China’s homegrown gay hookup apps seen as cash cows

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-8 19:53:01

Blued, a gay hookup smartphone app, recently received a $30 million cash injection, the largest-ever investment in a gay-focused app in China. Similar gay matchmaking apps have also attracted investment. Experts say this points to the rise of the gay community as an indispensable market, with gay people increasingly conscious of their power. But critics say the convenience of finding lovers via smart-phone matchmaking apps has encouraged casual sex and loose morals among the community, who are said to be vulnerable to HIV infection.

Photo: Li Hao/GT


If it were a decade ago, Geng could never imagine having gotten this far.

In 2012, when he created the website Danlan, dedicated to gay culture, he ran it out of interest, never thinking it would achieve commercial success.

Now, his smart phone app Blued, a spinoff of his website, created a stir after it pulled in a $30 million cash injection from venture capitalists DCM.

The gay hookup app, China's version of Grindr, is the first such app in China. DCM's investment was the largest ever in a gay-related business.

Blued is not the first gay app to hit China, but it is certainly the most popular one, currently boasting 10 million users. Since its launch in 2012, the Blued community has expanded more than seven times over.

Blued is not the only such app to attract investment. Zank, an app similar to Blued, attracted a 20 million yuan ($3.25 million) investment this July. Zank has drawn over 5 million users since its launch in 2013.

Both apps use GPS to locate nearby users, featuring profile pictures and cursory details.

Previously, Zank shied away from clearly admitting its focus on gay dating, but has since shifted course, realizing the huge potential of the LGBT market.

"We hope Zank can become the biggest platform for gay people to hook up in China and all across the world. We want to offer the best service for gay people," Ling Jueding, CEO of Zank, told the Global Times.

Analysts said the emergence of these matchmaking apps speaks to China's increasing tolerance of homosexuality.

It also represents the increasing commercial might of China's gay market. "It shows the rise of a 'pink economy' that we used to neglect. Now, with gay people increasingly conscious of defending their rights, they've become more influential as a community, and businesses targeting the gay market as cash cows," Fang Gang, associate professor at the psychology department of the Beijing Forestry University, told the Global Times.

"We've seen a sea change. With increasing social tolerance, especially in the past five years, gay-related business has become a huge market," Geng Le, CEO of Blued Technology Company, told the Global Times.

Geng remembers how, when he came to Beijing years ago, no one paid attention to the gay market; now, by contrast, it has become a target for investment.

Money produces change. Recently, Geng moved his company into a 800-square-meter loft in a high-end Beijing art district packed with museums, design companies and avant-garde art organizations. Before, Geng and his 30-strong team worked in a three-room apartment in a Beijing suburb.

Now, with the new investment, Geng is seeking a "global market," saying that he plans to focus first on Southeast Asian countries.

He sees higher motives than purely commercial for his company's expansion, saying the LGBT community has long been a minority subject to pressure and discrimination. The emergence of the matchmaking apps could help them win back confidence and a sense of belonging, Geng said.

Zank is also on the march, having plowed a large portion of its cash injection into personnel and product optimization. "We're still in the starting phase, and there are a lot of areas we haven't gotten involved in yet,"Ling said.

For instance, Zank hopes to be able to connect people who share the same interests by holding off-line activities where gay people can "blow off some steam." Over the long run the company may move into gay-focused e-commerce.

A majority of the employees in both companies are gay. They see their company as offering opportunities for gay people who have been discriminated in the job market. "We welcome gay people if they are talented enough for their jobs," says Geng. He himself is no stranger to living a closeted life, having worked as a policeman before coming out of the closet in 2010.

Born in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, Geng quit the local police force and moved to Beijing to launch his company. The website Danlan was closed now and then because local authorities regarded it as "unhealthy" and "illegal." The situation changed after he was introduced to Premier Li Keqiang because of his work with local authorities to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Geng sees the rise of matchmaking websites and smart-phone apps as a demonstration of increased social tolerance.

"Our growth will help people realize the value of the gay community, and society will in turn become more accepting," Geng said.

