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JianHao Tan, The Greatest Showman in Singapore

JianHao Tan, The Greatest Showman in Singapore

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Photography by Marrise Caine and Zachary Tang.

I hadn’t realised it then, but from the moment I sent my email to JianHao Tan, I was co-opted into his show, a production in which I was but a bit player.

With JianHao, the cameras are always rolling, as if he were in a Singaporean version of The Truman Show. But unlike Truman Burbank, who—spoiler alert—is unaware that his life is being broadcast to the whole world as a television show, JianHao never loses sight of the fact that millions of eyes are trained on him with a laser-sharp focus.  

Thus, regardless of how much he wants to be able to introduce himself as the dude “who makes fun YouTube videos”, he can’t—and won’t—shed the identity he is better known by: JianHao the YouTuber who has 3.86 million subscribers on YouTube and who, at only 26, is the CEO of Titan Digital Media, a media conglomerate. 

 He neither relishes playing this role nor wilts under its pressure. JianHao’s portrayal is rooted in duty and is almost noble and stoic; he recognises it as work, a necessary evil upon which his very, very successful business is contingent.

His only demand: that the people around him, me included, participate in this reality show alongside him to make sure the show aspect of his reality is never punctured.

Screenshot of a video uploaded to JianHao's channel on August 2018.
JianHao was the top primary-one student at Radin Mas; the next year, his family uprooted themselves and moved to Vietnam, then Cambodia a few years later, because of his father’s job in the foreign service.

The international schools in which he was enrolled indirectly taught JianHao the fundamentals of showbiz. He says that, in an international school, he had to shed Singlish and learn to speak in a way comprehensible to people from all over the world. In the same vein, as JianHao figured out how to make friends with his classmates, he also understood how to relate to people from different cultures.

“When I was 8, I knew how Koreans worked. I knew how the Vietnamese worked. Maybe that’s why I’m so good at shaping content to fit what the audience wants to see.”

He pauses to reflect on that statement, as if it had just occurred to him. Then, he says, off-handedly, “I’m the only YouTube channel in Singapore that doesn’t think in a very Singaporean, linear way.” 

Depending on which side of the JianHao spectrum you reside, this assertion either explains the universal appeal of his videos, or made you laugh so hard your new-found abs are still hurting. 

JianHao is, of course, aware of the criticisms his videos face. Detractors say they are generic, insipid, and repetitive.

When you cast an eye over the list of JianHao’s videos in his channel, this accusation seems justified. 

Apart from vlogs that document his personal life (e.g. “Meet Our Baby, Starley!”), the content JianHao produces adheres to a very rigid formula of “X Types of Students Doing/During Y”. 

Moreover, his videos tend to be set in a typical Singaporean school, and the characters dress the part: the girls in a convent-blue pinafore, while the boys don a ubiquitous white shirt paired with navy pants.  

Thus, upon first glance, it seems hard to defend against the claim that JianHao’s videos rehash the same, tired Singaporean tropes and have never grown up in the 6 years he’s been making them (a video published on 15 September 2013 is entitled “10 Types of Singaporean Students”).

Screenshot of a video uploaded to JianHao's channel on September 2013.
JianHao interjects indignantly: “my videos are not about Singaporean students at all. Honestly, if you say that about my video, the only thing you have seen is the title.  Cause if you read between the lines, if you get the jokes and stuff, it’s actually very globally based.” 

What does he mean by “globally based”?

“When [my actors] speak Singlish, or in a Singaporean slang, I’ll tell them to cut it. Redo the line. … [There has been] no Singlish for the past few years. My titles don’t have the word “Singaporean” in them anymore. There was a point where I decided I’ll stop doing Singlish videos and start catering to global audience.”

Lest you think a neutral accent or title does not a global perspective make, let me say that, after watching some of JianHao’s videos, I actually agree with him. His videos are not rooted in the local the way, say, Tanglin is, in which lontong and mee siam are served in the cafés and lahs and lors trill off the end of sentences. 

