Mobile Messaging in the Pacific Rim
by Thomas Asmuth

Chinese consumers charging their mobile devices with a coin-operated kiosk by ChaliYuan. Short Message Services Continue to Proliferate Across the Pacific Rim
Last month, a PC World article about the growth in mobile phone subscriptions ran the header “Not Even Close”. The title referred to the domination that Chinese consumers have exhibited in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) market. ICT refers to mobile voice, mobile messaging, and subscription services that can be delivered on these platforms. As of February 2006, there were 404 million Chinese subscribers to wireless compared to the United States’ distant second place of 207 million subscriptions.1  This is a staggering statistic considering that only 24.5% of the Chinese population are subscribers.2  Growth of in the use these platforms seems to be inevitable as the Chinese economy continues to rapidly grow.

Usage of mobile messaging services has mushroomed in many countries of the Pacific Rim. Over 304 billion Short Message Service (SMS) text messages were sent in 2005 by the Chinese market.3 In February 2006, Chinese subscribers sent 10 billion SMS in one week; this peak was attributed to celebrations and good wishes for the lunar New Year holiday.4 US users sent only around 81 billion SMS during the entire year of 2005.5 This tremendous Asian-Pacific usage of ICT is driving the innovations and research in mobile messaging protocols and services.

Dr. Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist and researcher at Intel studying the cultural constructs of technology. Her practice is called ‘deep hanging out’, an immersive technique placing her into the daily cultural practice of a people to study it first hand.6 Dr. Bell recently conducted a study of the use of ICT’s in India, China, Singapore, Indonesia and other Pacific Rim cultures. Her lecture at UC Santa Cruz in February 2006, “The Age of the Thumb: An Ethnographic Account of Cell Phones in Asia”, clarified how this technology is being utilized for culture and how it reinforces the traditions of the adopting society.

At the airport in Kuching, Malaysia, Dr. Bell observed a young woman deftly thumbing data into two mobile phones at the same time. After watching this scene for some time, Dr. Bell finally had to ask the young woman about her chore. The woman looked up with an “isn’t-it-obvious” air. She held up one phone and said “Mother” and followed with the other mobile and said “boyfriend” to indicate that she was engaged in messaging from two devices.

The increasing popularity of mobile phones and text services in the Pacific Rim is characterized by the ownership of multiple devices by a user. The Penetration Rate is a statistical analysis term for the number of subscribers versus the number of people in a population.  The mobile phone penetration rate for the Republic of Korea is 80% and the Australian market is at a rate of 90%. In Singapore the rate is just over 100%; the island-state’s population is just shy of 4 million yet surveys show that they are employing 4.3 million mobile phones7 and Hong Kong’ s market has an astonishing penetration rate of 121% (8.4 million subscriptions for 6.9 million residents). 8

What explains the explosive growth of ICT in the Pacific Rim? Why have mobile phones and messaging proliferated over the PC or other communication platforms in these Pacific Rim societies? Why is it so different than the US’s use of ICT? Dr. Bell argues that the reasons that ICT’s have flourished in these cultures stem from multiple layers including economic, infrastructure, and most importantly: social.

The mobility of the handheld platform lends flexibility in these communities where power and telecommunications infrastructures are unstable or nonexistent. Electrical power can be an unreliable resource in many of the most highly populated regions in the Pacific Rim. The swift economic restructuring has put a strain on the Chinese electrical grid. In recent years, power rationing has been enforced on public, private, and corporate entities during peak demand periods to try to ensure public safety.9 Outages were enforced over communities and industry halting manufacturing and services during the moratoriums.

Major populations and economic centers in India are at the mercy of electrical shortages as well. Outages for 9 hours are common in the communities surrounding Bombay as the nation strives to keep up with its’ rapid economic boom.10 Resourceful individuals continue to devise retrofits to provide power for personal computing. Unfortunately, the solutions tend to be highly elaborate and inconvenient such as powering a PC from an automotive battery and running the vehicle as a generator.

