Two Of A Kind: Cheap Cheery Clones

And TikTok users are delighted to compare them side by side. Fashion has a new form of entertainment. Its future looks bleak

On TikTok, they love comparing their favourite brands. Left: Beatriz (Bstyle). Right: iam.awilda. Screen grabs from respective TikTokers

By Pearl Goh

Is it still flattery when a piece of clothing is a likeness of an unoriginal? Okay, we’re living in confusing times and fashion is totally stupefying. Who is able to tell brands apart these days when, for example, Gucci is hacking Balenciaga (and vice versa)? Or, Prada is looking like Adidas? But, however blurred the lines have become, surely there is no kick in buying a knock-off of a knock-off? Or has the consumption of fashion become this perverse? Something is going on that is baffling. TikTok has been sending me notifications of “versus” videos. These are of women wearing identical pieces from Zara and Shein. No, I have not been searching any of these brands and I am not on TikTok. Yet, strangely, I have been receiving notification of the existence of these lurid, goofy comparisons.

The women in these videos seem to get some kick out of juxtaposing the identical clothes, and posing as if they have found the greatest joy of life. Did they actually buy two identical garments to make these enlightening TikTok videos? I do not know. But I was burning with curiosity. Are there that many Zara lookalike clothes by Shein? When I Googled ‘Zara versus Shein’ one afternoon, the first result read: “Discover zara vs shein ’s (sic) popular videos | TikTok”. Splendid SEO at work! There was a list of ten TikTokers’ posts to look at that has already attracted a whopping “25.9B” views! I was clearly late for the show. These women know what they’re doing. Instagram has caught up too, with one Dupes Nation offering a predominance of Zara-versus-Shein photos-only posts.

Are they creating content that is deliberately not like the “haul” videos of other TikTokers?

It is hard to make out why these girls are doing this, or what they’re hoping to achieve. Are they creating content that is deliberately not like the “haul” videos of other TikTokers? Are they doing their followers a favour by showing the latter the cheaper option to buy (prices are often put up)? Are they exposing something that could be detrimental to one brand? I can’t tell. I wonder if this comparison is a real exposé when we already know that Shein has been accused of plagiarism (the TikTok hashtag #sheinstolemydesign has received 6.4M views!) and the Chinese brand has been facing copyright disputes with Dr Martens and Levi’s, according to news reports. Even smaller, indie brands are not let off the hook. Dead-ringers of Marine Serre and Cult Gaia were also shared online.

While it’s rife among some fast (and ultra-fast) fashion brands to be ‘inspired’ by others, the problem at Shein, as widely reported, is particularly more acute. Never mind that these are litigious times. The brand’s big-data approach to design means they need to also consider what sells well for others, or what styles are trending on social media. This is no longer some high-low, looking-at-the-stars product development to better position a brand—that’s so yesteryear; this is looking at one’s peers to exceed. And better still, with a lower price for the end product. These days, as fans of Shein and company will say, there is no shame in buying cheap and dressing cheap. Not at all.

A Ban Won’t Shut Him Up

Kanye West’s use of Instagram was disallowed for 24 hours after he posted something racially insensitive. That, regretfully, won’t coax him into speaking with some vestige of grace

The Instagram ban of Kanye West for a mere full day, won’t cause the rapper to suffer much, if he suffered at all. That 24-hour ban is expired now. Mr West is probably planning his next textual attack, never mind that he was already told that what he posted about his estranged wife (they are not divorced yet!) was harassment and her boyfriend Pete Davidson, cyber bullying. And one of the persons who pointed those out, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, was hit back with a racial slur, which prompted IG to put in place that brief, hardly-a-deterrent ban, even if that post was quickly deleted by the author. Why would a mere day’s suspension of his favourite social media be enough to encourage good online behaviour for a fellow who does not care about such things, in the least?

Online, as on the streets, some people are just more entitled than others. Celebrities, especially so, as they are often given no limit to bad behaviour, online or off. Kanye West can be nasty at the Grammy’s, but who remembers? If they do, they recall with fondness. Despite his repeated attacks on not just the two major targets of the present, many fans still consider him “great”. “Great for Gap”, went one fervid support. While it is true that the disapproval of Mr West’s abusiveness has been expressed on the Gap social media pages, there are also many—far more—who ask the clothier to continue to support him: “Don’t cancel Ye”, “da best thing that ever happened to yu (sic)”, “here for Ye”, “Ye is harmless man always like that when y’all will understand him?”, the simple “we love Kanye” and the adoring “Kanye is King”.

Or, could it be possible that, in Mr West’s case, badness is good for business?

Should Gap budge? They probably won’t. Ditto for Adidas and Balenciaga, whose Demna Gvasalia is so chummy with Mr West that it is unlikely the designer would call the rapper out for his deplorable ways, or stop dressing him. Any fashion label linked to Kanye West has only fared well despite past transgressions. Just because they didn’t involve his now-single wife (they are not divorced yet!) does not mean there was no harassment targeted at women. Or, could it be possible that, in Mr West’s case, badness is good for business? Because in that package of wrongs, is an amalgam of talents? As he once said (on Sway In The Morning Radio Show, 2013), “I am Warhol! I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh. Walt Disney, Nike, Google.”

Delusional, some may call that, but Mr West believes in his own greatness and strengths, and has displayed them in full public view, augmenting his self-importance. All that publicness can’t escape scrutiny and being talked about, whether audibly or not. A big part of his success is that he’s discussed, whether flatteringly or otherwise. The multi-channel/platform chatter in its unfiltered, antagonistic glory is, perhaps, what Gap wants, even craves. In as much as we are living in the grasp of what author/Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”, we are also in the grip of scrutinised social existence. Kanye West may say as he pleases and get away with it, but Gap—and the rest—may not merely associate with who they please and not account for their deliberate action. Either way, we are watching. Fashion deserves better.

Update (21 March 2022, 9am): The Los Angeles Times reported that “Kanye West has been pulled off the performance lineup for the upcoming Grammy Awards due to his recent erratic online behavior”. Trevor Noah Twittered, “I said counsel Kanye not cancel Kanye.” Even the leader of his own Sunday Service needs counselling

Illustration: Just So

The Shein Top

…at the heart of the latest influencer controversy

By Pearl Goh

It is an itsy-bitsy top, but it has an oversized effect on social media. And the response to the proud wearer/influencer’s subsequent riposte was massive enough for her to enjoy a couple of long digital headlines. Making, I presume, the online retailer she touts very pleased. Chrysan Lee is a YouTuber, an Instagrammer, a TikToker, and an “actress” on the YouTube channel Wah!Banana. She appeared in this top by Shein on IG (sharing that what she wore was “top to toe outfit from SHEIN!” and offering a code which offers the user a “15% off! [yes, also with exclamation])” and TikTok and, as a (predictable) consequence, invited viewer comments, flattering and not. Unfortunately for her, few said anything about the garb itself, but how she looked in the skimpy top. Enraged by the many negative criticisms, she hit back by naming and shaming those who made harsh and uncomplimentary remarks about her appearance. And, as it usually is nowadays, effectively dividing the followers of her social media.

