. “What? Cinematography?” They were asked if they knew what that was, and both said “YES!”. They had to, as they had already accepted the job, valued at an irresistible S$800. The client asked if they had a slider, and both said “YES!” too. They rented a slider and, as the filming was not due till a month later, they had a chance to practise. So, they gathered a few friends, which included Ms Chan’s brother Sikeen, and filmed the seminal comedy video, Shit Mahjong Players Say, which received 2,000 views on the first day of its release. Ms Chan told Quan Yifeng that she had never seen such a figure. A week later, the viewership grew to 20,000. By their third video, Shit Singaporean Girlfriends Say, “we were viral material” (to date, more than one million views and the ‘Shit’ series was born). The response encouraged the duo to build on their brand of humour: heartland-strong, grassroots-relevant, and not necessarily funny. Although the pair did discover cinematography, their output has never been a Christopher Doyle. But, to their target audience, slick production values mattered not. Ryan Tan and Sylvia Chan were the King of Bengdom and the Queen of Lian Land, and YouTube stars and the platform’s “power couple”.
Sylvia Chan as Xiao Bitch
Power coupledom took its toll (by 2018, the two were constantly on the top 10 lists of “Internet Celebrities You Must Know”). So did playing Xi Guay Ong (Ryan Tan as Watermelon King) and Xiao Bitch (Sylvia Chan as Crazy Bitch), the two NOC characters that Netizens are now saying could be at least partly autobiographical. In a 2015 episode of Sylvia Ryan, titled The Weird Couple, the now disgraced YouTuber Dee Kosh said, “Ryan and Sylvia are so different.” Added fellow YouTuber Fish, “they are so different I don’t even know how they work together or how even they got married (sic).” Mr Kosh described the male half of NOC as “a plain prata”, while Fish said “Sylvia, the prata, got egg, got chicken, got rice, got everything also add inside (sic).” Amid the past weeks’ allegations of bad behaviour, some of their followers are now wondering if Sylvia Chan has all along been playing and being her true self: ill-tempered and foul-mouthed. Two years after NOC was established, Ms Chan’s disposition was known to be like the colour of her hair: fiery. In the clearly not comedic The Weird Couple, Fish also declared that “Ryan is always a civil guy, but sometimes when Sylvia is angry, her tiger just comes out… WAAAA…” To substantiate his point, he described “one of (his) personal experiences shooting with Night Owl Cinematics…. when Sylvia gets really mad on set; she starts getting angry at somebody, (and) I want to ask her a question, but I am scared if I go, ‘eh, ah, Sylvia,’ she ‘WHAT, WHAT YOU WANT?’” When asked on Hear U Out how her staff would appraise her, she said confidently, “they would say I am fair, love that they write reports, and, if anything that is not done well, no matter who is guilty, I would scold.” Also on The Weird Couple, NOC’s star performer Tan Jianhao (now the CEO of his own company Titan Digital Media) said, “If they have any questions, go to Ryan, but when they see Sylvia, they will (shielding the right side of his face with his right hand), ‘oh my god, is she going to scold me?’”
Last year, the couple, minus their fervid avatars, shocked their fans and the world of local YouTubers with the news that they were divorced. The information was, like so much of their lives up till then, released via video on YouTube. This enjoyed a staggering 2.1 million views. Ms Chan, told Quan Yifeng that day, the viewers and fans knew of the divorce before her parents! Unsurprisingly, some Netizens wondered if they profited from this. Not long after the We Got A Divorce video, Ryan Tan shared his struggles with depression in an Instagram post. There was even a suicide attempt while filming a travelogue in Osaka in 2017. On the pressures of being a power couple and the demands of work, Mr Tan wrote, “I completely gave up on myself and started to loathe my existence, believing that my sole purpose was to just produce videos after videos (later, he described NOC as a “video factory”). I no longer had the desire to travel, to buy anything, or to even look forward to anything.” On the Divorce video, he said, “I don’t enjoy fame; I don’t enjoy recognition. I don’t enjoy being in the public eye.” The stress from the sacrifices is understandable. By then, it was known that “every YouTuber has appeared in an NOC video” and that the founders of NOC are the mother and father to the community”.
It is not unreasonable to assume that Sylvia Chan was experiencing similar professional pressure, enough for the build-up to turn her into the verbally abusive person whose text and audio messages were leaked on social media three weeks ago, opening up allegations—and more allegations—of vulgar outbursts. While it is possible that Ms Chan has not resolved the affliction that she called “rage disorder”, it is also imaginable that she is a temperamental person to begin with, even when she has learnt martial arts, specifically wushu and taekwando (blue belt), whose basic tenets include courtesy, integrity, perseverance, and self-control. Not only are her present and former employees speaking up, others who have had dealings with her, including providers of personal services, are also relaying, “she is not a very nice person.” Armchair psychiatrists and her supporters attribute her explosive temper to survival instincts, honed during her students days, when she claimed she was bullied by classmates and teachers. We may never know the truth, but it is unfortunate that juvenile angst and anger can’t be left behind. Instead, they tag along and dominate adult professional life.
From the start of her career, Ms Chan has not worked as an employee. She made the leap to the station of boss in almost a single bound. Even when she helped out at Mr Tan’s restaurants, she did so as the boss’s lover. When NOC was formed, she ran it as one who had never been part of an organisation, at any level, that would have allowed her to see how an effective, pro-staff manager works. By her admission on Hear U Out, she knew almost nothing when she and Mr Tan started the business. She was even clueless about HR, although, as she said in Draw my Life, she studied “econs”. As she told Quan Yifeng, “At the start, we may not have a finance department, we have no accounts, no auditors, but suddenly we are working with government agencies, and many brands are coming onboard, and they would say, ‘does your HR know how to issue…’” So she went to learn: “I had to do my investigation—eh, what is HR?”
But it seemed she still did not quite grasp what she picked up. She said on Ask.fm, “I don’t know if many of you know but NOC is not just a YouTube channel but also a company—Ryan and I have staff to take care of…” Yet, top on the list of grievances aired on the End the Silence blog post is “alleged failed attempt to remedy HR issues”. As shared, a survey was conducted among the staff to help management better manage HR issues, but, as the writers of the blog stated, “employees have noted that even after this survey was done, there was no improvement in the welfare of the staff, and no follow-up actions were conducted. Sylvia’s alleged feedback on this HR investigation was that she was not happy with the results of this survey as she found it to be biased”. Is it possible that she is still ignorant of HR, and, therefore, runs her company based on unreliable instincts and the instilling of fear?
Sylvia Chan’s disposition is known to be like the colour of her hair: fiery
The startling exposé on End the Silence did not only reveal Sylvia Chan’s “misdeeds and mistreatment”, which the sharers—identified as “Sylvia’s victims”—want her accountable for, the single-entry blog post also laid open supposed financial irregularities that could fall afoul of the Companies Act, issues with salary paid to her ex-husband Ryan Tan (in a text chat that was also shared, she purportedly wrote, “I was the one who assign him the pay”), and the supposed request for her younger brother Sikeen Chan to be under the NOC payroll so that he could attain an S Pass and, as a result, file a PR application (it is not known if he is now a permanent resident, but in a May 2021 issue of Home & Decor, it was reported that “Sylvia and her brother decided to model this 1,700 sq ft shophouse after their childhood kampung home”). While she said on Hear U Out that she and Ryan Tan are no longer at a “玩玩 (play-play)” stage, as there were at the start, and that she has “slowly discovered” that, for many things, she has to “go by corporate rules”, followers of the on-going saga are now asserting that if the serious and incriminating allegations on End the Silence were true, she was merely paying lip service. And Quan Yifeng lapped it all up.
Perhaps more unfair was the digging up of her personal life away from NOC. However, since it was categorised as supposed infidelity, with its own cross head “Alleged Cheating On Ryan While He Was In Taiwan”, the whistleblower probably thought it ranks up there with “the improvement of employee welfare”. Through a series of text chats supposedly shared by “someone who was close to Sylvia” (yes, in the past tense), and who appeared to be away with Mr Tan and his team at the time the text messages were exchanged, Ms Chan was depicted to live a life of a sexually active woman, who enjoys the occasional fling and fellatio. She has admitted on television that part of the reason for revealing her divorce on YouTube—or so publicly—was because people were DM-ing Ryan Tan with the information that she was seen with other guys. She called this “拍拖, 喝咖啡而已 (dating but only drinking coffee)”. She did not deny engaging in social appointments with the possibility that a romantic relationship may develop. Her detractors would say neither did she admit to the details so explicitly shared—including the girth of the man’s genital—with the someone who was once close to her. But in the scandalous text messages revealed, she did acknowledge that she is inclined to cheat.
Social media stars tend to find fame and success rapidly, without the usual mundane trajectories experienced by those not in the same line of work. When they set up companies and are keen to give themselves fancy titles to show that, ultimately, they are the boss, not many are capable of living up to the lofty position that they have hoisted themselves on to. From the time her former husband saw her “on the street and she was scolding some vulgarities to her ex-boyfriend” to the alleged “strong language”—as she called it—used against a novice YouTuber under her watch to the fierceness on the confrontational Zoom meetings, Sylvia Chan has mostly shown the tough, street-savvy side of her that has not quite reflected the acceptance of “corporate rules”, which also include engagement, that she uttered so passionately. From watching her former husband dig into the till to gamble at a casino in the hope of a win to remunerate the restaurant staff to her own alleged late payments of NOC staff brought up in that Zoom meeting that was reported to have taken place last year, she seems to have adopted the stance, as many young, first-time bosses have, that it’s my company and my money, and I can do whatever I want. It is hard to see how this will end. But digital lives are forgettable lives, even when they hang over the heads of participants like a tragedy. Sylvia Chan, like the proverbial phoenix, will rise again.
Illustrations: Just So