In Mandarin, there’s a specific phrase to describe someone who has zero relationships under their belt. They’re called 母胎單身 in Chinese, or “single since born” in English. Think of it as an extreme case of being a 40-year-old virgin. Some people who identify as “single since born” have never dated, never been courted and never been kissed.
In Taiwan, where the marriage rate and birth rate are at their lowest ever, it’s not uncommon for both men and women to remain forever alone, by choice or not. The issue is so urgent that Taipei City’s mayor proposed a “marriage subsidy” in November 2020 that’s essentially a cash bonus for getting hitched.
But a marriage subsidy does nothing to inspire people to fall in love. Especially when so many young adults in Taiwan have limited relationship practice. Ironically, this lack of dating experience is what makes Taiwan such an intriguing market for dating apps, which rely on a very deep bench of singles curious about meeting new people.
The sheer variety of apps can be eye-popping for newcomers to the dating pool. “Taiwan’s dating app scene seems to be surprisingly diverse for the size of the market,” said Colin Hodge, the CEO and founder of Down, who’s been based here on and off for the past five years. “Getting to scale seems less daunting here, as people aren’t living very far apart and the user base size for saturation is much smaller.”
One of the big success stories has been Pairs, a Japanese app for people seeking serious relationships. Pairs launched in Taiwan in late 2013 and today it’s the world’s third-highest revenue-earning dating app despite only operating in three markets: Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. (The top two spots belong to Tinder and Bumble.) “I think that Taiwan has moved, maybe more quickly than Japan, into adopting online dating,” said Emu Nishiyama, Brand Director at Eureka, the parent company of Pairs.
All the jostling amongst international dating apps in Taiwan proves her point. From the US, there’s Bumble, OkCupid and Coffee Meets Bagel. From China, there’s Tinder-clone Tantan. From Singapore, there’s Paktor, which has a huge user base throughout Southeast Asia.
LBGTQ apps are just as established. Grindr operates an engineering office in Xinyi District. Hornet proudly markets itself as the number one gay app in Taiwan. For women, lesbian app LesPark from China and Zoe from the Czech Republic rank highest in the App Store.
And of course, there’s Tinder. In September 2020, Rakuten Insight named it the top dating app in Taiwan. “I think it’s still at the top whenever people mention dating apps,” said Blake Cheng, a dating and relationship counsellor who writes a website called BDatin. “Influencers talk about it a lot. It has a Traditional Chinese version. It’s easy to pronounce compared with other foreign apps,” she said.
The success of these international apps has encouraged local developers to build versions that better accommodate the quirks and manners of local singles. Colin Hodge believes a backlash against swiping culture is fueling the growth of locally-grown Taiwanese apps. “My impression is that many are fatigued with Tinder,” he said.
What’s behind this fatigue? “A lot of people don’t know what to talk about,” said Blake Cheng, the dating and relationship counsellor. In Taiwan, cheesy pick-up lines are often replaced by low energy familiarity. According to multiple women, a common opener from straight Taiwanese men is, “Did you eat yet?” According to those same women, it’s a pretty lame line.
Heavy reliance on profile photos is another reason singles have become bored of swiping. Users both gay and straight can be wary of uploading photos out of concerns for privacy, choosing to share photos of food, scenery and pets. (Cats, in particular.) Others simply don’t have great photos to begin with, or rely too heavily on beautifying filters.
Chang, a 28-year-old filmmaker, has predominantly used Tinder to connect with gay women since she moved to Taiwan from the US three years ago. While there are lesbian-specific apps out there, she uses Tinder because it has the largest volume of people. Chang said, “I came across a Tinder profile where the photos were just different filters on the same picture of a cat. The profile was written all in Chinese minus the phrase ‘capitalism sucks’.” Chang swiped right, and found that they matched.
“There’s definitely a lot of photos where the cat took up most of the photo,” said Stanley, 34, who is allergic to cats. But he has nothing to complain about. Within two weeks of setting up his Tinder account, Stanley matched with the woman he would marry two years later. It was the very first time he tried using a dating app.