You’d think that the admittedly exiguous top, requiring fabric tantamount to how much it takes to make a bandana (or two handkerchiefs), would be a discreet entity, but on some bodies, it might cry, ‘look at—and comment about—me’. Ms Lee, to be sure, does not look dreadful or deserving of the sometimes hostile impulses that ensued. The piece, which seems to me to be designed to sufficiently cup ample boobs, has a rather one-dimensional effect on her. It looks flat, not what most of the viewers she attracts (102K on IG), guys especially, hope to see: cup(s) runneth over. On TikTok, she adjusted the top (I have no idea why) by pulling it upwards, and it slid smoothly without the tug that a more-endowed wearer would experience. As we know, it takes very little these days to induce the online community to disparage. Or, draw attention to comparatively restricted physical dimensions. Even girls-friendly websites, to my surprise, unambiguously point out her “small tatas”.

…she adjusted the top by pulling it upwards, and it slid smoothly without the tug that a more-endowed wearer would experience

This swimwear-like chest-wrap—S$11, on the Shein SG website—is described by the number one Chinese fast-fashion brand as a “halter neck ring chain rhinestone backless crop top (sic)”. A mouthful, no doubt, even if you could figure out the order. As much as I tried, I could not discern the halter part of what is essentially a bandeau (known in Chinese as a 抹胸上衣 moxiong shangyi or go-around-the-chest top. On the brand’s Taiwan site, a search yielded 3,254 items!), drawn together in the middle by way of a ring to create a circular key-hole right between the breasts. The halter effect is in the chain-and-rhinestone necklace that is looped through the front opening. When placed around the neck, I assume it helps hold up the top when worn on those for whom such additional securing is required. The necklace doubles as a decorative component too, and augmented by more of the same—with additional charms(!)—that hang from that middle ring to a tape-loop stitched to the centre-back of the straight rear (Shein describes the piece as “backless”, but it is not). If it recalls a belly-dancer’s costume, then I am not alone.

The sparkly, poly-metallic shangyi Ms Lee featured is one among more than 560—frankly I lost count!—variations of scantiness, categorised under “top/sleeveless/sexy/glamorous” in the Shein website, nearly all no more than S$20. Among these, more than a dozen—lost, again—sport the ring in the middle that affords a circular peek at the cleavage, as if creating a focal point. At the time of this posting, only sizes L and XL are left. I can’t be certain if its seeming popularity is the result of Ms Lee’s still and video posts, but the sell-out of popular sizes and the fact that Ms Lee singled this upper garment out to feature could attest to the acceptance and adoration of racy looks now pervading social media and the runway. Chrysan Lee herself is partial to swaddling her upper body in what would normally be considered the upper half a bikini set—very ready for online followers, even when she claims to not know where her sartorial inspo comes from. She said on one of her hitherto just five YouTube posts, Answering your Stupid Questions—Part 1, “I’ll be very happy to find clothes outside that fits me”. As with ‘to clothe’, ‘fit’ is being actively redefined for fashion of the pandemic era. Less, I suppose, is definitely more—whether on a voluptuous body or not.

Illustration by Just So

She Won’t Be Guilted 👏🏼

Kanye West demands a public apology for Travis Scott from Billie Eilish. Who does Ye think he is?

By Lester Fang

Kanye West is truly admirable. I think so; I do. No role he has played is too much, too bold, too absurd. He has styled himself as the arbiter of taste and the barometer of the zeitgeist, on top of whatever else he does in music. Oh, that is the wannabe president of the United States as well. Now, he’s a demander of apologies too. Not for himself, as you might expect, but for his presumed pal Travis Scott, the fellow now laying low after the Astroworld Festival tragedy. If you have not availed yourself to the entertainment (and entertaining) news of the week, it goes like this.

Billie Eilish was singing during a concert in Atlanta when she spotted someone in the crowd struggling to breathe. She paused her performance, and drew the attention of the crew to assist the person. (Ms Eilish, it should be said, is known to stop mid-performance during her shows to check on fans seeming unwell.) In videos shared on social media, Ms Eilish was seen pointing to the crowd with a hand holding a bottle of water and heard saying, “Do you need an inhaler?” And she did not go right back to singing. Wearing a baggy T-shirt and cycle shorts, she told the audience, “Guys, give it some time. Don’t crowd. Relax, relax, it’s okay… We’re taking care of people. I wait for people to be okay before I keep going.”

It sounds to me that Ms Eilish was explaining to the excited many who have come to watch her perform what the hold up was about. But Mr West read that very differently. On social media, he wrote in full caps, sans punctuation, as if barking: “COME ON BILLIE WE LOVE YOU PLEASE APOLOGIZE TO TRAV AND TO THE FAMILIES OF THE PEOPLE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES NO ONE INTENDED THIS TO HAPPEN TRAV DIDN’T HAVE ANY IDEA OF WHAT WAS HAPPENING WHEN HE WAS ON STAGE AND WAS VERY HURT BY WHAT HAPPENED…”

So, what in Donda’s name was he thinking?

In response to Mr West’s post and demand, Ms Eilish wrote on IG somewhat conciliatorily, “Literally never said a thing about Travis. Was just helping a fan,” So, what in Donda‘s name was he thinking? According to some reports, Mr West was reacting to one RapseaTV news report that ran the headline “Billie Eilish dissed Travis Scott at her concert after she stopped the show to give her fan an inhaler!” on IG (the post is removed now). And he bought it? This is irony in its highest order when Mr West had attacked journalists, mid-concert, in a 2014 show in New Jersey. “Write that motherfxxxxxg headline when you try to make me look like a maniac or an animal,” he admonished. That was not the only time, of course. Some people suggested that his present fragile state is due to problems with his ex-wife. And Ms Eilish conveniently becomes another target of his easily-triggered acrimony, just as Taylor Swift was once before?

