According to 18th-century reactionary thinker Joseph de Maistre, every country gets the government it deserves. Perhaps, in the modern world, each society gets the technology it deserves too — particularly when it comes to dating.
Take Malaysia, a society so conservative that authorities last year canned a beer festival and so corrupt that a raid on the homes of former prime minister Najib Razak’s family yielded $275m worth of designer handbags, watches and jewellery.
It is also where Darren Chan founded Sugarbook, an online platform for sugar daddies to meet young women. Mr Chan switches between referring to the latter as “sugar babies” and “goal empowered individuals”. The transactions that follow are absolutely not prostitution, he insists, but are “honest and transparent relationships”.
Mr Chan says that Sugarbook’s genesis was his upbringing in a career-oriented Asian family where success was measured by money. Besides, he protests, if men are congratulated for choosing youth in a partner, why should women be pilloried for selecting wealth?
Sugarbook’s website (“Where romance meets finance”) features a lupine western man, a lollipop-sucking woman and free membership for students who sign up with their college email address.
For the men, there is premium diamond membership — in the land of “crazy rich Asians” , there has to be — promising total privacy. So who would pay the monthly $200 fee? Mr Chan reels off a list: “business owners, bankers, doctors, lawyers — politicians as well, definitely”. But not, it transpires, Mr Chan himself — although he would, he assures me, were he not already in a relationship.
Mr Chan was saddened by WeChat’s move earlier this year to ditch SeekingArrangement, China’s sugar daddy dating site, after it came under attack in the state media. In President Xi Jinping’s China, the focus is on keeping content clean and in line with socialist values.
Hence Yu Wang, founder and chief executive of the country’s top dating app Tantan, does not see his app as replicating Tinder— instead, he says, he is helping to solve a “societal problem”. Young people are moving to live in big lonely cities. “In China [meeting] is a challenge,” he says. “It’s difficult because there’s no flirting culture. Very few young people go to bars and pubs. We wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger.”
Meeting prospective partners may be less of an issue in India than finding a place to spend time together away from the watchful eyes of family, judging from the Airbnb-style apps for hourly rate hotels. As the creepily named Stay Uncle puts it, “couples need a room, not a judgment”.
Japan, of course, has no shortage of love hotels — or ways to meet people to take to them. At the traditional end there is Omiai “where respectable guys and girls can meet” and bulletin-board-style websites so old-fashioned you can’t even upload a picture. This is totally in keeping in a country that still communicates by fax.
Omiai takes its name from the tradition of arranged marriages, lending it “an aura of permanency and legitimacy and seriousness, with lots of detailed questions just as in an old-fashioned arranged marriage,” says Jennifer Robertson, an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan.
At the other end of the spectrum, 9monsters is an altogether juicier proposition: gay dating melded with the 1990s virtual pet fad, Tamagotchi. It is a uniquely Japanese creation. Depending on who you interact with online, your Tamagotchi hatches into one of nine monsters aligning with types within Japanese gay culture: chubby piggy, say, or bulky bison.
“It catches on to the playful nature of Japan’s gay subculture,” says Tom Baudinette, a lecturer in Japanese studies at Australia’s Macquarie University. This, after all, is a country that elevated gaming to an art form and spun several business empires out of it, home of the PlayStation and Pokémon Go.
But perhaps the most endearingly Japanese thing about 9monsters’ combo of hookups and a game launched more than two decades ago is that it is utterly bonkers, utterly addictive and utterly unpredictable. Much like the country that created it.