Electricity is taken for granted in the United States and many other western countries. Upstanding citizens charge their mobile devices without hesitation in public arenas such as the workplace or a cafe. (At this moment I feel the need to confess: currently, I am running a cord to my employer’s socket.) This would be outright theft in these communities that have regular outages. The larger mobile devices including laptops are simply too energy-thirsty in cultures with electrical rationing. The efficiency of small devices outweighs the features found in larger systems such as laptops for individuals in these economies. Kiosks built for quick charging of your phone are beginning to appear in countries where mobile phones are the ideal device. ChaliYuan is a Beijing company marketing a coin-operated public charging kiosk to fill this need. The service allows users to legally charge their devices and often feature video displays that run entertainment content (and advertising) for the user while they wait.11

Traditional Communication Networks
In many Pacific Rim countries, the communication protocols of the Internet still rely on dial-up. Landline telecommunication infrastructures have not grown any faster than the power grid in these rapidly changing areas. In India pulse dialing is still used and local toll metering and high taxes are standard. This leads to high expenses for long sessions on voice calls or using the Internet. On average mobile services are much less expensive than landline services in these areas. The disproportionate cost ratios have driven the migration to wireless; mobile phones have now outnumbered landlines in many countries including India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Taiwan.12

The substantial price of a personal computer should not be overlooked in this analysis. Dr. Bell has noted that it appears that very few families in this region have more than one PC.13 This is not surprising since the substantial cost of the device coupled with high costs of telecommunications and unreliable power would suggest that these types of device are not situated favorably for these areas.

Cultural Numbers
In order to do her immersive research on China’s ICT culture, Genevieve Bell went to a vendor in Shanghai to purchase a device. Dr. Bell was stunned when the shop owner told her he had no phones to sell her; she didn’t understand. She could clearly see that the shop was full of mobile phones. Bell pointedly asked the shopkeeper if she could buy a particular mobile on display in the counter. Once again, the merchant replied that he had no equipment to sell her. A myriad of thoughts passed Bell’s mind as she tried to process the reason this vendor simply did not want to do business with her. Dr. Bell inquired, “Is it because I am a woman?”. “No”, the vendor said. “A foreigner?” “No.” Finally the vendor decided to explain. He relented that he had no more good numbers to sell that day.

Numbers are of significant cultural value to the Chinese; numerologies continue to play a pivotal role in many Asiatic cultures. Each number is connected to the idea of the word they homophonically resemble. Assemblies of numbers build cultural stories, wishes, and predictions. Every number string has connotations; personal association to an inauspicious number carries the daily burden of dealing with an unfortunate subtext. Dr. Bell’s Chinese mobile vendor would not curse her by selling her an inauspicious telephone number. Instead, she was told to return early in the day, before 8:30, or he would be sold out of (appropriate) numbers again.

This experience cannot be simply written off to a quaint custom of a minority; the practice is deeply imbued across the cultural body of China. In 2004, a Chinese businessman placed the winning auction bid of 9 million Yuan (1.1 million US) for a highly auspicious phone number.14 The number (135.8585.8585) is a homophone for the expression ‘let me be rich be rich be rich’ in Chinese. A year earlier, a Chinese Airline purchased the sequence 8888 8888 to be used for its’ 24-hour customer service line.15 The company declined to comment on any questions about the significance and traditions of a string of eights. Eight is a highly auspicious number in traditional culture representing wealth. It is hard to believe that the implications and references to an eight-digit string of eights would be lost on the vendor or customer despite the convenience of a single repeated digit for a customer service line.

Language with a Complimentary Protocol
Inputting text messages on mobile phones can be arduous; thumb away at the “7” key four times to type the letter ‘S’. The complexities of the Asiatic ideogram would seem to translate to an even more Herculean task. In actuality it might be easier than first thought. Chinese mobile customers sent 33.8 billion text messages in the month of January 2006. This figure represents a 65.7 percent increase in the number of messages sent in January 2005.16 The character of the ideogram explains the popularity of SMS in China. Ideographic systems of writing such as Chinese are meaning-rich language platforms: any character holds a depth of concept. These protocols make it very compatible with the abbreviated nature of SMS or text-message platforms. Short is the keyword in SMS; text messages are limited to somewhere around 500 character/spaces (limits are growing). Consider that the text from this sentence until the end of the paragraph is exactly 320 characters (including spaces).

The SMS is a brief form system is friendlier to any system that can utilize brevity. The smaller gate for SMS has reinforced the abbreviated meta-languages for text compatibility. Abbreviated forms of language first appeared in chat room sessions as a labor saving technique. Now commonplace, the use of ‘4’ instead of ‘for’ and ‘8’ for the suffix ‘ate’ is a relevantly recent adaptation in public communication. Using the Chinese cultural correlation of numbers with words has proved to be a highly advantageous strategy. In Mandarin, 520 is equivalent to ‘I love you’ and 748 means ‘drop dead’.17

Communities already adept in ideographic languages are predisposed to utilize this brief-form scheme to assemble contextually rich documents. The complexity of input is outweighed by the idea-rich resource nature of the language. Chinese text messages are used to communicate complex ideas such as political jokes or chapters of a story. One such SMS subscription is to the novel, Outside the Fortress Besieged. Through the service, consumers receive text message ‘chapters’ of this romance novel twice a day in installments of 70 characters each.18

Old Time Religion
Genevieve Bell’s philosophical outlook is straightforward: ‘Culture drives technological use.’ When technology reinforces sacred practices, the culture will adopt the technology even in the face of established conflicts. An example of innovative re-inscription of cultural practice through ICT’s is a paid service tailored for Indonesian Muslims. Five times a day pious subscribers are reminded to practice prayers.  Intertwined into this rather mundane timer is a geo-locative service. It helps the subscribers to assure that they have properly faced toward Mecca so that the prayer is practiced appropriately as has been the orthodox for millennia.

ICT’s have been co-opted all across Asian-Pacific sacred cultural milieus. The practice of ancestor worship is a deep-rooted Chinese custom reflecting the paradigm of filial piety. This duty and respect in turn earns prestige for the family. Even after the parents’ death, the child has the obligation to make ritual sacrifices to his parents and ancestors to honor the lineage. Sacrifices of Joss Money also known as Spirit Money are burnt or left at the graveside to help the ancestors navigate the afterlife. ICT’s have started to appear in the sacrifices, or rather the joss paper version of the latest mobile technology.19 Virtuous children sacrifice the simulacra of 3G-platform devices upon ritual pyres. In this act, the phone has completely transcended from technological device to cultural artifact.

The most obvious impact of ICT is to virtually collapse geographic distances. Genevieve Bell’s research shows the fallacy of the neo-liberalist dogma of globalization and techno-determinism. The seductive lure of modernization is being constantly refuted by contexts of technology in the pursuit of cultural practices. Technology is used to re-inscribe a culture’s meaningful rituals. Through the conceptual collapse of the geographic expanse the Diaspora has the means and virtual territory to redeploy those practices that define cultural literacy and identity (Dr. Bell would say, “profoundly local cultural practices”). 20

The wide deployment of the platform opens many avenues to be explored by new media practitioners. In the next issue of Switch Genevieve Bell answers questions about her ethnographic research of ICT and the territory it opens for artists to explore.


1. Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service. “Mobile Phones Grow Even More Popular.”, April 07, 2006.,aid,125340,00.asp

2. Wang Dan. “Cell phone use surges in China.” CNet, June 7, 2004.
2100-1039_3-5227836.html (accessed February 30, 2006).

3. Reuters. “China rings in new year after billions of SMS.” ABC News Online, January 26, 2006. (accessed February 30, 2006).

4. Zhengqian Zhou. “10B SMS Messages Sent During Chinese New Year.”, February 16, 2006.

5. CTIA, “Wireless Quick Facts April 2006,” CTIA, (accessed April 30, 2006).

6. Intel, “Researchers: Genevieve Bell,” Intel,
techresearch/people/bios/bell_g.htm (accessed February 10, 2006).

7. Wikipedia, “List of mobile network operators,” Wikipedia, - Singapore (accessed February 30, 2006).

8. Wikipedia, “List of mobile network operators,” Wikipedia, - Hong_Kong (accessed February 30, 2006).

9. Qu Xin. “China: Hungry for Power.” Asia Times, January 14, 2004. (accessed March 7, 2006).

10. Scott Baldauf. “Power shortages threaten India's boom.” Christian Science Monitor, June 01, 2005. (accessed March 7, 2006).

11. Ting Shi. “A Gas Pump for 300 Million Phones.”
2005/06/01/8263479/index.htm (accessed April 30, 2006).

12. BBC News. “Mobile phones take over in India.” BBC News International version, Business, November 9, 2004. (accessed April 30, 2006).

13. Bell, G., Satu Keluarga, Satu Komputer, [One home, one computer]: Cultural Accounts of ICTs in South and Southeast Asia. Design Issues, Vol. 22:2. MIT Press, 2006.

14., “Cell Phones”,, April 13, 2004. (accessed March 7, 2006).

15. BBC News, “China's 'lucky' phone number.” BBC News International version, Asia- Pacific, August 19, 2003. (accessed March 7, 2006).

16. Associated Press. “China claims 400M mobile phone users.” MSNBC, February 23, 2006. (accessed March 10, 2006).

17. Wikipedia, “Short Message Service, Text Speak” Wikipedia, (accessed April 30, 2006).

18. Mike Barton and agencies. “Next chapter in SMS – novels.” The Sydney Morning Herald, September 22, 2004.
1095651326480.html?from=storylhs (accessed March 10, 2006).

19. Dr. Genevieve Bell. “The Age of the Thumb: An Ethnographic Account of Cell Phones in Asia.” UCSC Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program (DANM) Colloquium Series, University of California Santa Cruz, February 27, 2006.

20. Ibid.