It is tempting to treat Mr West’s demand as facetious—just like his presidential bid—but he has threatened to pull out of the Coachella Music Festival. Should the organisers be intimidated? He and Ms Eilish are slated to be the festival’s headline acts. And Mr West did say on that IG post, “TRAV WILL BE WITH ME AT COACHELLA BUT NOW I NEED BILLIE TO APOLOGIZE BEFORE I PERFORM”. Did he, therefore, think that Ms Eilish had spoilt Travis Scott’s comeback bid while La Flame is still thick in lawsuits worth billions of dollars filed by the victims (and their families) of the Astroworld tragedy? Would Coachella really be worse off without eruptive Kanye West?

The estranged husband’s reaction is not surprising, even for someone whose ninth studio album is titled Jesus is King. Outbursts are almost synonymous with the star and designer. He rants as often and as passionately as he raps. But why, I wonder, is a 44-year-old censuring a woman of 20, doing nothing more than getting someone the help they need, not bullying? Or, are we to believe, like so many of his supporters do, including the many, many brands eagerly aligned with him, that the face stocking-wearing Sunday Service leader Kanye West can really do no wrong?

Collage: Just So

What Would Your Parents Say?

If putting one’s feet on a table during meal times is rude, is placing one’s shoes alongside food less so?

This image appeared on our Instagram page, and it shocked us. It really did. That it came from Club 21 was even more disturbing. We thought it shameful, so inconsistent with what many of us were brought up to believe is acceptable. The oldest multi-label store here left standing has, a few hours ago, shared this on their official IG account, not in some remote corner of the Internet. Originally posted by Two Men Bagel House last week, it shows unambiguously a pair of plated (!) Comme des Garçons X Converse sneakers, placed next to two bowls of barely finished dry prawn noodles (虾面). It is possible that the shoes are unworn (and presumably clean), but is it still perfectly alright for them to be on a table that has, by practice and custom, no place for footwear? This is likely photographed in a hawker centre (or foodcourt), but just because it’s not in a setting that equals that of a restaurant does not mean liberties can be taken without thinking. To make it worse, Club 21 wrote in the comment: “simply delicious”! Have we really become so culturally ignorant and insensitive?

Popular culture, TikTok buffoonery, and the general do-and-say-as-you-please that social media affords may allow marketers to imagine that they have the green light to ignore table manners, but that does not mean marketing with a nod to common etiquette is no longer important. Or, worth considering in the quest for eye-catching photos or, worse, talking points. We risk sounding prudish and custom-bound, but in a time when brands and politicians are knocking, for example, the traditional use of chopsticks, should there be more perplexing ignorance regarding table-top practices? It is easy to dismiss the Club 21 post as the work of benighted Millennials (or Gen-Zers?), but that does not allow the image to be more acceptable. We could not unsee what we saw. That this did not come from some ignorant Western brand makes Club 21’s faux pas (and that of the two men they sponsored) all the more difficult to understand and accept. We are unaware of anywhere in Asia where shoes of any sort on a table used for meals, whether in one’s home or not, is decent or tolerable. Half of smiley-hearts do not take away the fact that the very act is crude and—ask any parent—rude.

Screen grab: Club 21/Instagram

Tufted Armpits: They’re A Thing

Don’t depilate. You are on trend

Au naturel. Left, Thomas Sabo. Right, Adidas. Photos: respective brands

We are starting to see quite a few ads that show women in their natural state. Sure, going unshaved up there as I-can-do-whatever-I-want expression of confidence has been noticed since 2019, when Nike, always more forward thinking than other brands, shared on Instagram a photo of a model in a bra top, with right arm lifted to frame her head so that her fingers could be hooked to the strap of the top on the other side. The pose would have been quite regular if not for what was viewable under her arm: not a hairless pit. It isn’t hard to imagine that the world of social media went wild. Yet, Netizens were not that divided over the hairy reveal, with most expressing disapproval of the look. Defenders of body positivity were not the least amused.

While movie and pop stars and those living their lives publicly have already been seen sparing underarm hair scissors, tweezers and depilatory creams, models representing brands, especially clothing labels, have largely gone smooth before standing before the camera. Julia Roberts (remember that incident?) and her clean-ketiak sisters did not really initiate a social/style revolution. And we soon fussed not with the fuzz (even the striking Nike initiative) that for many women is totally natural and deserves to be kept, even long, where it belongs. Then, at this year’s Met Gala that had attendees salute American fashion, Madonna’s first-born Lourdes Leon posed before the cameras in glittery pink and unabashed tuft. Like mother (in 2014), like daughter. Under the watch of the world, armpit hair is back in the spotlight.

The Nike Instagram post from 2019 that possibly started it all. Photo: nikewoman/instagram

We did not really pay much attention to all the exposed armpits and their crinite glory. But this week, two ads appeared in our news feed and they had us wondering: Is it back? One was by Adidas, featuring a Stella McCartney support bra—the model posing with arms up like a victory hurray. The other (surprisingly) by the new jewellery brand Saboteur (by Thomas Sabo and his son Santiago), showing their model with her arm lifted as if readying herself for an inspection of her axilla. What was striking to us weren’t just the clear clumps, but the way they caught our attention. The fuzz did not peek from the crack where the arm meets the body, like some shy Baby’s Breadth. The models posed to bring their underarm(s) into full attention. In the case of the Saboteur photo, the necklace they were presumably promoting was secondary to the more eye-catching auxiliary hair. The mind boggles to think that, these days, when a brand casts models, the brief to the agency is, send only those not shaved/plucked/depilated.

Standards of beauty have, of course, changed. Dramatically. If nipples can be shown, what’s a little hair? But what’s also different in the case of underarm growth is that more guys are, conversely, removing hair there. A look at the Instagram pages of the many males who use them to share images of their shirtless selves, the majority, unlike, say, Japanese gymnasts, have quite bare armpits. Are what’s acceptable for men and for women reversed now? We shared the Adidas shot with a few women to have a sense of what the ladies may feel about the new, naturally-fringed area to show off. All of them are not comfortable with what they saw, “Is this the new beauty that we are not aware of?” “Don’t like; don’t understand.” “Sorry, I’m still old-fashioned.” “Don’t think will catch on with Asian women.” “How do I unsee this?” “😱” “My mother will force me to shave.” “I want to keep my husband!” “I never liked fatt choy, anyway.”

The Digital Shift: Livestream Retailing

Brands selling through platforms such as Facebook Live are on the rise, but must each session be such a by-the-way and pasar affair?

