Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group founders on its surprise success, and how Crazy Rich Asians helped make it one of social media’s biggest Asian communities
- Subtle Asian Traits was created by students in 2018. Today, the Facebook group has almost 2 million members and is one of the largest Asian communities online
- Its founders never expected the group to become as successful as it is, and said its creation ‘was a very spur-of-the-moment kind of thing’
Kerry Kang and Tony Xie didn’t pay much attention to what they were supposed to be learning during their Chinese language and culture course. The classes – which took place every Saturday at Thornbury High School, 7km (4.3 miles) north of Melbourne’s central business district in Australia – were instead where they went to socialise.
The Australian-born Chinese (known colloquially as “ABCs”) duo say there were few Asian students at the school they attended on weekdays, so the weekend classes were a chance for them to find a sense of unity and belonging.
One day in early September in 2018, one of their classmates suggested they create a Facebook group, a spin-off of an existing one that was called Subtle Private School Traits.
“It was a very spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. It was the time we were all going to do our Year 12 exams,” says Kang, 19, who is now studying civil engineering and architecture at Melbourne’s Monash University.
Xie, also 19, is enrolled in a bachelor of science degree at the University of Melbourne. “It kind of just seemed surreal,” Xie says of the group’s overwhelming success. “I was like, ‘surely this is not happening, this is not right’. We didn’t know how to handle all the people messaging us.”
Meanwhile, a meme depicting parents migrating to another country at 23 years of age versus a millennial toying with an air fryer (because deep frying is too hard) earned more than 25,000 likes and 6,000 comments. A South China Morning Post video of shirtless bodybuilders delivering sushi in Japan got over 10,000 likes and 8,300 comments.
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To cope with the never-ending number of requests to join the group and the instant messages, Xie, Kang and seven other administrators began meeting fortnightly. Once they finished their final secondary school exams, they began meeting weekly.
The Facebook posts are now managed by a 40-person team, most of whom are volunteer moderators from around the world. Co-founders Kang and his older sister Angela, 23, Xie and his twin sister Annie, Eugene Soo, Darren Qiang, Kathleen Xiao and Lydia Jiang – all of whom met at Chinese school – also moderate. The Xies, Kangs and Jiang are also family friends.
“On the flip side, it really forced us to grow up,” says Kang. “We were the best-in-the-industry kind of thing. We were doing something well. I guess we can thank the Facebook algorithm for this kind of thing.”
Their success did not go unnoticed by the platform they had used to create the group. In June 2019, Kang was flown to Facebook’s headquarters at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo, in the US state of California. There, he met some of the world’s largest and most successful Facebook group owners and talked about how groups can help create online communities.
Meeting the people behind the global tech giant changed Kang’s perspective of the company, he says. “I definitely appreciate Facebook more, and social media as a whole.”
Xie agrees, noting the difficulty other platforms have in building community groups of a similar size. “I think it’s hard for those [other social media platforms] to replicate what Facebook is,” he says.
During the Facebook visit, Kang says, it came as a surprise to learn that the company’s employees knew who they were.
“We were also kind of treated like celebrities in a way,” he says. “People even asked for a photo. After the event, we went over to Instagram, and people asked me, ‘Would you like a drink?’ and I was like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t, I’m 18’.”
Xie says the group’s popularity began with members posting about “subtle Asian traits” followed by memes, Asian stories and Asian news. Over time, administrators became stricter with what could be posted – though posts have, since day one, required pre-approval to prevent cyberbullying and harassment, he says.
“You’ve got to be somewhat brave if you’re going to post something serious,” he says. “A lot of people have not wanted to make the post because they don’t want to do that.” Members sometimes ask the group to share posts on their behalf, Xie explains.
One member who noticed a shift in content shared within the group, from the humorous to the more serious, is Phillip Kuoch, 27, co-founder of Asian-Australian podcast Lemon.
Speaking to the Post earlier about the rise of Asian-Australian podcasts, Kuoch noted that Subtle Asian Traits, with its large audience, would have a more difficult time moderating comments and dealing with the backlash that results from more serious posts.
When it comes to a podcast, he said, “we’re talking from our own perspective and we control what we want to talk about. People who come to the podcasts are often looking for a deeper discussion”.
Kuoch believes Subtle Asian Traits has inspired a good deal of new Asian-themed content. “I think a lot of podcasts have risen from that. I really think it became a cultural movement, and it gave us permission to talk about us.”
Sydney-based Jay Ooi, 30, says Subtle Asian Traits became a new reference point for Asian culture. “I think it was good because it was a proud talking point for Australians,” says the Malaysian-Australian content producer.
Ooi, who is behind Asian-Australian podcast Shoes Off, was introduced to the Facebook group by a Vietnamese-Australian friend. “It was just content that made sense to us,” he says. “It became a talking point for a decent amount of time after it launched. It would be mentioned in conversations: ‘Did you see this thing in SAT?’.”
Notably, the group was founded a month after the release of the landmark romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood studio release in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast.
“While creating the group was a coincidence, being one month after [the film’s release], the success of the group definitely was not,” Kang says.