JianHao’s videos are entirely stripped of context. The characters may be prancing around classrooms that look like the ones in which you (read: I) spent your traumatic formative days. They may don pinafores fetishised by Singaporean men. But these elements are hollow signifiers. Strip the actors of their Asian skin and transplant onto them the pale whiteness of Caucasians and you’d have a video about high school and the heady maelstrom of hormones swirling in it: crushes, friendships, puberty, homework.

Insert joke about mothers.
But how can listicles, devoid of narrative, chart the growth of characters and adequately explore such themes? 

Which brings me to JianHao’s next defence: “If you watch all my videos, [you’ll realise] they’re not listicles. They’re short films but presented in a listicle form simply because this is YouTube.”

Again, JianHao is not advancing a spurious argument. 

It’s true: after devoting a considerable amount of time to the antics of class T1T5, I realised his videos have a recurring cast of characters, all of whom have fairly complex relationships with one another. For instance, Melody is pining for Ren Yi Xiang but he has a crush on Pei Shi; Kevin is weirdly attracted to all the male characters in the video (a caricature that I viewed with great disapproval).  

These relationship dynamics play out and develop across all of JianHao’s videos, positioning them more as short films than listicles, as JianHao says.

Okay. Most of us wouldn’t consider them short films. But definitely sitcoms, produced for the YouTube era. 

But there is semen in fish. I think.
While I don’t belong to the demographic towards which his videos are pitched, in the process of watching his videos, I stopped noticing the enumerating of whatever type of student the video purports to list and was—dare I say it—absorbed by the storyline.  

To be sure, some jokes are awful and make me want to slap the scriptwriter:

JianHao: Are you sure it’s fish in the sea and not sea in the fish?
Kevin: I’m pretty sure it’s fish in the sea, man.
JianHao: Fish in the semen? There is no fish in semen.

But some made me laugh. My favourite: when their pregnant teacher, Madam Soot Beng, whom the class thought was going to go into labour over the weekend, drily dismisses her cramps—“It was merely just a false alarm. I think it was gas. Had a really heavy lunch.”

Watching his videos, it’s clear that JianHao is no Bong Joon-ho, but that is not whom he aspires to be. He says his purpose is to “make people happy through [his] content”, and I think he does achieve that. In today’s apocalypse-is-nigh political, economic, environmental etc etc climate, happiness is hard to come by; it would be mean-spirited to diss videos—however mediocre cinematically or narratively we might think they are—that bring his hordes of fans joy.

JianHao says his videos are successful because he understands how people work. The other crucial ingredient: he, very clearly, understands how the digital media industry works.

He’s only 26 but JianHao speaks of the media landscape and the demands of running a business like someone with decades of experience in C-suite roles. Nuggets of wisdom emerge from him in the form of sagely epigrams.

For instance: “If you want to go global, start in a pond.”  

Or: “Algorithms don’t lie.” 

He backs his claims up with data extracted from YouTube analytics, patiently explaining to me how his strategy of naming his video a certain way will increase audience engagement from the 18-25 demographic in India because they have a certain cultural framework, for instance. 

“Look at this video. It’s 16, 20 minutes long. There’s no way it’s going to get 10 million views unless there is a strategy … an optimisation of views. It’s proven in psychology … that if you put a number before your title, people are more inclined to click it.” 

“That’s what YouTube is about. It’s about clicks. It’s not about anything else. That’s the most important thing for a YouTuber. To get the clicks.”  

“And then what? After you get the clicks then you make the audience feel a certain way. Then you enrich the audience through your content. But if you have such enriching content and no one watches it, then what’s the point? It’s pointless.”

Which is exactly what Mr Editor used to say when he was berating me during my early days as an internet content producer noob, when I would protest at clickbaity titles—proving to me that JianHao the YouTuber is, under the surface, also JianHao the digital media mastermind.