Uniqlo on Facebook Live on 11.11, with hosts Fauzi Aziz (left), Felicia Poh (right), and model (centre). Screen grab Uniqlo/Facebook

As shoppers are spending more time online and staying away from physical stores, more brands are bringing the store to the shoppers via social media. Digital consumerism is truly becoming the heart of civic life. Livestream retail, while not a new way of selling, is fast gaining traction on our island. This primarily involves a host or more—brand owner(s), staff, or their friends—introducing or recommending products in a live video through platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, presently the two most popular. The shows are often productions with budgets so low, they’re probably zero, shot in a corner of an office or a store, even a warehouse with what, in many cases, appears to be a smartphone. As they are streamed live, editing is virtually absent and what you see is what you get. And, what you often do see and get are not exactly examples of polished videography or even compelling selling, nor funny jokes. In the age of TikTok videos, we are constantly told, no one cares about finish or finesse.

These endeavours are not the moving of mountains, but perhaps they should be, given live commerce’s increasing importance as a sales channel. Most of the selling via livestreams that we have viewed in the interest of this post are not even an uphill hike; they are no better than the majority of the crappy posts seen on TikTok, which is now so influential in its visual aesthetics that even television commercials are mimicking them. One TVC producer told us, “these days, anyone with a smartphone can be the host and the director. Who bothers with script and pre-pro?” Which explains why many retail livestreams appear to be conducted extempore, with hosts often asking each other what to do or show next, or struggling to describe what they are wearing or have in their hands. Is this really the appeal: as if you have just met the sales persons in Zoom, and they are—lucky you—willing to do a lame song and dance just to sell you a dress.

One of the latest brands to join the preferred platform, Facebook Live, to sell their wares is Uniqlo. Two nights ago, they streamed a 24-minute session to “celebrate” 11.11, but it bore little celebratory oopmh. The show was video-recorded on a selling floor of their Global Flagship Store at Orchard Central, but looked like it could have been at any of their smaller suburban outlets. The host, Felicia Poh, “who handles public relations” appears, but it was after a palpable one-and-half minute wait before we could be acquainted with her yoo-hoo exuberance. She was then joined by Fauzi Aziz, marketing lead of The Smart Local, who gushed about how much he loves the brand. Both were so bubbly, they practically frothed. But nothing they announced was especially new or appealing, despite the promise of sharing “a lot of exciting stuff”, not even the news that the +J collection, already trending, will launch next week. What worked in their favour was that they did not have to go off-screen to change into what they wanted to sell. Rather, they had the best-looking members of the Uniqlo staff to model the looks, which, admittedly, were well styled, even when a binder clip could be seen clasped to the ribbed hem of a sweatshirt one of them wore, to tighten it over his waist. This model was put in an uncomfortable position when he was subject of ill-considered humour. Mr Aziz had said about the outfit: “I saw him from afar and I was like saying, ‘I could work this.’” Before he was able to complete what he wanted to say, his co-host outed him with “like your new crush“!

The indefatigable three of Mdada: (from letf) Pornsak Prajakwit, Addy Lee, and Michele Chia. Screen grab: Mdada/Facebook

Not all brands have the advantage of attractive-looking staffers to strut during a livestream or to excite the hosts. So for most, the girl/boy-next-door presenters, usually a pair, slip in and out of outfits between inane banter, and not always with the finesse of professional models or hosts who know what to do before a camera. But these livestreams are not television broadcasts. Anything goes, and it usually does. Typically, the videos appear and nothing really happens until minutes later. It is not clear why they can’t start at the scheduled time. As with most livestreams, the hosts would move about, pretending they are not videoed yet. And when the show does begin, peppy is often the way to start. The best example of this is Mdada (达达开播), the e-commerce company of former TV comperes Michele Chia and Pornsak Prajakwit, and hairstylist Addy Lee that generated S$15 million in “unaudited revenue”, according to The Straits Times. Mdada’s success is largely based on grassroots vibes and the rawness of hold-the-smartphone-in-front productions, from which viewers are pulled into their loud and goofy, but artless charm.

Started in September last year, Mdada illustrates that selling online the way they do is best conducted as if a bunch of friends got together for some boisterous fun. Gentility and grace are not part of the company. Typically, the hosts kick off with mindless banter so that you would get used to their raucous presence. A necessity as each livestream can go on for hours, up to a staggering twelve, according to the trio. This is sustained via what Mr Lee, also the CEO of Mdada and the godfather of Quan Yifeng’s daughter Eleanor Lee, described to the media as “engaging hosts” (he is one of them—about seven, including Shane Pow), delivering “engaging product demos, exclusive deals, and limited-time auction”. To engage, they seem to, crucially, grate: each of them need only be themselves, Bengness and Lianness to the hilt, with a body of words—Mandarin (primarily), English, and Hokkien—in a din that could be used to lelong anything from massages to Moschino. And the livestreams must also contain, what Mr Prajakwit told CNBC, “info-taintment”. It is not known if their audience—close to 35,000 followers on FB—are truly informed or entertained, or both, while the peddlers often perform in the presence of a sloppy pile.

Nor are we told of the demographics of their shoppers. It could be companionable to watch the Mdada hosts go about their business of silly-talk selling, but it is amazing that one does not feel the effects of the tight space in which the sales are conducted and, especially, when the hairdresser’s face frequently fills the screen. Who, we wonder, are inspired or aroused to shop when they see, for example, Mr Lee and his co-host hold up crumpled Prada paper bags in a dim hotel room, as seen on a recent teaser of their livestream from Italy? It is also not known if the selling that takes place on the opposite side of sophistication (merchandise in a mess before them, for example) is endorsed by the brands they so enthusiastically hawk. Mdada (or MLux, as the platform for selling luxury goods is called) certainly provides an experience contrary to what a shopper is likely to meet in an actual designer boutique (their livestreams from Italy appeared to be conducted in stores of an outlet mall). The days of experiential purchases are over? A former fashion buyer told us, “It is possible that most of the shoppers on Mdada are intimidated by the thought of walking into a luxury store. Buying on livestreams is less daunting and less likely to cause anxiety.”

Two is the company: Fayth Live. Screen grab: Fayth/Facebook

It is understandable that there are those who would not have the confidence to enter a Prada store, but would anyone be too anxious to walk into, say, Fayth, the SG brand with an unmistakable blogshop aesthetic? Founded by Ryan Ng and Janis Gan in 2012, Fayth’s physical shops are happy friendships between pastel shades and accessible prettiness. Still, their livestreams on FB can be a draw. In their last, posted in July, hosts Sarah and Yvonne attracted 284 viewers to their 42-minute show. Nothing really happened and the selling did not attempt to whip things up. As they bantered and giggled, and giggled, someone unseen (presumably the videographer) would ask them questions that viewers had presumably posted. The bespectacled duo tried their best to answer, as well as to offer personal opinions. They would move nearer the camera to show the details on their outfits (a particular favourite is the “concealed zip”—“can’t really see, that’s why it’s called concealed zip”) or bring a dress on a hanger closer to fill the screen so that those watching them would know “there’s also elastic band inside” or what shade ivory is: “so it’s a bit like creamy colour”.

As the one-take production did not benefit from the input of a sound engineer, their giggly voices tended to echo through the relatively empty and surprisingly neat space. Sarah had the habit of dragging her feet, so the cluck-cluck of her short block-heels would interject her selling, even when she went off-screen or as she came back on. This continued even when she was in a pair of slides and, later, sneakers (since Fayth does not sell footwear, it is possible the hosts wore their own. The effort looked like an afterthought). Everything they tried was perfect: not too long, not too short; and all the dresses kept to one silhouette: tented. The girls changed and showed off the clothes with palpable delight, sometimes shaking their bodies, as if to prove that what they wore were truly hanging loosely. And if that was not enough, they encouraged each other to twirl. In fact, any dress that was not form-fitting was described with one word—“flowy”.

In most of the livestreams we have watched, the lack of fashion literacy is startling. You’d think that individuals hosting shows to sell clothes would know at least the basic terms relating to what they would be putting out for sale, but that is frequently not the case. For Uniqlo, Felicia Poh described a notch (similar to a fishtail parka’s) at the hem of the centre-back of the dress she wore as a “flap”, while Fauzi Aziz, who told the viewers he was “decked out” in +J, went rather blank over a grossgrain tape that covered the rear seam of the yoke of a sweatshirt, referring to it as a “thick woven fabric on the back detail”. To Mdada’s Addy Lee, who hawks with the resonance of a Hungry Ghost Festival auctioneer, every pair of footwear was a xie (鞋) or shoe, whether sneakers or Wallabees, and every bag a baobao (包包) until it became enough to kaishi baobao (开始包包) or “start bags” when the selling commenced. Sarah from Fayth was more informative, so much so that she pointed to you that a dress was made of “polyester material”, in case you’d think polyester is a vegetable or that the dress came with “inner lining” so that you’ll not mistake it for outer lining. And to help you further, a skirt over built-in shorts was called a “skort”, even when it’s not shorts pretending to be a skirt. And just as delightful, the invisible bearer of viewers’ questions asked earnestly, “what is the material of this fabric?”

In Good Company Live offers the company of five hosts (three seen here). Screen grabs: In Good Company/Facebook

The need to use relatable rojak language is understandable. As one marketing head said to us with a hint of regret in his voice, “we are not exactly sophisticated consumers.” It’s not just our irrational love of “actually”, “never” or “got”, used indiscriminately, but the disregard of words conveying information crucial to the appreciation of what we consume, in this case, fashion. That these hosts would inaccurately describe the clothes and the details that set the pieces apart from the competitor’s (there are, after all, so many tiered sundresses out there) or employ strange expressions with conviction is really rather curious communication. Their ebullience concealed nothing. When more retailers—even mass labels such as Uniqlo—are providing the right terminology on hang tags and sign holders on racks, it is regrettable that there are brands, even the really respected ones, that are not bothered by hosts of their livestreams using peculiar or made-up words.

What took us by surprise was In Good Company’s sales session, livestreamed from their Jewel store just four days ago. In a forty-one-minute broadcast, triteness was really the main show. Hosted by four women and a guy, Suwen, Maggi, Azrin, Jean, and Ning, it was as much a mutual admiration club as it was a selling opportunity. Less than three minutes into the livestream, Suwen described a cowl neck as a “boat neck… that’s not your normal (as it turned out, her favourite expression) boat neck neckline”. It was not difficult to see where they were taking the viewers. “It has very interesting sleeves,” she progressed to talk about a top with multiple diagonal panels, but did not explain why they were interesting, only that they were “slightly different”. Her hosting partner Ning would not be outdone. Of a pullover, he informed the viewers that “it’s made up of three different fabric pieces… stitched together”, possibly out of fear that potential shoppers might think that the panels were glued together. The two loved to suggest that tops could be worn “both tucked out or tucked in”. It would be more helpful if either of them showed the audience how he or she would “tuck out”. We like to believe that both meant untucked! But, “tuck out” was a clear favourite.

It is understandable if they struggled to talk fashion, but they strived to talk clothes too. They were not able to provide sufficient occasions or places the separates could be worn to, so they kept repeating how the ensembles could be “worn on a plane”, happily oblivious that travelling is still somewhat limited, even when Vaccinated Travel Lanes have been introduced between our island and some nations. But what truly made the broadcast for us was when Suwen called a romper a “shorter-length jumpsuit” and Ning specified seersucker as “corrugated cotton” (puckered cotton, yes, but corrugated?), possibly thinking of zinc roofs! To be certain, we do not expect these part-time hosts to be fluent in the language of fashion or textiles. Even a professional such as DJ Rosalyn Lee struggled while she presented on IG, the live preview of the autumn/winter 2020 collection of Comme des Garçons. Still, it was really surprising and disappointing that In Good Company’s marketing department did not provide the hosts with the knowledge necessary to make their presentation credible. And, in turn, more watchable.

Is This Really Fun?

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

The Parched Ah Lians

A.k.a. The Thirsty Sisters, but they are no more

Bound by thirst and sisterhood: Sylvia Chan (left) and Nina Tan

Five days ago, at the height of the Sylvia Chan/Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) open-to-all drama and one movie-length interview facilitated by Xiaxue, the NOC-affiliated podcast The Thirsty Sisters (TTS) is no more. Or, all posts are now removed (as of 21 October) from their dedicated channel. Even their Instagram page is deleted. Helmed by Ms Chan and her cousin-in-law Nina Tan, the podcast touts itself as the explorer of “hot and pressing issues”. Is the withdrawal of the podcasts from public enjoyment indication that what the women had discussed are no longer hot, or pressing? Or, is the thirst of the sisters finally quenched? The title of their show, then, no longer relevant? Online speculations suggested that in order not to drag Ms Tan along on the mud that Ms Chan has found herself in as she pulled others along with her, the latter decided to remove their rowdy online presence. The channel is, however, still on YouTube, which, for hopeful fans, is indication that the dehydrated jiemei may soon return.

Despite their supposed popularity, there are many who are still unaware that there are two sisters thirsty enough to start a podcast. What are the sister thirsty for? It isn’t clear if they needed merely liquids or libation, or if they are, like most influencers, eagerly desirous of an audience—31.7K on YouTube alone—or just craving attention. Or something more profound, such as “wisdom, trends, success and men”, according to the podcast analytics service Chartable. As they described it on YouTube, the podcast is about their “raw and real journey of living (their) best lives, crying over love/dating struggles”. In their last post, Biting your Lips on the First Date, shared on 7 October, Ms Chan asked her co-host/relative, between promoting Koi Guava Green Tea, “do you think it’s too much if they keep looking at the area of your tits or your groin?” The women are extremely comfortable, possibly more than their listeners, to talk about sex and, more sex. And “dicks”. And they love to post posers, such as “When is it okay to bang?” and “What’s the best size?” On top of that, they give relationship advice. Sort of.

The Thirsty Sisters channel is still up, but there is no content

Who are the thirsty sisters? Sylvia Chan, the main news this past weeks, requires no introduction. Nina Tan (陈淑芬) was born in 1991. Unlike her fellow Thirsty Sister, she did not have to cross the causeway to go to school, as she is Singaporean and completed her education here. But we do not know which institution she went to or if she was, like Ms Chan, bullied as a student. Not much is known about her other than what she has revealed in NOC videos and the podcast, which is not a lot, or detailed. For example, we only know she has a diploma in sports education and had wanted to be a PE teacher (she did enjoy playing hockey very much). Her mother, in fact, wanted her to be an air stewardess. But she chose to not to be, taking on other jobs: “I was a barista; I was a Canon girl at an IT show, and then I was a beauty therapist for a period of time,” she said on TTS.

As with many of the NOC regulars, she had her start with the founders of the popular YouTube channel. She told the Chinese radio show, 后台无限 Play (Unlimited Behind-The-Scene Play), that her cousin Ryan Tan, Ms Chan’s former husband, said to her, “we’re filming something and we’re looking for people. Would you like to come down to help me?” She agreed to help just once, but ended up as an NOC talent for “eight to nine years (nine, in fact)”. But, prior to that she was already working with the husband and wife on their wedding videography business. She is, therefore, considered by her employers to be “one of the og NOC girls”, as described on the company’s website. A lauded comedian, she has also appeared on Mediacorp programmes such as 这个是不是Prank? (or Prank It!). She is now considered to be in the big league among YouTubers and Instagrammers, and has plugged anything from McCafé Kopi Frappé to Durex condoms.

According to their own telling on TTS, the two women met in 2010 when Ms Chan was at her husband’s family home to announce the couple’s decision to get married. The women did not talk, and all that was on Nina Tan’s mind then: “When can I leave?” As Ms Chan said, they had no impression of each other. But close they did become as a result of time spent in the office and with Ah Ma (grandmother) during one particular Chinese New Year. They became gym buddies at Amore Fitness, doing zumba and kick-boxing. “After that, since we go the gym together, we decided to eat together also. And after that, drink together also.” But more than activity companions, they hit it off because, as Ms Chan said, “We clicked and ‘vibed’ so much”. More significantly, she found in Ms Tan the younger sister she never had. And in each other, honesty that is rare. Ms Chan even said to her cousin-in-law: “one of the best things that came out of me and Ryan’s marriage is actually having you as a sister”.

It is hard to tell the difference between these siblings defined by thirst and those characters they play on NOC videos. They are, as fans concur, “raw and real”, in equal measure. They are brash and loud too, in proud Singlish. and basically do not give a hoot to what anyone perceives of them, to or say. They are all the caricatures ever played on local media rolled into two equal parts, packaged as sort-of-feminist ideal, but, perhaps, more in a sociosexual context. Many of their listeners are charmed and inspired, if not empowered, by their daring, nothing-is-taboo stance, as comfortable talking about men’s failings as the pleasures of sex toys. Nina Tan told Elle SG in February this year, “When Sylvia and I talk about such topics on our podcast, it works to break down that idea that self-pleasuring is too taboo to speak about. Our listeners have been pretty receptive, although we still get some comments saying that we are too out there and ‘trashy’ that, honestly, I’m tickled by. At least there is a voice and platform out there for people who are interested in different perspectives”.

And while talking trashily on the platform, they seemed genuinely interested in men—Ms Chan prefers the “alpha male” and Ms Tan those with “dad bod”—they are just as eager to show that “there is no dick worth your self-esteem; there is no guy that’s worth your self-worth”. The popularity of The Thirsty Sisters seems to commensurate with the rise of vocal women who truly believe they can do and say anything, even to expose the guys they have had bad dating experiences with publicly as a “warning” to other women, with no careful consideration for consequences. Ms Chan herself is now seen as vintage example, after she dramatically disclosed her husband’s mental health struggles, among other intimate details, with Xiaxue just days ago. The Thirsty Sisters sent out its first podcast in April 2020. There are 55 episodes so far, each averaging 40-minutes long. It is not conclusively clear why they yanked every single episode out of YouTube other than for the protection of the younger co-host. But if, as Sylvia Chan said in one of the podcasts, “we can probably get into deeper shit and we are going to laugh about it”, what’s the real fear?

Illustration: Just So

Sylvia Chan Opened Up To Xiaxue

One ex-pink-haired spilled to another, and it became only louder

Warning: this post contains language and description that some readers may find offensive

At around fifteen past eight yesterday evening, influencer extraordinaire Xiaxue announced/teased on Instagram that Sylvia Chan “is going to appear on video to give an exclusive interview to me to clip her side of the story as well as to answer some hard questions.” Clumsy intro aside, the host preview snips of Ms Chan angry, effing, and crying, as well as the explosive admission: “we never have a happy marriage”. Social-media broadcasts like these possibly explain why free-to-air television struggles to find enough viewers. They also show that influencers-as-talk-show-hosts are more compelling to watch than TV old hats, such as Quan Yifeng. The saga involving Ms Chan is not only trending, it has engrossed much of our social media-consuming world. Our look into who she is and what happened was this year’s most viewed within thirty-six hours of of its appearance on SOTD. Xiaxue’s promised interview was finally shared two hours later, at ten thirty, possibly because of the R-rated content. The hard questions were fairly hard, but the show was pacy melodrama that even Channel U’s Sunday night Thai soap operas can’t match.

Recorded on 22 October, the interview was shared on Xiaxue’s own eponymous YouTube channel. It opened with her ensuring viewers of the integrity of the show: “this interview is entirely produced by my own team. Okay, I’m not being paid by NOC or Sylvia in any way. She does not know the questions I’m going to be asking her before hand. And she does not get any vetting or editing rights in what is the final piece that is going to be published.” The chat between the women was an hour and forty-seven minutes long, or nearly the average length of a movie (the running time of the recent Shang Chi is 132 minutes). By midnight, there were more than 110,000 views. CNA’s broadcast of the Multi-Ministry Task Force’s full news conference earlier yesterday, also on YouTube, had only 70K views. Three hours after the “bombshell after bombshell” interview, as Xiaxue delightfully called it, 7.4K viewers liked it.

And it certainly did have a sudden and sensational effect. Set in what could be a living room, the two—one looked as if dressed for a regular IG shoot and the other, for a meeting with a defamation lawyer, but both without their recognisable pink dos—spoke as girlfriend to girlfriend would: with candour and mutual outrage. Sylvia Chan used YouTube to announce her divorce; she used the same platform to proclaim that not only did she and her former husband Ryan Tan “never”—not once, rather than the inaccurate synonym Singaporeans prefer: did not—enjoyed conjugal bliss, she was the target of a “smear campaign” by him to get her out of Night Owl Cinematics, the media company they started together, and that Mr Tan was suicidal, unfaithful, and unwilling to have sex with her! And, on top of that, she believes he is the one to initiate the smear of the past three weeks against her because “Ryan has something to gain from this”.

As it turned out, it was cushion-holding airing of dirty laundry. No holds barred. Three days ago, a “spokeperson” told CNA that “with regards to the latest slew of allegations, (Sylvia) intends to address and thoroughly rebut every one of these in due course.” No one could have guessed the rebutal (and rebuke) would be conducted in this manner. It is not certain if Ms Chan’s intention was to rehabiltate her battered image (she said of the interview, “it’s more cathartic than anything I want to achieve today”). If so, why did she not speak to accredited media? Or was she confident that Xiaxue would accord her “the right to say her peace“. After all, “even murderers have their day in court“, never mind if Ms Chan would be tried in the court of public opinion. One sensed that this fiery tell-all emerged from rancour, and was based on the motivation, if you pull me down, I’ll drag you down too.

This post will not be a summary of the many points and allegations raised in the video. Mothership would already have it published before the sun rises. Rather, this is a reaction post, faintly in the vein of reaction videos. And it is hard to be dispassionate about it, just as it seemed difficult for Ms Chan to comport herself. Xiaxue conducted the interview with the flair of Jerry Springer, the refinement of his delirious guests, and the empathy of Oprah Winfrey. She said, “I am trying to be neutral”, but played the responsive sympathiser. And Sylvia Chan easily opened up to her. The rapport was obvious and the responses spontaneous. This could hardly be scripted, although, in planning the questions, Xiaxue and her team clearly aimed to spill corporate scandal, spousal indiscretion, bosom-buddy betrayal, influencer gossip, insider misdeeds, familial shock, and, the icing on the cake, self-loathing. Without doubt, they knew how to augment the trash factor.

Ms Chan was no less skilled than her interviewer, cleverly deflecting questions, agilely not admitting to wrong doing and nearly denying a particular sex-act exposé (a friend said, “your boobs, wrong size”). She was sure to set out that if she was bad or reprehensible, they made her so. It was easy to feel sorry for her. She only wanted “to be that person to protect her business, to protect Ryan”—“this person really bully you, ah. I’m going to fuck him; I’m going to fuck him up for you… Because I love him, I fuck that person up, lah”. Now, she called herself “the shit of Singapore”, yet she never wanted to be “Sylvia, Version Shit”. Still, she pushed on with a tough and unyielding demeanour of herself: “I always say I am very strong, one. You know, I always say like, never mind, lah. Shit happens is okay, one. And I tell myself, today I won’t cry, one. Can’t stand the show cry for what? Go and show people that I don’t give a fuck. You want to call me a bitch, now I am, lor.”

As so many have read and seen these past weeks, shit did happen. And Xiaxue, who equates being “vulgar” with being “straightforward”, was able to make it happen again. This is one video that easily beats, in content strength, the entire series of NOC’s ‘Shit’ videos, beginning with 2013’s Shit Singaporean Girlfriends Say. In those narratives, bad behaviours are hard to justify. But in this, every alleged wrong-doing is offset with a legit excuse. On the purported “barter trade”, for example, of the sexual services of her talents for logistics arrangements for NOC, which Ms Chan laughed as they are “not a retail company”, she asked, “What is wrong if you introduce girlfriends to really rich guys?” Even acrimonious reactions: “He knows me well enough to say things that will make me very pissed off.” Her tendency to eff has nothing to do with her. Whether or not the video was shared to augment Xiaxue’s status as the queen of controversy or so that followers and more could revel in her subject’s misfortunes, or cackle at her foibles, it was the entertainment Night Owl Cinematics could not have produced. Or, dreamed to.

Xiaxue’s video post (the content of which “stupified” her, as she said in the end) had the input of her lawyers; it came with a disclaimer: “The guest states that all statements of facts she makes within the programme are based on materials in her personal possession evidencing these facts. Where she makes any opinions, these constitute her personal fair comments derived from information and materials she has access to and are not meant to offend, insinuate anything, or disparage any person. Neither are these comments or opinions meant to cause alarm, harassment, or distress to any person.” A good part of the interview talked about Ryan Tan’s supposed suicidal tendencies. Apparently, when he tried to end his life in Osaka in 2017, it was not his first attempt—it has happened “so, so, so many times”. Sylvia Chan repeatedly said she was and has been afraid that he would kill himself. She even wondered if he would do so after watching this video. Would there then be no incredulous gasp when reading the last sentence of the disclaimer? That a dysfunctional marriage should end is understandable. No life, however, should follow suit.

Update (25 October 2021, 5.30pm): Barely a day after her interview with her friend Xiaxue, Sylvia Chan issued a second apology. This time, unlike the first, she actually said she is sorry. “I am truly sorry for all the wrongs I have done,” she wrote on her Instagram page, “and the mistakes I have made.” In five short paragraphs, she said that she is cooperating with the authorities investigating her work place and hopes that she “be given a chance to work on (herself) to become a better person, and a better leader”. The curious thing is, why did she not apologise on Xiaxue’s show? Why did she, instead, continue to besmear others she thought had wronged her? Puzzling, no?

Screen grabs: xiaxue/Facebook

What Happened, Sylvia Chan?

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.

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

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”.

“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”

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

Koh Boon Ki, Has It Come To This For You, Too?

