Why you should care
The old-hat rules of courtship still apply in Southeast Asia.
It’s lunchtime and a 37-year-old graphic designer is hungry. Oh, but not for his club sandwich — he’s hungry for love. So, like single people the world over, he picks up his iPhone. But he’s not about to swipe right or left — à la Tinder — on a couple of hundred comely strangers. Waiting in his phone is exactly one eligible bachelorette. How … civilized.
We’re not in the Big Apple, San Francisco, Austin or Chicago. Our lonely graphic designer is dating in Bangkok — the Big Mango. In this corner of the world, courtship has a particular set of rules. Hint: no hookups.
In Southeast Asia, the dating scene is swinging. And so is mobile data use, which is expected to grow more than eightfold from 2013 to 2019. Right now only a smattering of companies are targeting Southeast Asia’s dating pool, which will reach 420 million by 2025. Compare that with the 2,500 dating companies squabbling over the 124.6 million single adults in the United States. Conservative mobile dating apps like Noonswoon in Thailand, Paktor in Singapore, Mat & Minah in Malaysia and Peekawoo in the Philippines are swooping in to serve the region’s signature style of romance — for one thing, it’s customary for women to “play hard to get” for years — and to offer customized versions for the Muslim and Buddhist heartlands of Southeast Asia. Savvy to Southeast Asian cultural norms, the developers say they emphasize commitment over flings and are striving to make mobile dating culturally appropriate, with features like group dates, arranged chaperones, Muslim meet-ups and one-match-a-day platforms.
This slew of conservative dating apps could be the remedy for today’s aggressive hookup culture and the so-called dating apocalypse.
One group of app makers (Mat & Minah keeps mum on its investor dollars) has raised $13 million in seed funding and already has tens of thousands of registered users since launching a few years ago. And while in-app advertisements and paid premium services help keep these startups afloat, they all aspire to one day become the leading matchmakers in Asia.
According to Noonswoon CEO Kavin Mickey Asavanant, this slew of conservative dating apps could be the remedy for today’s aggressive hookup culture and the so-called dating apocalypse that more serious daters in Southeast Asia abhor. Top-dog dating apps in the market, like Tinder, aren’t “quite fit for the Asian culture,” Asavanant explains, and common features like the swipe-to-connect method, which Tinder pioneered, don’t sit well with his subscribers, who reject the “aggressive and too-forward” approach. “This is not how you do things in this part of the world,” he adds. (Mat & Minah and Peekawoo did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.)
Moreover, the region’s “collectivist” society is something that Paktor takes into account too, says Shn Juay, the app’s regional marketing director. It’s a group-oriented culture; nobody makes the first move. She explains, “It’s very hard for our users to write the first line or first sentence.” Chalita Waenlor, who lives in Thailand, weeds out potential suitors by not only looks, but also weight, height, college degree, occupation and income. This checklist of prerequisites is an extension of greater Asia’s status-driven culture; for example, hyper-involved parents still tout their children’s occupations and achievements at Shanghai’s open-air marriage market. So while Juay says people in the West are “generally more open,” she adds, “We Asians have stricter requirements.”
It’s a fascinating reminder that all technology has a human side. Most of us would readily acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all when talking about an app and two very different cultures. But we might focus on, say, the need for excellent translation or the right kind of keyboard or emojis. With dating apps, you’re also talking about building in morals. Is there code for that?
Some might argue that the dating apocalypse is well under way and that romance in the age of the app is moot. Looking at the data, Tinder, with its more freewheeling nature, boasts 9 billion matches to date. Noonswoon, by comparison, has only 40,000 matches per month, and its one-match-a-day model is a near copy of Coffee Meets Bagel, a San Francisco–based dating app that recently launched in Hong Kong and Singapore. There are also Western dating apps that want to “emphasize quality and meaningful relationships, instead of casual hookups,” says Coffee Meets Bagel co-founder Dawoon Kang. But some single folks in Southeast Asia say homegrown apps had better “understand local culture norms.” And Waenlor says they should offer more offline substance to their budding online relationships too. Paktor, for example, set the Guinness World Record for the biggest speed-dating event in 2013 (with 484 singles) in Ho Chi Minh City in an effort to encourage more meaningful connections. (The new world record was set in 2014 in Canada.) Meanwhile, Tinder declined to comment on its strategy or presence in Southeast Asia, but a spokesperson did say the company is “focused on improving the Tinder experience for users around the world.”
As smartphones spread in emerging Southeast Asia and more work-crazed, love-starved singles come around to the idea of connecting with strangers through apps, there’s not yet one poised to take the crown for Southeast Asia’s dating scene. As for “comic lover, Mac geek” Wee Viraporn, his well-crafted Noonswoon profile will remain anonymous until the girl on the other end “likes” him back. Apparently, this is as hot and heavy as it gets before the couple swap phone numbers.