It remains difficult for the LGBT community to explore dating opportunities and find partners due to discrimination and social pressure to marry.

"Most gay people are not open about their sexual orientation, so they have to explore the dating scene and find lovers secretly, constantly fearing their sexual orientation will become public," said Geng.

At the very beginning, gay people met in clandestine hookups in parks. Geng still remembers cell phones numbers scrawled on toilet walls, written by men looking for lovers.

After the Internet gained popularity about a decade ago, gay people began to use online chat rooms to meet up. Later on came the online chat service QQ, gay social networking websites, and smartphone dating apps.

"Social apps have enlarged my circle for sure. By connecting with each other, we can gradually find a place to belong," Zhou Hai (pseudonym), a gay man working in a sports marketing company in Beijing told the Global Times.

Zank helps people connect with each other by allowing users to set appointments, offering a public platform notifying users about the ongoing activities, performances and events in the city, and encouraging people who share interest to get together.

"We encourage people to tag their interests when they uploaded images, so that people can have topics in common and get to know each other. We didn't launch the app only for people to find sex," Ling Jueding, Zank's founder, told the Global Times. 

Rise of the pink economy

Geng attributed his success to the blooming of the so-called "pink economy," a term referring to products and services tailored for gay and lesbian consumers.

Geng estimates China's gay market to be about 13 million men strong. Other estimates put its spending power at more than 800 million dollars.

"You can never ignore the consumption power of gay people. With less pressure to get married and raise kids, they tend to have much more buying power than heterosexual people," Fang Gang said.

LGBT consumers have three times more buying power than heterosexuals in China, according to a survey by Danlan carried in 2010. A previous survey found that gay consumers often have more disposable income.

Not having any pressure to save money to raise children, LGBT people are more inclined to spend money on quality of life, Geng noted.

A 2014 survey by Simmons Market Research Bureau showed that gay consumers are much more inclined to own vacation homes, home theater systems and a laptop computer than heterosexual consumers.

Plus, brand loyalty is common within the gay communities.

"We prefer to spend our money on brands that are gay-friendly. The gay community is tight-knit, and we make purchases according to the recommendation of our gay friends," Geng said.

Dating for sex?

There are criticisms that the convenience of finding lovers via smartphone matchmaking apps has encouraged casual sex and loose morals among the community.

Geng Le has a different view. He claims that the sexual desires of gay people have long been suppressed due to discrimination and the difficulty of finding a lover. Now, he says, is the time for gay people to enjoy the freedom to fulfill their sexual urges.

"It is not the tool, but how you use it. Not everyone uses Blued to find sex. Most people are looking for true love, just like heterosexuals," Geng said.

Despite this, Contract Deed, another domestic app targeted at gay users, caused a stir when it made changes designed to curb casual sex.

Unlike other apps, the overwhelming majority of which are free, Contract Deed charges each user a 100 yuan registration fee.

According to the registration rules on its official website, users are also asked to sign a statement declaring they would never set up dates for the sole purpose of having sex.

If users break their promise, or post any information connected with pornography or casual sex, the registration fee would be confiscated and their accounts would be closed. If they keep their promise, users get back their 100 yuan and a small reward a year after their registration date.

Users are also encouraged to report violations.

"We want to clear the air. The gay community has a bad reputation [where casual sex is concerned], and is vulnerable to AIDS infection. So I wanted to make an app to discourage such bad behavior," Lyoth, Contract Deed's CEO said.

Recent statistics from Chinese Center For Disease Control and Prevention showed that among newly reported cases of AIDS infection in northern cities like Beijing, Harbin and Changchun, over 80 percent are gay men.

"We don't have a commercial goal. We're trying to change the stereotypes around how [members of the] gay community seek partners," Lyoth said.

Over 80 percent of gay people are willing to have sex if they arrange a date off-line after inquiring about personal information and exchanging photos online, Lyoth noted.

Contract Deed aims to change stereotypes by encouraging people to talk more about their shared interests and life values, he said.

Newspaper headline: Targeting the pink yuan

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus