The selfie’s journey of self-discovery
2014-05-23, Sylvia Chang

Hong Kong’s tech-savvy generation has gone one step further with the city’s renowned entrepreneurial spirit, jumping on the selfie-studio bandwagon. As Sylvia Chang reports, their goal, besides financial satisfaction, is to bring happiness to people’s lives. 

It was to be the trip of a lifetime — a grand tour of Continental Europe, fashionable among the offspring of well-to-do Hong Kong families after graduation. Yet, the coming-of-age odyssey of Vien Wong was cut short.

Wong, 24, on her visit to France two years ago, discovered something so amusing and inspiring that she knew she must bring it home to Hong Kong. She headed home and shared her inspiration with Ellen Chan, her tech-savvy friend, and together, they opened Snaparty, Hong Kong’s “selfie studio”.

That’s right, selfie studio, as Wong describes it, a studio that provides the “essential elements of creativity, limited only by the imagination of our clients” — people swept up in the fashion, if not the passion of snapping photos of themselves, wherever they go, whatever they do, usually on their smartphones. Even US President Barack Obama has been caught snapping selfies here and there.

“Selfie is here to stay,” declared Wong. “It’s not just a fad. It’s a part of the lifestyle of the post-90s generation.”

Snaparty offers its selfie-obsessed clients a plenitude of hats, masks, period costumes, props, accessories and background settings that are perfect for projecting a mood, a sense of occasion, or simply the declaration of a personal statement, Wong told China Daily. “They come to celebrate birthdays, reunions or even the end of a semester, then share their photos on Facebook or Instagram,” she continued.

Most customers of Snaparty are post-90s kids — tech-smart young people, still in school, growing up in the information age, coming into full blossom. They’re good at digital technology, emphasizing “instant interaction” and “24/7 availability”, says a report by the Hong Kong Ideas Centre, a non-governmental organization.

Wong’s studio is in Hong Kong’s most congested shopping district, Mong Kok. The studio sits in a bazaar-like atmosphere thriving with sellers of goldfish, second-hand books, sneakers and other paraphernalia sweeping a wide spectrum of curiosities and lifestyle goods.

Snaparty consists of a reception room and three, five-square-meter studios, designed to create different atmospheres and settings. Each studio has a fixed, digital single-lens reflex camera and a screen, where clients may snap away, undisturbed, to their heart’s content. 

Fees are based on the time they’re in the studio. Within the time frame, they can take all the photos they want.

Colorful sticks decorate the wall in the reception area, where Wong, in a tartan jacket, with legs curled beneath her, lounged on the sprawling sofa, speaking enthusiastically.

“It’s not only a private place to snap self-portraits, but a public space to hold parties,” she said.

“It’s like a journey of self-discovery,” said one customer, enthusiastically. She brought her iPhone with a recorded musical “sound track” she would play on the studio’s digital speakers during her journey of self-expression.


Selfie as a cultural trend

The “selfie” is a cultural phenomenon that exploded on the social media, especially with the coming of the smartphone. The selfie’s most avid followers are kids in their teens who smile pout, grimace, wrinkle up their noses and generally “mug” the camera in every conceivable setting. 

They then share the photos on social media as a personal statement to express a mood or immortalize a moment in their lives.

“Hong Kong people like taking self-portraits,” Wong said. “They take photos when they are eating, shopping, playing, thinking … anytime, anywhere!”

Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has described the selfie as a way of communicating a distinctive message. 

“Through the clothes one wears, one’s expression, staging of the physical setting and the style of the photo, people can convey a particular public image of themselves, presumably one that they think will garner social rewards,” he said.

Compared to the post-80s generation, the post-90s younger generation has lived in a relatively more prosperous society, emerging from the decades-long Chinese “economic miracle”. They don’t have many family pressures at this time of life. 

“These young people have more freedom to discover their real interests and make their own decisions. They enjoy expressing their own identity and uniqueness,” said Liu Xiaobin, vice-president of Nielsen, China.

In a study of the post 90s generation, Nielsen, a leading, global provider of consumer information, discovered that “individuality and uniqueness” are the two most important qualities for young people when they judge a product or brand.


A brand with personality

To Wong, Snaparty is not only her business. She feels she’s on a mission to bring some happiness to people’s lives. As “Chief Happiness Storyteller” at Laughfull, a local youth group, she has organized many activities aimed at bringing them “the simplest and the most genuine form of happiness”. “We would like to provide positive energy to the people around us,” she said.

“High Five Festival,” organized by Laughfull in 2011, reportedly attracted about 2,000 people. At seven in the morning, Wong and her friends assembled in the busiest areas of Central and Wan Chai to offer “High Fives” to passers-by, especially to still sleepy, working-class people going to work.

“If you have the passion, if you want to make something impactful, or simply like us, to spread happiness, then just do it.” Wong said in 2012 at TEDx, a localized TED (Technology Education and Design) program that invites leading thinkers to share their experiences in the spirit of “ideas worth spreading”.

That passion, to make a difference, was the spirit that went into Wong’s selfie studio. “I hope my customers leave my shop with big smiles on their faces,” said Wong, who added she believes happiness to be the essential element of life.

On the historic, neon-bathed streets of Mong Kok, dozens of selfie studios have followed Wong. All offer variations on what’s believed to be the first studio of its type, TakaPhotoo Studio, which opened in New York City in 2009. It has since become a chain with outlets throughout the mainland.

More selfie studios surely will follow. Success will depend on whether they are able to achieve that delicate balance such as Wong had found, to appeal to the post-90s generation. “Brand is no longer merely a name for a product, but a combination of quality and personality. Most of the time, for this group of people, brands are viewed as a ‘tag’ that speaks of their life and own tastes,” said Liu.


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