In the Mood for Love

A map of Asia’s romantic obsessions

Love, Sex, MarriageJanuary 18, 2021

How much do Asians love love? A deep dive into some of our region’s most distinctive romantic obsessions shows us.

Frequently characterised as stoic and overly pragmatic, it’s all too common to see memes on pages like @SubtleAsianTraits about how Asian families can’t verbalise love to each other, let alone demonstrate their love in grand, expressive ways. But, when it comes to romantic relationships, Asians can be quite the opposite. The truth is, there are extremes of passion to be found all over our continent. Beyond tearjerkers about filial piety or slapstick humour, love is a strong emotional motivator in Asia.

This raises plenty of interesting questions and opportunities for brands, like – what inspires kilig (the feeling of romantic excitement or exhilaration) in Filipino audiences? How are people influenced by those they are in love with? When it comes to occasion- or gift-based marketing – such as for Valentine’s Day or anniversaries – how do we go beyond chocolates and flowers to tap into the multidimensionality, quirks, and nuances of Asian love? Here, we break down some of Asia’s most unique love phenomena to see what gets our hearts racing.

The Bucin



In Indonesia, the pursuit of love is so closely tied to a young person’s identity that the act of breaking up has birthed an entire cultural phenomenon of its own. Bucin or budak cinta – slaves of love – is a term used to describe lovesick boys and girls whose romantic relationships become their all-consuming passion, taking over every part of their lives. But when bucin break up, or the love is unrequited, then the phenomenon reaches new heights. These lovelorn bucin worship the music of the late Didi Kempot, known as the Godfather of Broken Hearts, wailing while belting out sappy love songs at his concerts. They have also taken their obsessive loves to grand, epic extremes, including a “stare at your ex’s photo” contest, a marathon YouTube broadcast, and a 38 million (and counting) hit love song.

Hmmm… While occasions frequently commemorate love in different forms, heartbreak doesn’t always get its day. Maybe the loss of love is something to be celebrated?

The Gong Tao Kias



Central to the Thai disco, or siam diu, experience is the siam bu, their female stage performers. Patrons – who are typically male – gather to watch siam bus, and practice the act of diao hua – gifting flower garlands to their performer of choice. While garlands (or sometimes sashes) start at a few hundred dollars, their cost can also run up to tens of thousands. The siam bu reciprocates the gift by spending an allotted amount of time with these men in the siam diu, lavishing them with attention and delivering what is known as the “girlfriend experience”. It’s a world that can turn competitive, as men jockey for the attention of the disco’s leading ladies by outspending each other and lavishing them with more and more garlands.

The gong tao or tio gong tao describes this relationship when it is taken to the next level. Derived from an old Hokkien term used to describe someone who has been cursed or hexed by black magic, gong tao kia is the colloquial term now used to describe men who become so obsessed with a siam bu, they go to absurd lengths in order to demonstrate their devotion – like using up their entire paycheck to diao hua, or staying up till the wee hours to send their siam bu home from the club… only to watch her leave with other patrons. The phenomenon is prevalent enough that gong tao kias have turned to dedicated forums to commiserate their unrequited love, with rules to help prevent fellow poor souls from falling deeper.

Hmmm… If men are driven to seek companionship at places like siam dius, how might we explore unspoken feelings of isolation or loneliness to connect with audiences?

Love Teams



The Philippines definitely has an obsession with love – a preoccupation best manifested in the concept of “Love Teams” (or loveteam). This is essentially “shipping” two celebrities together but taken to a whole other realm, where the practice is not restricted to niche fandoms, but overwhelms an entire nation. Shipping love teams in the Philippines happens to such an extent that artist management companies plan the career trajectories of celebrities based on their love teams and Twitter Philippines releases rankings not just for their platform’s top celebrities, but also their top love teams. In 2015, the love team #AlDub garnered 41 million tweets in a day, breaking the previous record held by the World Cup.

While love teams are understood to be “showmances”, not actual romantic relationships, the line between onscreen and real life is often so blurred as to be irrelevant. Philippine audiences see love teams as pacts that cannot be broken, so when they are, the backlash can be severe. When actress Nadine Lustre made a movie without James Reid, her #JaDine love teammate, audiences spurned the film at the box office, despite the fact that critics acclaimed her performance in it. As a result, her solo movie grossed 17 times less that of her average #JaDine movies. Similarly, when Maine Mendoza – half of the tremendously popular #AlDub love team – revealed that she and her teammate Alden Richards were just friends in 2015, fans reacted with immense anger and sadness, with repercussions that last until today.

Hmmm… Just as the fandoms of Twilight and Harry Potter spawned industries of related fan-owned and fan-created content, could the next evolution of the Philippines’ love obsession be metafictional, self-reflexive, or crowd-sourced?

Divine Intervention



When you’ve tried your hardest finding love and you don’t succeed, sometimes what you need is some divine intervention. As the birthplace of many religions, Asia is home to countless temples, shrines and monuments of worship – even ones that are specifically for love.
One famous example is the Trimurti Shrine in Central Bangkok, which gathers hoards of lovelorn Thais (and tourists) on a Thursday night at 930PM sharp to make offerings to Lord Trimurti, a symbol of love and unity. Devotees often wear something red while offering nine red roses, nine incense sticks and nine red candles for maximum blessings, as red is a symbol of love, and nine is believed to be a lucky number in Thailand. P.S. Rumour has it that your prayers will be heard if you visit on Valentine’s Day.

Hmmm… Luck and omens carry weight in Asia. How could this be considered in a brand or communications approach tailored to this part of the world?

Potions and Elixirs



As a region known for ancient magic and occultism, it is no surprise that such practices become the cornerstone of the search for love. The engagement in black magic and witchcraft to get one’s object of desire to fall in love with you is thought to be folklore in modern Asian society, but if you dig deep enough, you’ll be able to find plenty of products and services for sale.
Nasi kangkang (literal translation: “squatting rice”) is a traditional love elixir created by bomohs, witch doctors from Malaysia and Indonesia. The practice involves a woman standing with her legs wide open atop a steaming pot of rice and allowing her bodily fluids to drip down into the pot. The rice is then stirred evenly and served to the intended target. While this was once an actual practice (so the tales tell us), the term is now more often used colloquially to refer to being so bewitched by a person, you’d do anything at their bidding – including emptying your bank account.
Taking it to the next level is Nam Man Prai, which loosely translates to ‘oil of the ghost’. This oil is extracted via necromancy (yes, from corpses) and is believed to endow one with the power of mind control. Such oils can be found commonly in markets in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, and are graded according to their origins and the legitimacy of the rituals that were performed. According to forums, a teaspoon of Grade A Nam Man Prai oil can cost up to S$2,500, and comes with an unforgettable smell…

Hmmm… While an occult love potion might be too out there for brands, there are many other aspects of Southeast Asia’s traditional culture that remain untapped. The region’s folklore and deep-rooted history still doesn’t get due attention – how might this rich tradition be explored?

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