Stanley’s story of matching with his wife is the modern day equivalent of an urban legend. Essentially, a total fluke. And these unlikely tales of couples who are “lucky in love” are exactly what keep people coming back to old dating apps and trying out new ones.
“In the US, the top apps are all basically similar, with small tweaks to the user experience,” said Hodge. Meanwhile apps developed for the Taiwan market aren’t afraid to play by their own rules.
The most-talked about app among Taiwanese Gen Z right now is Goodnight, a voice dating app that launched in late 2015 and was acquired by Paktor in early 2017. Goodnight puts two random users into a room to talk for seven minutes, sharing only their nicknames and ages ahead of the call. If both sides choose to add each other after the seven-minute call, they can keep communicating. The vast majority of users log on late at night, hence the name Goodnight.
Jumping straight into a conversation on Goodnight avoids the hurdle of having to set up a profile, write a bio and upload photos. “In Taiwan, everyone can be very open in private, but be relatively conservative in public due to cultural reasons,” said Andy Huang, CEO of Goodnight. However, there are still times when users can experience failure to launch. Huang shared the biggest no-no for new users who are excited to dive into the world of voice dating: “Please don’t sing. Most girls hate male users singing directly.”
The random matching on Goodnight makes it easy to connect with new people, but there are downsides too. Michael, an engineer in Hsinchu in his mid-30s, has been an on-and-off paid user of Goodnight since its early days. “There is almost nothing that a user can do to differentiate themselves. Most of the get-to-know-each-other happens while chatting,” he said.
Another top local app is called Pikabu, which was incubated in Taiwan’s AppWorks accelerator in mid-2019. On Pikabu, users have a Shiba Inu dog to “coach” them through the profile setup and matching process, sort of like a wingman (or wingdog). The AI-powered dog learns your preferences as you rate people’s profiles, and jumps in to help break the ice and guide the conversation when it runs dry.
If Tinder is considered the speed-dating app, then Pikabu is the slow-dating app. “Our profiles, matching and interactions are all different from that of Tinder’s fast-paced, swiping left or right mechanism,” said Pikabu’s founder, Zoomuel Tseng.
Pikabu’s approach to profile photos is its most anti-Tinder feature of all. All photos are blurred by default, which encourages Pikabu users to prioritize people’s bios, interests and hashtags ahead of just looks. Only after getting to know each other through chat do profile photos start to unlock piece by piece.
Tseng says this is part of the app’s “befriending from personality” strategy. It’s also an effective way to build anticipation through the age-old concept of delayed gratification.
Taiwanese app Rooit has also positioned itself far from swipe culture. Rooit was launched in June 2017 by two male friends who wanted to make it easier for young people to chat and connect with others. The Rooit team moved to Singapore in late 2018 to participate in the Rakuten-Techstars accelerator, the first Taiwanese team invited to do so.
Rooit leans on AI chatbots, interactive games and surreal room themes to keep its anonymous users logging in. You’ll find themes ranging from bars, temples, late night diners and university campuses, as well as password-protected rooms dedicated to LGBT users. One of the most famous rooms is a simulation of Longshan Temple in Taipei.
The vibe is like going to a carnival or casino for young adults. For instance, when you click into a room like the “Dimlight Diner”, you’re greeted by a chatbot named “Chef Kang”. If you step into the “Soul Lounge” the host is “Bartender Josh” who asks users to play a game of rock paper scissors to see who picks the first conversation topic.
Rooit isn’t afraid to push the boundaries with role play. On Sundays and Sundays only, the “Church” room is opened by a “Priest”. Users who enter can either choose to interact with him as a “Father” or a “Sinner”.
Essentially, Rooit is doing the heavy lifting to make each anonymous encounter entertaining and fun, much like a video game does for its players. There’s less typing and more action. More matches and less downtime.
But it seems the goal of Rooit, Goodnight and Pikabu isn’t so much to help singles find love. These apps make it possible to have random, and sometimes meaningful conversations in this new world where social distancing is the norm, and being “single since born” is an awfully hard streak to break.
For singles serious about settling down, Taiwan also has apps focused on the business end of dating. Two well-known local names are SweetRing and Meet The One.
SweetRing is owned by publicly-listed Taiwanese company Sunfun Info Co., which also has other dating and social apps in its portfolio. The company launched SweetRing in 2018 and quickly expanded internationally, starting with markets in Southeast Asia. Today the app is available in 17 languages.
SweetRing is the nosiest app when it comes to personal information. Users are prompted to answer questions about their job and education levels, their blood type and zodiac, their current living situation, their salary range and total assets, how urgent they feel when it comes to marriage, whether or not they want kids, and opinions about housework.
Similarly, the Meet The One app digs into the lifestyles of Taiwanese singles: smoking or non-smoking, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, usual working hours and cleanliness. The questionnaire then goes deeper into communication style and relationship expectations, even covering jealousy and love languages.
What sets Meet The One apart is it’s the only dating app that doesn’t allow matches to chat online. Instead, it encourages couples to meet in person within 72 hours of connecting, making it ideal for guys who have trouble coming up with lines other than, “Did you eat yet?”
But neither SweetRing or Meet The One offer the playful and sticky user experience of OkCupid, one of the original dating websites from the US that launched way back in 2004.
When Brian, 29, a Taipei-based translator, installed OkCupid in 2019, he was pleasantly surprised to see the famous OkCupid questionnaire ask him whether or not he’d vote for Taiwanese billionaire Terry Gou for president.
While Brian ultimately met his girlfriend on Bumble, he was impressed OkCupid went to the effort to serve up such a timely question. “They have someone working on localization. It’s very specific about current events and quite witty,” he said.
The Terry Gou question has now been archived by the OkCupid questionnaire gods, but a handful of other Taiwan-specific questions are in rotation today. These range from fun and light-hearted to more personal and revealing:
“Are you superstitious during Ghost Month?”, “Would you have a pole dancer at your funeral?”, “Do you support the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan?”, “Would you be willing to relocate to the mainland for work?”, and “Do you feel that Taiwan is a Ghost Island for young people?”
OkCupid isn’t afraid to talk about politics, and neither are Taiwanese singles. Brian noticed similar themes back when he was still swiping on Bumble, Paktor, OkCupid and Skout. “There are profiles that say ‘No KMT’, ‘No NPP supporters’, or ‘No Ko Wen-je fans’,” he said, referring to the Taipei City mayor.
Even with all the cute themes, AI chatbots and probing questionnaires, Taiwanese apps still can’t shake the biggest universal problem when it comes to finding love: scammers.
Scam accounts can be a serious safety concern for dating apps. They can also be a nuisance. The issue is arguably intensified in Taiwan because inexperienced singles are both very wary of being cheated and naive to common red flags. Speak to anyone who’s been active on Tinder or Bumble and they’ll be quick to rattle off three or four cautionary tales of their own.
It’s why more serious Asia-first apps like SweetRing, Meet The One and Paktor require users to sign up using either their Facebook accounts or Apple IDs. The Japanese app Pairs even goes so far to require official ID verification using a passport, ID card or National Health Insurance card.
“It’s actually a legal requirement in Japan to operate. We do ensure that there is no one under 18 on our platforms, so we need to check that we have an official ID,” explained Emu Nishiyama of Pairs’ parent company, Eureka. All communication between users on Pairs is monitored 24 hours a day for harassment.
Photo verification using facial recognition technology is the best deterrent for fake profiles, since irresistibly good-looking photos are the weapon of choice for scammers. However, verifying photos is not a requirement on the biggest apps like Tinder and Bumble.
(When Tinder began verifying user profiles in January 2020, Taiwan was one of the first two markets where Tinder released this feature. The other was Ireland.)
Common requests from scammers include asking people to buy into life insurance policies, getting in on an insider trading tip for a hot stock, or making a cash contribution to a sick pet’s urgent and expensive surgery. (How could you not, you heartless monster.)
