China's TikTok video app takes off in South-east Asia

Visitors browsing the ByteDance booth at the Digital China exhibition last week in Fuzhou, Fujian province. ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, was valued at $102.6 billion last year and has been growing its presence in Singapore as it expands globally. PHOTO: REUTERS
Taekwondo exponent Ng Ming Wei (above) and actress Yap Hui Xin use TikTok to showcase their martial arts and dance talents respectively. PHOTO: NG MING WEI
Taekwondo exponent Ng Ming Wei and actress Yap Hui Xin (above) use TikTok to showcase their martial arts and dance talents respectively. PHOTO: YAP HUI XIN

Actress Yap Hui Xin, 28, may be better known for her roles on local TV shows. But in the past year, viewers around the region may also have seen clips of her dancing to K-pop hits by Blackpink or lip-syncing to comedic audio tracks on social media.

The videos, typically 15 seconds to under a minute long, are made with Chinese-owned app TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance was valued at US$75 billion (S$102.6 billion) last year - and has been building up its Singapore presence as it expands globally.

Already, TikTok in its current form - launched last year after ByteDance acquired short video platform in late 2017 - was the Android and iPhone stores' most downloaded app in the United States in January, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.

In Singapore, its WeWork office in Cross Street, set up in December last year, serves as a hub for its regional operations.

"Across South-east Asia, we have offices in every key market," ByteDance global communications director Belle Baldoza told The Straits Times in a recent interview.

These include Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, she said, adding that ByteDance has offices in more than 50 countries.

"We're growing the teams, the business… The people here also look after the region," she added of its Singapore presence.

While she did not give figures on how quickly the company is expanding here, a check on LinkedIn showed about 17 positions that ByteDance is looking to fill in Singapore, including roles like legal counsel, director of media partnerships for TikTok, and security engineers.

Ms Baldoza did not reveal how many users TikTok has in Singapore when asked, but Sensor Tower said there have been about 1.5 million installations of TikTok in Singapore. This accounts for only 0.1 per cent of its worldwide downloads.

But the total unique installations of TikTok in South-east Asia are much higher, at an estimated 190 million. A spokesman for Sensor Tower said Indonesia, the country with the highest number of installations in the region, has approximately 81 million downloads or about 42 per cent of the total downloads in South-east Asia.

TikTok, said to have 500 million users across 150 countries, prides itself on localisation to gain popularity in markets where it operates.

The app has been compared with photo-and video-sharing app Instagram and messaging app Snapchat, which feature visual effects via in-app filters for videos.

TikTok taps users' data such as location and viewing history to recommend them an endless stream of 15-second clips.

It also allows in-app purchases of coins that can be used for gifts for content creators.

In Singapore, TikTok's user and content operations manager Doreen Tan said the firm works closely with local content creators to spot trends, improve their creations and help them make videos of various genres. The most popular tend to be food, sports and comedy.

Ms Tan added that on a weekly basis, staff from different markets exchange content with the potential to go viral in other areas, promoting material to viewers overseas who might not see it otherwise.

Content creators are also encouraged to make videos based on themes of three to four weekly challenges, such as that of life in Singapore - #thisisSingaporelah - or their pets' lives.

TikTok users here include actress Yap, who started using the app after seeing videos made with it on her Facebook and Instagram feeds.

"I thought this would be a good platform for me to showcase other talents such as dancing and singing," said Yap, who has been acting since she was 10. "TikTok is a pure video platform... You're watching videos continuously. I thought this would be a better platform, especially for dance videos."

Another user is national taekwondo exponent Ng Ming Wei, 24, a bronze medallist at the 2015 SEA Games, who picked up the app due to the ease of making videos with just his mobile phone.

"I love fitness and flexibility and of course, taekwondo. I want to... share my sport with the general public," said Ng, who hopes to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

In particular, he wants to get more young people interested in taekwondo and other sports.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2019, with the headline China's TikTok video app takes off in South-east Asia. Subscribe