No single dates by apps, please - we're Asians

The Colombian-born co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based dating app Grouvly, displaying his company's website at his office in Hong Kong.
The Colombian-born co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based dating app Grouvly, displaying his company's website at his office in Hong Kong.PHOTO: AFP

Such services created for users in the region to meet in groups or even have a chaperone

HONG KONG • Move over Tinder - a crop of dating apps in smartphone-addicted Asia is offering to recruit friends for group dates or send along a chaperone to steer the course of romance.

While dating apps designed in the West encourage one-on-one meetings, often with no strings attached, many developed in Asia are as much about old-school courtship or friendship in a region where meeting a stranger in a bar can still be taboo.

"My upbringing was very close to my parents' - religious, traditional and old-fashioned. You couldn't go on dates if your parents didn't know the guy," says Ms Valenice Balace, who developed the Peekawoo service in the Philippines two years ago. "I grew up with chaperoned dates and, even when I was in college, my kid sister was always with me on dates."

Too shy to make eye contact in bars, the 26-year-old turned to apps similar to Tinder, which boasts millions of active users, where photos of potential matches are instantly liked or rejected.

But after one man suggested he come to her house after their first online conversation, Ms Balace realised the set-up was not for her. And so the entrepreneur created an app which not only discouraged users from meeting one-on-one, but also offered a chaperone service for those who requested it.

THREE IS NOT A CROWD

One-on-one can be super awkward. Two-on-two is still slightly awkward, but three-on-three is the magic number.

GROUVLY CEO CAMILO PAREDES, on Asians being shy in meet-ups

As Peekawoo expanded - it now has around 7,000 members - it was no longer practical for the small company to provide a chaperone for every couple who asked for one, and so Ms Balace's team started organising meet-ups instead.

It is a model shared by Hong Kong-based app Grouvly, which sets up groups of six people for dates.

"When I came to Asia, I realised it was hard to meet people," explains Colombian-born chief executive Camilo Paredes. "I also realised that most of the Asians were somewhat shy, they're not confrontational, they don't put themselves out there."

His solution was to mimic American Grouper, which matches two people according to the information on their Facebook profiles, then asks them to bring two friends each with them to a bar for a six-person meet-up.

"One-on-one can be super awkward. Two-on-two is still slightly awkward, but three-on-three is the magic number," says Mr Paredes.

Alongside expats, Hong Kongers now make up 50 per cent of Grouvly's users. In Singapore, most users are locals.

There are plans to roll out the service in Japan, South Korea, Australia and China.

Even if the Singapore-based Paktor - which claims 3.5 million registered users - is less averse to hook-ups, it also added functions such as group chats recently.

"People either organise a group meeting or they reach out to one person in that chat to have a conversation with them," explains Mr Joseph Phua, 31, co-founder of the app. "It's true that people here tend to be more reserved, less direct," he adds. "Asian society feels failure or rejection more strongly, it's just part of the fabric of society. That carries on into the dating space as well."

But meeting a partner online in a global hub like Hong Kong still remains less common than in the West - despite 62.8 per cent of people owning a smartphone, according to Google figures.

A 2011 survey led by Mr Emil Ng Man Lun of Hong Kong University's Family Institute found that just 5 per cent of locals had met a partner online or via an app, compared with 22 per cent of Americans, according to Stanford University research published that year.

"Our impression is that this is rising. But by how much it is rising, we are not sure yet," Mr Ng says. "People think it is a sign of promiscuity. They worry that they get into intimacy too early, without sufficient time for knowing each other. It seems, however, that these theories have not stopped people from using these dating services."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'No single dates by apps, please - we're Asians'. Print Edition | Subscribe