Heck, he was perhaps the first Singaporean to capitalise on the market potential of digital marketing. JianHao tells me that when he started off, he had to “explain to clients what it is, why it’s better than traditional media, why it will work better than having an newspaper ad or spending 10 times more on a TV ad”. You need only look at his schmancy house and BMW—all paid for by himself—to know whether his attempts were successful.

“So for the people who say JianHao does listicles, follows a formula, then they have not watched my videos. Someone who has watched my videos would never say that,” JianHao says.

To quote him again: “I’m the only YouTube channel in Singapore that doesn’t think in a very Singaporean, linear way.”

The interior of JianHao's office.
Something curious happens after JianHao makes that declaration. Hearing himself, he immediately qualifies, “the [channels] that I have watched la. If I haven’t watched, I can’t speak for them.” 

As he is speaking, I can almost see the caution on his face erupt into an “oh shit” moment. I reckon he had realised, too late, that he had just insulted all of the other YouTube content creators in Singapore, many of whom are his friends

Till this point, I had been engrossed in the autobiographical tale that JianHao had been weaving—a testament to his skills at “shaping content to fit what the audience wants to see”—but this moment shatters the sense of trust and vulnerability we had shared up to this point. 

Reality intruded and reminded me that JianHao is one of those divisive figures whom some love and others love to hate, and his most innocuous actions and comments are often weaponised by the latter group against him.

(“It’s so bad that I can do charity and they will criticise me,” JianHao says exasperatedly.)

Thus, it is in his best interests to put on a show where he appears genuine, enthusiastic, and charmingly inoffensive—though I don’t doubt he is, in reality, all of those things. It’s just that he can’t afford not to continue with the performance even if, when the show ends, he is still the same person.

I don’t think I am the only one struck by this thought. After all, JianHao would not have clarified his statement so hastily if he had not recognised its volatility, or recognised the danger it could have posed to his image. 

Peering at his face, I wonder how this constant self-surveillance made him feel—does he enjoy having to conform to a certain image? are there moments when he wishes he could speak and act without a filter?—but by then, JianHao has regained his composure. The veneer of polished vulnerability descends once more, banishing any trace of unrehearsed emotion.

JianHao with BunCha, his pomeranian, has her own Instagram page with 131k followers and is an influencer in his talent agency.
After this incident, I start to notice more of such dissonant moments.

He would be telling me animatedly, in a manner suggesting that he was taking me into his confidence, about some aspect of his life or career. And abruptly, like a crash of thunder breaking the flow of a 20-hit tennis rally, he would interrupt himself or feed me a soundbite too carefully crafted to be spontaneous. 

How does JianHao pamper himself? I ask. 

“To be honest, I just buy stuff,” JianHao replies. “I buy ridiculous stuff. If you come to my house you’ll see a lot of unnecessary things.” 

What is the most unnecessary thing? JianHao opens his browser and shows me a video of him proudly unveiling a $12,000 life-sized Iron Man figure that lights up

I gawk at the figure, embarrassing myself by letting out a series of incoherent sounds approximating to “oh my god wow so cool”. Then JianHao jumps in authoritatively: “I want to finish your question first. I’m not a superficial person. I just like to indulge in buying stuff.”

Before I can formulate an opinion on JianHao’s purchase, he has already assumed the worst and provided a defence for it. 

Or take the instance when we were talking about his dispute with Ridhwan Azman, his (former [and current?]) best friend. In the middle of a sentence, JianHao casually mentions, apropos of nothing, “I always forgive. I forgive everyone who has backstabbed me,” all while laughing generously and self-deprecatingly.

I ask: Is that a sensitive matter? Does he not want to talk about it? 

He coos, “You can ask anything. You can ask me anything.”

The only time JianHao turns off his charm and goes on the defensive is when I bring up the backlash generated by his latest movie, School Trip

He gets so agitated that he interrupts me:

“What’s that? What—what was the backlash? You can tell me any backlash.”

