Last summer, many Vietnamese users of Facebook began noticing their newsfeeds filling up with something new — still frames from classic Disney animated films, such as Snow White and Cinderella, over which Vietnamese-language dialogue bubbles had been placed. The remixed image memes featured new names and personalities for many of the iconic Disney princesses, who riffed in terms thick with irony, sexuality, and irreverent humor on subjects familiar to Vietnamese youth and young adults everywhere, often indirectly addressing current social and political issues in the developing communist nation. The images all bore a watermark with the initials TBC — the Tuyêt Bitch Collection.
In the six months since then, the Tuyêt Bitch Collection has become one of the most celebrated and well-known fixtures on the Vietnamese web, boasting more than a quarter of a million fans, who share the sardonic, satirical memes in viral fashion across a slew of online platforms
that include not just Facebook but Twitter, Viber, Instagram, and the many new social media image sharing sites that also sprang up last year such as hai.VL and Epic.com. Today it’s not uncommon for one of the page’s tongue-in-cheek cracks on Vietnamese society to gather 20,000 Likes and 500 shares on the partially-blocked social network.
Vietmeme caught up with HCMC-based Ân Khùng Ân Tửng (who goes by the name Duy Ân), one of Tuyêt Bitch Collection’s two founding creators (the other is graphic designer Minh Chánh), for a wide-ranging conversation on TBC.
Vietmeme: How did the Tuyet Bitch Collection begin?
Duy Ân: In summer 2013, I noticed someone on Facebook had used an image of Snow White and they had put text on it. It was just a very simple image with very simple text, but it was really funny and people just couldn’t stop laughing every time they look at it. And people kept spreading it around Facebook. So I decided to make my own, using Snow White and another of my favorite Disney characters, Cinderella.
And then those started spreading around. Also, at that point in the summer of 2013, Facebook had just started allowing people to comment with photos. One of my friends asked me to upload those photos onto a Fan Page so people could more easily share them. I said “Sure, go ahead!” So he created the page Tuyet Bitch Collection on August 8. After he created the page that morning, I asked him to let me be the administrator for the page as well — I wanted to change the name to something more gentle than Tuyet Bitch. But when a Facebook page reaches more than 200 fans, you can’t change the name anymore. By that evening, when he made me the admin, Tuyet Bitch Collection already had over 1,000 fans. Now we’re partners in TBC.
Vietmeme: The same day?
DA: Yes, the same day. In the very first week, we just put up some general comments, general shares on the page. They didn’t relate to any issue in the news or society. And after a few weeks, we talked and agreed that if we just kept doing like that, people would get bored very soon. We thought we needed to change to more interesting content, like memes, like at Doremon.che, something like that. And so we decided to put issues in [Vietnamese] daily life into the images and share them around. And after three weeks, we had 50,000 fans.
Vietmeme: Wow, 50,000 likes in just the first three weeks. What is it at now?
DA: We’re now at 236,000. And it’s still growing. Fans keep coming. People keep spreading these images around. Actually there are two fake pages out there using our name. One of them has 13,000 fans, but their work sucks and we just ignore them.
Vietmeme: Let’s go back to the three weeks after you started, when you started creating more variety in the content. What did you do?
DA: After we created the Snow White and Cinderella characters, we thought, “Well, why not just bring in more characters, more Disney princesses.” So we created more characters like Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid or Mulan, and we gave each one a new name and a unique personality. And now, every time people see the character, they know her name and personality.
For example, Mulan has the Vietnamese name of Mu Lan. She always appears at midnight, and she often talks about romantic things. Mu Lan is all about relationships, friendship, love. She always uses poems to express her feelings. And Snow White often talks about sex and she’s a little bit of a pervert in a funny way, not too serious. And Cinderella is the one who always make side comments. For example, every time Snow White says something, Cinderella would appear and cut the part and make a side comment. And Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful girl but stupid. She always says things that people already know and just wants to show that she’s just beautiful.
Vietmeme: So just in a few months that you’ve been working on it, the project has evolved. Watching it evolve, where do you think it’s going? We see you recently began adding characters from the 2013 film Frozen.
DA: Yes, Anna and Elsa from Frozen started appearing late last year. We gave Snow White and Cinderella a break for a while so the fans would miss them, and we introduced the Frozen characters at that time. After a few weeks, people kept asking, “Where’s Snow White? Give us back Cinderella and Snow White. We’re missing them!” And then during the the Lunar New Year, they came back. And now they start being divas again.
Vietmeme: What kind of topics and issues interest you as a creator?
DA: I always do some research on other hot fan pages. I look at the status and comments, and then if I feel that it’s suitable for our page, I will convert it into our style. Sometimes I simply use my feelings in normal life. It can also be hot issues in the newspaper. But we’re not trying to be too direct in that respect. We try to make it a little bit subtle and then give it a link so when people ask, they can go and read a bit more about that, as we don’t want to talk too much about it.
DA: Yes, like the news about when everyone was looting the Tiger beer from the overturned delivery truck last December. We just used one image from the movie Tangled. She was holding a bottle of Tiger beer and said, “When you drink stolen beer, you piss it away, but the shame stays forever.” Just something simple like that, and people kept sharing it. That post now has the highest shares of any we’ve ever created.
Just recently, my partner at TBC was really angry with his boss and he made an image mocking the upper class, which makes it more general instead of directly talking about his boss. It was about the middle class and the upper class and the class divide. That’s a topic that people in Vietnam respond to a lot right now. People loved it.
