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SEPTEMBER 22 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 37 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Wei Leng Tay for Asiaweek.
Nominated for 'Party Animal of Hong Kong', website victim Lynne Lee decided not to kill the messenger.

Not Everyone is Amused
A gossipy Hong Kong website irks the bigwigs
By BELINDA RABANO

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Lynne Lee, an executive for a Hong Kong advertising agency, was shocked — shocked — when she found she had been nominated for the title of Party Animal of Hong Kong on a local website called IceRed. Certainly the notoriety could do little for her professional standing. What made matters worse was that IceRed's chatrooms, populated by local financial and legal types, began filling up with what she says were "rude and obscene" comments about her. Lee did what any upright young exec with a rep to protect would do. She voted for herself and wound up winning the contest, along with a $130 gift certificate and dinner at a trendy restaurant. "At first I was upset because I'm not that wild compared to a lot of other people," says the reigning rave queen. But after the victory, "I was really happy. The prize was very good."

Like Lee, Hong Kong's bankers and lawyers can't decide whether to be titillated or repelled by the online shenanigans at IceRed. The website, which has as a motto "There's nothing wrong with mixing business with pleasure," opened six months ago as a virtual watercooler where the business community could swap gossip. It has gone on to spatter mud all over the starched white collars of harrumphing executives, a few of whom have banned the irreverent site from workplace computers.

No topic, it seems, is too undignified for discussion on IceRed's bulletin boards: inept bosses are the entrée, then come takeover rumors, followed by personal preferences of well-dressed businessmen, sex in the boardroom and the merits of legal deals cut at raunchy Hong Kong nightclubs. Postings are usually made anonymously, but the identities of those being gossiped about often are thinly veiled. One recent discussion thread, "Bad managers at HSBC," the Hong Kong financial conglomerate, contained enough details to all but name those being disparaged.

While bankers and lawyers are infamous for talking shop during happy hour, it's rare to see so much dirty laundry flapping about in the town square. Tim and Kenny Lam, IceRed's founders, saw the vacuum as a niche to exploit. "Up until we started, there wasn't a platform for people in the industry to gossip or to vent their comments in a public forum," says Tim Lam, a former telecommunications and Internet industry analyst who is IceRed's chief operating officer. The Lams, who are not related (Kenny, the site CEO, is an Oxford-educated finance lawyer), aren't running the site as a public service. IceRed has counterparts in the U.S., including Vault.com for investment bankers and greedyassociates.com, where lawyers compare inflated salaries like fishermen compare the size of their trout. With a four-person staff, a monthly "burn rate" of $13,000, and a high-net-worth viewership, the Lams say they can garner enough advertising to break even by the end of the year. They launched a Singapore site last month and are considering opening sites in Seoul and Taipei.

Tim and Kenny don't dish the dirt themselves, but they do ensure everyone has shovels. To increase traffic, estimated to be about 10,000 visitors a day, the site holds weekly viewer surveys that can turn entire offices upside-down. A poll in April to pick "Hong Kong's Most Congenial Lawyer" sparked intense competition between law firms, with secretaries and support staff enlisted to vote repeatedly, a tactic IceRed does not discourage.

The popularity contests, which have included Most Eligible Banker and Most Likely to Go Home Alone, are attention-getting. But they have done little to endear the site to more decorous members of the local business scene. Critics say IceRed doesn't monitor its discussions closely enough, making the site a haven for cheapshot artists who can trash rivals and overlords with impunity. "People are getting fed up," says a Hong Kong investment banker. "There's so much garbage." At least a half a dozen banks and law firms have at one time banned IceRed access at work. After Hong Kong employees of Singapore's DBS Group complained about the bank's management on IceRed, some DBS chiefs decided to block the site from the company intranet. The ban lacked corporate sanction and the decision was later reversed. But DBS officials did insist that some of the more sensitive commentary be deleted from the site.

It was. After all, publicly tweaking bankers and their gunslinger lawyers seems about as wise as teasing dobermans. "If we see something that's offensive, slanderous or libelous, we take diligent care and take it out immediately," says Kenny, who adds that the local business community isn't accustomed to public criticism and so is a bit thin-skinned. The men and women in the three-piece suits are a long way from mollification. "If you don't want to waste your time watching TV, then you might as well log onto IceRed," says Charles Newton, corporate communications chief for DBS. "But you'll get about the same benefit from it." Hey, cheap shot. What have you got against TV?

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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