Angie had just twisted off the lid of the rounded capsule containing the name and personal details of her date when her friends snatched it away and began excitedly reading aloud.
“Alvis, 26-year-old, 168-cm-tall, loves traveling and reading. Contact me via WeChat account (redacted),” one of the group gushed, as they stood outside BT Reptile, a small pet store in Kowloon’s Shek Kip Mei neighborhood.
“He is perfect for you.”
Angie, a 21-year-old university student, is one of the more than 1,000 customers so far for the “Fate Capsule,” a vending machine with a romantic twist.
Rather than dispensing fluffy toys, figurines or candy, the pink plastic tower, for HK$20 (US$2.5), spits out the information of single men and women looking for love.
The concept was brought to Hong Kong by the owner of BT Reptile, Ben Tang, who, after seeing it gain popularity in Taiwan, decided to set up a machine outside his store three months ago — just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Since then, Tang, 25, says he’s sold about 1,000 capsules, primarily to customers in their 20s, and has had nearly 2,000 people sign up online to have their details put into the machine, which has different compartments for men and women.
Meanwhile, similar so-called “capsule toy dating” vending machines have begun appearing in other stores around Hong Kong.
Tang says he sees advantages to the approach.
“If you meet your boyfriend on dating apps and tell your parents, most likely they will doubt if he’s reliable; but imagine you meet him via a capsule toy — they will probably be like: how cute is that!” Tang says.
Half Tinder, Half Matchmaker
Popularity, however, has come at a price.
Since local news outlets started covered his vending machine, Tang says he’s been inundated with interest and has had to set a limit to the maximum amount of capsules sold each day.
“I can easily sell more than 1,000 capsules every single day if I want to,” he said.
“But I’d rather not. I like to see people come by casually when they are free; It feels more destined.”
Tang says he spends as long as five hours some evenings sourcing and vetting his participants together with his girlfriend.
People who want their details in a capsule can leave their information — name, age, height, weight, hobby, self-introduction, contact — in a Google document, the link for which Tang has shared on his Facebook page.
He then adds them one by one on WeChat to verify that they are real, and, as he puts it: to make sure “they don’t act too weirdly.”
He also follows up with those whose capsules have been sold to check if they’ve met someone they like. If not, they can choose to have their details put back into the machine, which holds more than 50 capsules at a time.
Given the number of applications, Tang says there’s usually a two-week waiting period for men to get their details back in the mix, though, for women, it’s a bit quicker, as fewer have signed up. Some, of course, are luckier than others.
By manually selecting participants, and controlling the frequency of capsules getting chosen, Tang says he wants to slow down the speed of blind dating, to increase people’s chances of success.
“If dozens of people add you in one day, you will feel nothing but disturbed. But I want them to have enough time to really know each other,” he said.
“When people start to use dating apps, the first impression they will probably have is like, ‘wow that’s too much’,” he says. “There’s really no time to know each person you meet well enough to consider dating.”
Tang champions his vending machine over the world of online dating, saying it makes “blind dating more sincere.”
And according to research, he might be onto something. A study by the Commission on Youth, an advisory body, found that though online dating was common, many had a negative perception of it.
Some 55 percent of respondents said they believed people lie on online dating platforms, 48 percent said they were worried about disclosing personal information, and only 39 percent considered it a good way to meet people. Even less — 14 percent — said they considered it an easier and more efficient way to meet people.
But for all Tang’s enthusiasm, his “Fate Capsules” are not immune to criticisms of their own.
Some have left poor ratings on the service’s Facebook page, accusing it of being a “fraud,” with cases of dates not accepting friend requests, or cutting off contact abruptly.
“I can’t force people to talk to whoever comes to them, right?” he says in completely logical response to that particular gripe.
Meanwhile, privacy concerns have also surfaced, with some people disclosing details of the capsules they’ve purchased on YouTube.
Nevertheless, Tang — who is now planning to set up a machine for same-sex participants — said he remains optimistic about the venture’s future.
“I am the first one to bring capsule toy dating to Hong Kong. I’ve built my brand now. Of course there will be people stirring things up,” he said.
“I see this as a potential business opportunity.”
Others, too, have seen a potential business opportunity.
Several people have set up their own versions of the “capsule toy dating” machines, including Kenneth Liu, who owns “Magic Box” — in Kwai Chung Plaza, a four-story shopping center housing hundreds of mini-shops.
Liu, whose boutique sells cosmetics, jewelry and toys, says he’s sold about 500 capsules, also at HK$20 each. He says he gathers participants mainly through his personal connections and relies on friends to promote it on social media. Shoppers can also sign up in the store, if they’re so inclined.
The 25-year-old dismisses the suggestion of copying Tang — saying they serve different areas — and adds that he plans to expand the business by installing two more machines in front of friends’ shops.
“It’s not like he [Tang] invented it anyway. Business is business, and all of us will have a fair competition,” says Liu, adding the machine has helped attract customers to his store.
“People try it because they think it’s cute and fresh, which is how I want my store to be perceived.
“There are more people out there noticing it. It’s good business,” Liu says.
Back at BT Reptile, Angie, still slightly embarrassed by her friends’ enthusiasm, said she would probably call her date, noting they share similar interests.
Tang appeared satisfied.
“Sometimes it is really hard to simply get a proper date in Hong Kong. Every time I hear about a successful match, I feel like I really helped someone,” he said.
He called out to Angie: “Remember this: my machine doesn’t guarantee a marriage. So go seize your destiny!”
All photos by Mandy Zheng
Subscribe to The Coconuts Podcast for top trending news and pop culture from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.