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APRIL 28, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 16 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Photographs by Tony Yu; photo illustration by Simon Wan for Asiaweek

Booting Up Baby
Forget mothers' meetings. Today's Asian parents are finding friendship and getting advice on the Net
By MARIA CHENG

When Sam Wan's children give her a headache, she doesn't reach for the Aspirin. She goes online. The 33-year-old Singaporean mother of three says the Internet is invaluable for connecting confused - and not-so-confused - parents throughout Asia. "It's amazing what you can learn from an online discussion group," Wan says, referring to the Asia Parents' List forum, which she herself started in 1997.

Wan first began surfing the Net for parenting tips four years ago. What she found wasn't always helpful. With most sites based either in the U.S. or Europe, much of the advice neglected the Asian perspective - particularly when it came to cooking or housing. To fill the gap, Wan began her own e-mail list, trading tips with about a dozen like-minded mothers. It struck a chord and membership has since grown tenfold. (You can sign up at www.momsinmind .com.) "I think that parents were looking for a way to get in touch with each other," Wan says. "The Internet provided that."

Indeed, the online parenting network is proving to be nearly as valuable as a Pokemon pacifier when it comes to soothing anxiety. "A lot of new parents can really learn from more experienced parents what to do in certain situations, like what to cook when their baby gets sick," Wan says. From breastfeeding pointers to preserving parental sanity, Asian websites are realizing that they have a ready - and often captive - audience in new mothers and fathers. With country-specific sites like IndiaParenting.com, Malaysia's FamilyPlace and Taiwan's haomama.com, parents throughout Asia can read advice columns and query message boards at the click of a button.

Finding a network of Asian parents online has provided untold benefits to Jacqueline Lau, a 32-year-old mother of one in Hong Kong who is a founding member of Wan's Asia Parents' List. In a fast-paced city, it is far more convenient to log on to a computer than to try and meet other harried parents at a play group. "When you're a new parent, you just don't have time to do a lot of things," Lau explains. "But with the information on the Web, you can find practically anything you need while the baby is napping," Lau says. Stay-at-home moms, rejoice.

And working moms, too. When Amy Chin returned to work - and her computer - three months after her son was born, the 30-year-old research scientist logged on to a whole new world of parenting that is open day and night. "This has been a wonderful source of information, friendship, and advice - a real lifeline for me as a first-time parent," Chin says. "Via e-mail chat groups, I get to meet a wide variety of parents I never would have met in real life. I only wish I had discovered it earlier."

Asia's online parenting community, however, has barely started to crawl. With approximately 55 million babies born each year in the region, there is huge financial promise among the diaper talk and nursing tips. Launched earlier this year, Hong Kong-based e-commerce site ebabyasia.com is poised to tap that market. The ebabyasia website sells over 500 baby-related products, all of which meet the strict safety standards of Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Australia. "It's ridiculous how much stuff you need when you have a baby," says ebabyasia's founder and managing director Cameron Honarvar. "In Asia, there is a real shortage of safe products." Honarvar, who also runs a chain of baby stores in Hong Kong, plans to make ebabyasia a one-stop shop by adding community features to its site so parents can still compare notes on raising Junior while they check out the latest strollers.

SPOON FEEDING:

www.momsinmind.com

www.indiaparenting.com

www.familyplace.com.my

www.ebabyasia.com

www.yaolan.com

www.haomama.com

www.motherhood.com.sg

But why wait until baby is born? Beijing-based Yaolan.com dispenses pre-natal as well as parenting advice. "Obstetric clinics in China are just not a good place to learn about parenting," observes Christopher Mumford, a director of Yaolan. com. The Chinese-language site offers approximately 2,500 pages of content, with expert columnists briefing mothers-to-be on what they can expect when they're expecting.

One of Yaolan.com's strengths, says Mumford, is its blending of Western knowledge with Chinese tradition. For example, the Chinese practice of encouraging new mothers to spend the first months with their child in virtual confinement - coming out after 100 days for a celebratory banquet - is one that few Western sites would recommend. For Yaolan.com, which averages 25,000 visitors per day, recognizing such traditions is a matter of course.

Wan's Asia Parents' List also caters to regional tastes. Whether communicating in Singapore's unique Singlish dialect or offering Malaysian herbal recipes for the common cold, the list proves that Asian parents can be decidedly different from their Western counterparts. Asian parents still adhere to many traditional beliefs, says Lau, such as the assumption that pulling the third finger can ward off evil. Sometimes all a child needs to chase away bad dreams is a reassuring finger tug from mom.

And it is usually mom. While Asian women may not be one of the world's most wired demographics, 90% of the people on Wan's parents' list are mothers. The male to female ratio is the same among customers at ebabyasia. "Some companies are business to business," says Dede Haung, the firm's director of content development. "We're mother-to-mother."

The online discussions don't exactly shy away from details. "I've been surprised by how much some women will write," says working-mom Chin. "Asian parents are usually very private." But privacy quickly loses its importance in a medium where anonymity reigns. Having the Internet as an intermediary helps break down barriers in traditionally conservative Asian societies, says Kenneth Tan, whose company, Eastern Publishing, maintains the website of Singapore's Motherhood magazine. "At the end of the day, the Internet is about people, including parents, being able to ask any question they want," says Tan. "For some Asian parents, who aren't usually open to talking about certain problems like mental illness, this can be very useful."

With such a high premium placed on the right parenting information, it's little wonder that Asians have no shortage of online options. As the Internet furthers its reach in the region, parents will undoubtedly be among its most enthusiastic adherents. Screaming babies, after all, require creative solutions.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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