A video of three silly girls dancing to a song with lyrics they likely do not understand as prelude to an online sales session: Someone thought it so fabulous that it had to be shared online, but others were quick to say it is racially insensitive
In ‘woke’ times like the present, you’d think that the number of the socially uninitiated would have dwindled. Amid repeated calls for us to be racially sensitive, you’d think that however ignorant a person is, they’d be aware enough to not dance to ethnic music that is unconnected to their own ethnicity, and post the questionable video online. But that’s no and no. Last Thursday, one online clothing retailer chose to work during the Deepavali holiday. Dear19 kept up with their ““regular daily livestream sessions”, the brand stated on Instagram recently in response to public disapproval, “however, since it was on a festive day, we decided to celebrate it by incorporating some music and dance move…” By now, most would have seen the video, first streamed on Facebook Live, and would be aware that the music is of Indian provenance—some Netizens quickly pointed out that it is a “devotional Hindu song”—and the dance moves by Chinese-looking lasses with hand gestures that could easily be construed as mocking, rather than dancing. The video has been removed from Dear19’s social media pages, but the damage is rapidly and irreversibly done.
The unfortunate reality in these online-everything days is that brands, especially those that are digital-native, are compelled to promote themselves online, constantly. In doing so, these brands and their owners are likely to be trying everything except thinking before the proverbial leaping. Despite manic social media traffic, it is possible that they do not even look right, and then left before getting off the ground. Online hoopla and hard-sell require the open concept of content creation—the content and the creation not frequently a synergistic pairing. And, the commercial and the personal are not necessarily separated. It’s all rather do-it-yourself. The creator is likely to put out content influenced by a life circumscribed by the four-sided perimetre of their TikTok life. They live and work, and content-create within the same digital space.
The particular video shared on Facebook came with a banner “Live with Dear19” and a hashtag “everyBODYisBeautiful”. The production was put out in “partnership with Iconic Medicare”, a Malaysian manufacturer of PPE. At the bottom of the screen, we were told that the video message was to promote “Dear 19’s (yes, with spacing) Deepavali Sale”. Three women togged to go out, in identical clothes (including headwear), were dancing within the narrow screen. Their moves appeared to mimic Indian dance, but two of the dancers were stretching their hands as if to demonstrate the making of teh tarik. And they took turns to go before the camera to show them shaking their heads side to side within hands upturned and placed by their jaw line, like parentheses. It required no stretch of imagination to see what they were trying to show. And how ill-conceived the attempt was. All to generate the requisite of online communication: fun.
Wendy Tong, the social media manager who managed to arouse controversy. Photo:imwendytong/instagram
But one “social media manager” Wendy Tong was so impressed by the video, she shared it on her IG page two days after it appeared. To her, it “really stands out from the crowd”, with its “friendly hosts, good products, entertainment”. It is not certain if she received renumeration from Dear19 for her effort and effusive praise. After receiving negative, even angry, comments on her post, Ms Tong issued an apology via IG with a pink square on which “I’M SORRY” appeared. She wrote, “I would like to sincerely apologize for what I have posted on my Instagram yesterday. I am insensitive and did not understand the culture well before using it as an example.” She went on to explain her motivation: “As a social media person, I share things that catch my eye and when I posted this video, it was not with any intention to mock or insult any religion.” The IG newbie (she joined in March this year) made no mention of the racial slight.
Dear19 is reported by the media here to be a “Singapore retailer”. But from the livestreams posted, we sensed that they are from Malaysia. The sellers/performers/entertainers/hosts/etc speak a brand of Mandarin with a distinctive Federation accent. On Facebook and on their website, prices quoted are in ringgit. Those with an enquiry may call a telephone number with a +60 country code or write to a Gmail address that is directed to “89malaysia”. Furthermore, at the end of August, they demonstrated their patriotic streak by staging a “19 Dearies Merdeka Party (19宠粉国庆排队)” on FB. And the language used is unmistakable too, and would do the CEO of Night Owl Cinematics proud. On one video post shared to peddle a cardi-top, the message read: “今天的款式sibeh美 (today’s design is *rude adjective* beautiful)”. Or with a photo posted earlier, “Gotta look chio first before the paparazzi take pic of me 😎”.
That e-mail address is also revealing in that “89” is in the name of the Malaysian online store Nineteen89, also known locally as a “blogshop”, which began their operations in 2013 out of Bukit Jalil, a suburb in Kuala Lumpur. On Dear19’s IG page, the brand states that they are “formerly known as @nineteen89.co (but the link led to an empty page). Once ranked as one of Malaysia’s “Top 5 Online Boutiques”, Nineteen89 was founded by Sandakan native Irene Sin (aka Yen姐 or Big Sister Yen) and her friend, known online as Huey Ing. Both are also presenters on the brand’s FB livestreams too. On 5 May this year, Nineteen89 was renamed Dear19. It is not known why the name change and not merchandise change (they still sell unremarkable disposable clothes), but it is our understanding that Nineteen89 is also the moniker of an Indian fashion label by Divya Bagri. Ms Sin did attempt to explain her decision via video: a mix of hackneyed reasons, including wanting to elevate the brand, improve shopper experience, and taking the brand global. On why the name Dear19, the company explained on FB (and we quote verbatim), “Dear – as everyone know we practice a word we call ‘together’ constantly bringing everyone together. So dear is to promote ‘togetherness’ within you & I”.
The homepage of Dear19.co
Despite calls for increased sensitivity towards others around us and their culture, there are brands—and individuals—still unable to be aware, or to err on the side of caution. In Dear19’s online apology posted a few days ago, the statement read, “like many of you had pointed out, we could have executed it differently while still being respectful. We realize our mistake and we would like to apologize to everyone. Thank you for educating us and holding us accountable for our actions.” It appears that there are still those who, despite close to a decade of online sales and communicating with their shoppers, have remained ignorant of the ways of digital commerce and life. They cleverly position themselves as beneficiaries of those who watch out for jejune behaviour and problematic conduct, instead of the obtuse individuals that they are.
Dear19 videos are not exemplars of productions that arouse the mind and consequently empty the pockets. The shows, part TikTok videos, part Mdada livestreams (recently reported to enjoy “unaudited revenue of S$15 million”, which may give an idea of the earnings of Dear19), are presented mainly in bad Mandarin and worse English, and a smattering of Cantonese and Hokkien. The presenters, usually a pair, are mostly in a narrow room by themselves, but by their shrill chatter, could be among their friends. In fact, there’s a strange chumminess between them and the unseen shoppers. It is possible that the Deepavali video is created to be viewed by these buddy-buyers, people who would not judge them for their silliness, however inappropriate. In a recent Halloween video, the segment that prefaced the selling was similarly unscripted and unfunny as the Deepavali equivalent, except that it did not cross into the territory of race stereotyping. In many livestreaming e-commerce sites, the privilege to sell does not necessarily come with the decency to self-regulate.
According to the brand’s About on Facebook, “Dear19 was founded to create a platform where all women able (sic) to gather together (sic). We hope inspire (sic) all ladies to stay confidence (sic) through fashion. We believe that only by building one’s self-confidence, it (sic) will bring more positivity into our life”. But just one video and the confidence, whether in self or brand, may fade. The strange thing about the online world is that people, even when offended, do forget and then the offender will return, with more self-created content—their rise once again as inevitable as a start-up’s Facebook account, which, disturbingly, has the conflicting duality of scourge to society and betterment to business.
Photos: Dear19/Facebook and dear19.co