Another day, another influencer in the news. Like Sylvia Chan, Koh Boon Ki was exposed and then she apologised. And as with Ms Chan, sort of

Influencers are good at generating news—that, we have to give to them. Few go about their digital lives quietly. After the Sylvia Chan saga, before you could say there would be a lull, another influencer makes the news. And, again, not for excelling in what they do (even if it’s creating some amazing TikTok videos), but what they should not do. Koh Boon Ki (许文琪) is, until now, your regular TikToker and Instagrammer. But she decided that, in her dating life, one thing is a requisite: “Just tell me all I should know before I even start talking to him”. No one guessed it then, but “all” is the operative word. So, last Sunday, she posted on TikTok a message superimposed on her sort-of-dancing (with hand movements to underscore her bust and to the apt soundtrack of Meghan Trainor’s narcissistic song Me Too), telling her 112,000 followers what she intended to do: start a “Telegram group with girls from all the dating apps in Singapore and we discuss the guys we’ve talked to and dates we’ve been on”. But it wasn’t innocently just a social group to “share notes”, as they would say in the old days. Ms Koh added, one senses, with relish: “imagine the excel sheet we can make”.

Shortly after the TikTok post, she created the said Telegram group, and named it “sg dating adventures”. She was determined; she did not renege. We don’t need to tell you what that spurred. The beauty of digital sisterhood is that it is so easy to mobilise members for action. Excited by the prospect of the gossip they could crowdsource and the certainty of the cads that they could out and spurn, someone took up Ms Koh’s suggestion, and turned what could have been an innocuous and girly group into one that is potentially pernicious. A Google spreadsheet, also innocently and inoffensively titled, “Dating Guide SG” was shared by an unidentified person. Split into two unkind, even spiteful, tabs, “Blacklist” and “Avoid”, it supposedly listed dozens of guys, entered by anonymous, don’t-mess-with-me users, with claims that the men are guilty of behaviours adverse to romantic dating life. These ran the gamut, from infidelities to molestations to outright sexual assault. But other than a warning to others of the men best to avoid, it was also a comparative study of some of the listees’ skill—or none—in pleasing the listers, sexually!

No one could say if what were seriously alleged were at all true. What’s even more startling and disturbing is that the compilation purportedly included the men’s full names and contact details. Is it at all surprising then that Netizens were quick to call what was happening “doxxing” and cyberbullying? Even trolling? Ms Koh, who has admitted to the media that there are viewers who find her videos “cringey”, reacted rapidly too, declaring in the wee hours of Monday morning that the group chat she started was closed. Later in the day, the recent pharmacy graduate from NUS pointed out, via TikTok, that she was not the one behind the open doc. She subsequently said, possibly in the hope of absolving herself from guilt, “I did not realise that it was also spiralling into a name-and-shame group”. How about date and divulge? Or, the good ol’ kiss and tell. And a collective one! Group gratification, to boot. Safety in numbers. A vexed SOTD reader texted us and asked, “What’s the difference between this and revenge porn?” We could only reply with “good question”.

“I did not realise that it was also spiralling into a name-and-shame group”

Koh Boon Ki

Pleading innocence further, Ms Koh continued, “It did not turn out the way I imagine, and (sic) it turned out way worse”. Many think “worse” is putting it extremely mildly: she gathered the girls; she was the facilitator; she did not stop the list from view. Or, likely, from circulating. Then came the apology video, which is viewed 282.9K times and is loved by 7,460 followers (at the time of this writing). It is delivered in rapid-fire speech, without even a single use of either of two crucial words: apologise or sorry. She opened by saying, “I am here to address the video that I posted and the group chat I created”. The TikTok video, according to her, was conceived and put out “in the spur of the moment”. In other words, swayed by impulse. It did not dawn on her that her action was reckless. Throughout the explain-herself video post, she littered her prattle with “I did not” and “I didn’t”. Rather than expressing remorse (she did say “regret”, but only that the spreadsheet exists), she cleverly turned the drama into a chance to spotlight sexual assault alleged in the document and “if (they) were true, I hope there are authorities involved”. The lack of self-reproach is, consciously or not, remarkably consistent with the digital lives of uniquely self-obsessed influencers.

The spreadsheet is reportedly deleted after its scandalous existence was exposed and deemed harassment. Ms Koh has mostly denied that she had anything to do with the shared doc although she did first tantalise, not scandalise, her followers with “imagine the excel sheet we can make”. Another layer of mystery emerges: Did Ms Koh already know of such a list, one that would grow a Telegram group in just one night? If not, who would be able to compile the names and the corresponding misdeeds and character flaws with such speed? Or, again, was the list already prepared to be shared? Who has been waiting for Ms Koh’s “spur of the moment” to pounce? That the document exists is, perhaps, unsurprising. We live in a shame-free, blame-much co-ed social culture where it seems totally acceptable, even when it’s deplorable, to post such a poser on forums—Hardware Zone, no less: “Nowadays girls all so chio (hot), how married guys tahan (bear it)?” Is the Google spreadsheet “Dating Guide SG” pay-back time?

Koh Boon Ki has 112.7K followers on TikTok, where she posts, like so many of her peers, inane, lamely comedic videos. A member of the site since Christmas day, 2019, she seems to enjoy sharing (mainly) herself in dance, showing moves of no discernible flair, but in touch with her inner Ah Lian. On Instagram, where she enjoys a surprisingly smaller following—13.5K, but no less hyper-visibility, she posts stills of her hawking anything, from clothes to skincare products to pasteurised fruit juice. In videos and in selfies, she reminds us of Elaine Heng (formerly Elaine Jasmine), who was also embroiled in an influencer-style scandal in 2018. They dress alike and pose alike. Both their expressions metronome-clicks between sweet and sweeter (occasionally goofy), a twinning that would encourage her male followers to call her cute or even chio, to use the expression popular in chat groups. Like many of her fellow Gen-Zers, Ms Koh is weaned on fast fashion. As such, she demands fast dates too. She wants to know all she should know about the guy before she meets him, and a group chat would, therefore, “save everybody some time”. On Instagram, she wrote in her “Bio” (and we quote verbatim): “can’t talk right now. i’m doing hot girl sh!t”. Last Sunday, she sure was. Will “hot girl sh!t” then land her in hot girl soup?

Updated (19 October 2021, 23:00): Koh Boon Ki shared a new TikTok video, directed to “my FA friends”, less than 24 hours after her supposed apology video. In her latest post, she said, “the next time I tell you about my spending habits, and you think I need an investment plan, NO. I need therapy”. As she probably does not think she has done anything wrong, laying low isn’t on the cards.

Illustration: Just So