I tell him.  

(For those not in the loop, JianHao’s company decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign to finance their movie. It drew flak because people perceived it as an attempt to get money from a demographic that is not known for financial independence or prudence, rather like how in-app purchases tend to target unwitting children. People also took umbrage that a well-to-do person like JianHao was asking the 99% for money to fund his project.)

JianHao retorts, “Like every businessman, just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you don’t need money, you don’t need funding. $500,000 is a small budget to make a movie … We do not have the money to spend on a movie like that. That’s why we crowdfunded it.” 

“But I agree, in a sense. I realised—halfway through—that crowdfunding wasn’t something that I really wanted to do either.” 

I ask him why.

JianHao pauses. 

“I didn’t like the idea of our fans giving us the money”—the exact same thing he said in his video explanation.

To be clear, with regards to this crowdfunding debacle, I am on JianHao’s side, even though his justification (“just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you don’t need money”) might be a bit indelicately phrased.

Nobody bats an eyelid when money-flush and successful brands like Gillette or Bose launch new products on crowdfunding platforms. In fact, they are often so heavily subscribed, with more money thrown at them than these brands need, that their campaigns “sell out” and have to end earlier than expected. 

And yes, even though JianHao is releasing the movie on YouTube so that anyone can watch it for free, he’s going to earn a ton of money from advertising revenue. But no one is compelling people to give money to JianHao’s campaign. 

People blow their money on frivolous and/or useless shit all the time: a $12,000 Iron Man statue, a $158 melon, a “$39 bespoke cocktail that I didn’t even like” (Rice’s Clients Services Manager), a $200 barbell+dumbbell set that is now sitting in my storeroom rusting into a piece of modern art. 

The outrage at JianHao’s crowdfunding campaign is, I think, more a function of our prejudices against him than any unethical behaviour on his part.

A discussion on JianHao's success from you-know-where.
JianHao reckons he attracts an inordinate amount of hatred not only because people think, whether fairly or unfairly, his videos are “trite” or “derivative”, but also because he’s an everyman. 

And the logic of the internet dictates that ordinary Singaporeans are supposed to suffer through life together. Anyone who manages to escape the drudgery of meaningless work or earns more than the median income is to be lambasted as a traitor.

It’s like the parable of crabs in a bucket: when a whole bunch of crabs are dumbed in a bucket, they will forcibly claw back to their collective misery any crab that looks like it might make a run for it.  

This behaviour manifests in human society as the practice in which “members of a group will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, resentment, spite, conspiracy, or competitive feelings, to halt their progress” (as my best friend Wikipedia explains).

In this light, the career and financial success that JianHao has achieved at 26 while “having fun doing stupid ass types of videos”, as JianHao ventriloquises his haters, brands him as a pariah, to be envied and condemned. So his crowdfunding is an additional affront to the Puritanical, sadomasochistic sensibilities of Singapore society.

 Fallout aside, do I believe him when he says that he halted the campaign because he encountered an ethical quandary, and not because of the backlash—which he claims to be unaware of? 

As the internet says, I want to believe.

In other words, I don’t.

Part of my scepticism stems from my perception that JianHao is not an everyman, contrary to what he claims. 

JianHao is intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and savvy. No offence to the average person, but these are not qualities inherent in everyone; when demonstrated in an individual, they tend to lift the person from the swamp of averageness (something I wish to experience one day). 

And it is precisely through the combination of these qualities that JianHao knows how to portray himself as an everyman, and, more crucially, knows that it is the fulcrum upon which his life and business—so closely intertwined as to be inextricable—pivots. 

When the cameras don’t stop rolling, when the show must go on, your different selves conflate into one. The poet W.B. Yeats asks, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”  

In the same way, when I say JianHao is perpetually playing the role of JianHao the YouTuber and CEO of Titan Digital Media, perhaps what I really mean is that JianHao is the YouTuber and CEO of Titan Digital Media.

To approach it from another angle, consider this quotation by Jia Tolentino. In it, she writes of how starring in a reality TV show irrevocably affected the way she saw herself: 

“The process of calibrating my external self became so instinctive, so automatic, that I stopped being able to perceive it. Reality TV simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else.”

This dissonant oscillation between hyper-vigilance and unconscious performance, I think, powers the whole JianHao industrial-personality complex. 

In other words, JianHao’s biggest show is himself; his life is his biggest project, and the men and women around him are merely players.

JianHao does not deny that. 

“The last time I took a holiday without a camera was before I started YouTube,” he says wearily. “I’ve never been on a holiday where I just relax and close my eyes. Doesn’t sound healthy and I know that.”

“I’m very tired.”

What would happen if you just take a break or turn off the camera? I ask him.

He takes a moment to think about the question. 

The longest silence of our conversation floats delicately in the air. Then it bursts.

He finally says: 

I … I don’t know.

This is what frustrates me so much about JianHao: he is smart, funny, and warm. Yet he tries so hard to come across as smart, funny, and warm that any sense of spontaneity or sincerity is ruined. 

And he is so afraid that something will puncture this image of him. All through our conversation, his eyes dart constantly at my notes; even after agreeing to an interview, the process of arranging an interview dragged on for weeks until I sent a list of prospective questions, after which I immediately got a text message from his PR person with a concrete interview date; I was informed, at 8 PM on a Friday night, that a shoot that we were invited to observe on Saturday was cancelled—and only after I texted said PR person to ask for details.

To be fair, when you’re running a million-dollar company, time is tight: according to JianHao, he doesn’t leave work till 9 PM. Shoots are rescheduled at the last minute all the time. And I know that, in agreeing to talk to me in the first place, JianHao is doing me a favour.

But when such incidences recur in close proximity, it’s hard not to string them together and read in them the narrative that JianHao is swaddling his image with layers and layers of armour.

But the image he is projecting is not an exaggerated, Daryl-Aiden-Yowed one; it is merely a double image, the sort you get when you cross your eyes.   

He is the most paradoxical of beasts: the honest actor. 

One of Titan Digital Media’s employees hard at work.
Perhaps it’s because I have outdated ideas of authenticity. I’m just a teeeeny bit older than JianHao, but there is enough of an age gap between us that we relate to technology and social media differently.

 If a camera is pointing at me, I shriek and flee like a PAP minister confronted with a request for Hard Data. I still believe in a separation of my IRL self and my internet self (which does not exist except on this publication). 

But being on camera is second-nature—nay—it is the primary mode of existence for most millennials today. As the wise sages of Instagram intone, if a party happens but no photographs were taken, did it even exist? 

JianHao is part of this social-media-enamoured generation.

“Of course, I’m always acting for the camera,” he says candidly. “I feel that everyone should look as good as they can on camera. If the camera is rolling, I will always … posture a bit better. Present my words a bit better.” 

“But it’s still me.” 

 

Leaning roguishly on his BMW, JianHao cradles BunCha, his crazily adorable Pomeranian, in his arms. A metre in front, Marisse and Zac, of RICE’s production team, are directing and taking High Fasshun shots of JianHao.

After the shoot finishes, we spend some time scratching BunCha’s foofy belly. She lets her tongue flop out contentedly.

 “She’s so chill,” Marisse says. 

JianHao replies, “She hates birds.”

Turning to BunCha, JianHao says, in a voice stripped of any artifice, self-consciousness, or performance, “Bird bird! BunCha, bird bird!” In response, BunCha yelps fearsomely. 

That’s it, I thought. 

That’s the real JianHao.

There are 13 types of students in Singapore. Tell us which one you are at community@ricemedia.co

Author

Yeo Boon Ping Staff Writer