Even if you’re smart enough to sidestep the major landmines, there are countless wannabe Taiwanese influencers who use dating apps to gain followers for their social media accounts. And some real-life hustlers can work just as hard to earn a quick buck. They might ask potential dates to buy them jewelry before meeting up, or make a cash donation to their livestreaming channel.
“Most good-looking guys on the apps are either actors or models trying to get followers for their Instagram,” said Wendy, 28, who asked we not use her real name. Wendy studied in the US and has used Tinder, Bumble and Coffee Meets Bagel in the past. She sticks to the English-language apps hoping she has a better chance of meeting someone with a similar Western outlook. When asked if she identifies as “single since born”, Wendy said, “I’ve always been single,” she said. “I only swipe right in every 100 or 150 profiles.”
While Wendy has friends who’ve met partners through dating apps, she remains cautious. “I still feel there’s a risk meeting people on the apps because they could be total strangers having no mutual friends with you,” she said.
Scam accounts on dating apps can mean time wasted, heartbreak and possibly money thrown away. In Taiwan, it can also mean geopolitical taunting from Chinese-run fake profiles, especially on Tinder, simply because it has the largest number of users.
The good news is these profiles are relatively easy to spot and report. Many use Simplified Chinese characters in their profiles and VPNs to place them in Taiwan. Once in a while you’ll even see them write “Taiwan Province” in English on their profiles.
Taiwan may be a smaller dating market compared to our neighbors in Asia, but we are definitely not shy when it comes to paying for apps. As mentioned earlier, Pairs is the third top-grossing dating app in the world despite only operating in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. This is even more impressive since Pairs only charges their male users, but not female ones. Presumably designed to filter out the “players”.
Michael, the engineer from Hsinchu, has so far paid for six months of Pairs subscription. Two of his close male friends found their partners on Pairs but he hasn’t had the same luck. He said he’s connected with more than 50 women but hasn’t met any in person.
“For me, dating apps are a lower commitment way of meeting new people. Joining clubs at my company takes more effort,” he said. In Taiwan, it’s common for big tech companies to have internal clubs so employees can meet socially across departments. Michael said he’s tried the coffee tasting club and the board game club at his office.
Even though Michael says he isn’t looking for a serious relationship, he doesn’t mind paying. “I think most of the motivation is the same as playing online games. You get unfair advantages,” he said. His willingness to pay for dating apps is probably very common in the Taiwan dating scene since there’s a very high proportion of men who work in engineering and tech. “I’m paying so that I can try all the functions of the app. This is like wanting to try both iPhone and Android phone, PC and Mac. I think this part is due to my profession as a software engineer.”
With so much creativity and innovation in Taiwanese dating apps, are there opportunities for overseas expansion? For some, yes. Goodnight has already earned revenue in five new markets including Japan and the United States. Rooit released its English-language version in Singapore in late 2018 and recently launched an anonymous chat app called UnderCover, specifically targeting the US market and positioned as an app for K-pop and anime fans.
However, internationalization is not as simple as adding language options. Pikabu’s founder Zoomuel Tseng believes his company may not be able to expand as easily. “There is a huge difference regarding the designs of Asia-first dating apps and Western apps,” said Tseng. “Pikabu from start to finish is specifically designed based on Asians’ culture and relatively shy personality, thus may not be suitable for markets outside Taiwan or Asia.”
While the rest of the world has put falling in love on hold during the COVID pandemic — some even saying the coronavirus has changed online dating permanently — dating in Taiwan has seen minimal disruption — for now. But even with all of the apps out there, finding a partner still isn’t easy.
“Dating is becoming more and more difficult,” said Blake Cheng, the dating counselor. “Yes, there are more channels and tools for people to meet, but I think people just can’t be satisfied.”
If current marriage and birth rate trends continue, perhaps Taiwan’s government should give up on offering baby and marriage subsidies. Instead it might want to consider developing its very own online dating app. Hey, if it’s safe to use and quirky enough, it might just work.
Thanks to Catherine Shu for additional reporting.
Cover image by Hoang Loc.