Vietmeme: Why do you think Vietnamese people share your images so widely? Why are they so popular?
DA: I think some Vietnamese people don’t know how to express themselves on Facebook in the way they are really thinking, but those images are somehow quite similar to their thinking, so they share them to express it. It’s like they’re thinking, “Finally, I see something I want to say.” So many people don’t know how to express their feelings, or nobody would trust them, so somehow our work at TBC may help them.
We just want to help them with opportunities to say what they think by sharing a photo. Saying something in words can make people not comfortable, especially Vietnamese. And using an image, especially like from Disney images, makes it much more acceptable.
Vietmeme: Do you think that there are places they can share them outside of Facebook?
DA: Yes, like on Hai.vl. They sometimes share our photos and try to hide the logo and the link to our page, but the fans still recognize it. We focus on Facebook only. Some share it directly from our page. Some just copy and repost on their page. Other people do share our images to some of the social media image-sharing sites that have become popular in the last year.
DA: Normally we don’t do personal things too much. Usually we’re trying to capture what Vietnamese people are thinking and talking about in general. We have to make sure that most of them feel familiar with the ideas we’re expressing. If we’re really stuck and we don’t know what to post, I will just randomly ask some guy on Facebook “Hey, any hot topic? Any funny story? Just share for me.” And they do. Sometimes they just jump onto my Facebook “Hey, just create this please. It’s very popular now” And I just take it and create it in our style.
I always read fans’ comments and messages, and if they request any special kind of topic or image, and we already created it but they didn’t know, I’ll find the link and give them the link. Often they inbox us and say “Please do this for me.” If it’s a personal issue and we can address it in a more generalizable way, then it’s ok, we’ll often do that. But if it’s a very personal issue that has no relation to anything else, we cannot do that.
Vietmeme: So both you and your partner are creating these images? What’s the process?
DA: There’s not a specific process. If there’s a topic coming up and I have my laptop, I’ll just post it. Sometimes, we post things at the same time. We don’t have any office or anything. We just sometimes hang out and talk about it. My partner and I work independently but if there’s an idea about a topic that’s a little bit sensitive or serious, we would discuss right away.
Vietmeme: What about the technical side of creating these images?
DA: It’s all done on a laptop. We just Google all of the images we want to use. And I have some secret key words [laughs]. I’m not a designer. But the other guy is. And it’s just basic Photoshop techniques for him. Actually I use PowerPoint. Some people don’t believe that I use something as simple as PowerPoint to create these images, but I do. I can do all the stuff like adding dialogue bubbles and text and save it all into a JPEG file, all with Powerpoint. After he creates something, he’ll give it to me to edit it a bit to make it more familiar to the fans in a proper way.
Vietmeme: What’s the ‘proper’ way?
DA: For example, I just want to correct his grammar, his mood. You can’t say something too personal on a page. It’s a fan page. You can’t just spread your personal feelings. We have to balance. For example, some people might love this issue but some people might not like it. But we don’t want to fall into any side. We just give a topic and they’re welcome to discuss it.
Vietmeme: What’s too sensitive?
DA: We try to avoid those kinds of topics. There are many things that we want to express in images and post on our page, but we won’t do it in a direct way. Stuff that relates to the government, mainly. Like last week, there’s a new character, not from our page but from a fan of ours. He used an image from a popular high school literature textbook to make a meme and our page took it and put our logo on it and share it just to test, and it became popular. But I told the guy that next time not to use it because it’s from the textbook. It might be dangerous and it might affect our page. I think we’re not gonna do that anymore.
Vietmeme: How could it affect your page?
DA: I think because it relates to education. What if the government recognizes it and they do something to us? I don’t know.
Vietmeme: Are you trying to keep your identities hidden?
DA: We used to, but the people who run the fake page created many stupid things and we didn’t want them to affect our page or our reputations. So we decided when our page reached 100,000 fans, we appeared. “Hey guys, thank you for supporting us. This is us. If you have any questions for us, just contact us directly. Don’t give it to other fake ones, only to the two of us here.”
Vietmeme: What kind of media do you spend time personally looking at? When you’re online and you’re not on Facebook, and you’re not creating Tuyet Bitch, what are you looking at?
DA: YouTube, maybe 9GAG. I put a lot of attention to my Facebook home feed. I keep scrolling the mouse just to see people and add a like any time that my friends share the Bitch. I just look at other Facebook fan pages, some forums as well , but I don’t really care about forums much. Sometimes Tinh Te and Webtretho and others like that, they have sections about funny stuff, so I try to take a look any time I’m stuck.
Vietmeme: Have you thought of moving beyond Disney’s images?
DA: Disney stuff is really close to me. I understand Disney’s characters very well; it’s very easy for me to feel the characters.
But because most of our pictures come from Disney, it might become a barrier in terms of copyright issues. For me, it’s not gonna be that serious because other countries have been doing this as well. Even forums are also using these as well, so who cares? I don’t think that Disney can do much about it, especially as we’re here in Vietnam.
Vietmeme: Has anyone ever objected to TBC?
DA: Yes, a lot. They’re like “Hey you, you’re trying to break our childhood!”, like somehow we’re runing their memory of these precious films and characters. But I’m like, “Excuse me! It’s not your childhood. It’s still there. Your childhood is still there. This doesn’t affect your childhood.” Some people have asked me if I hate Snow White that much, but no, I really love her. That’s why I’m using her!
Sometimes I feedback, “Hey, if you have time, try to discover Disney. It’s not that simple. I know a lot of Disney things. That’s why I keep doing this.”