The Vape Life: Blowing shapes, chasing clouds, and riding Indonesia’s e-cigarette wave for profit

 

It was three years ago when Deborah Chen first realized her hobby — creating vape cloud trick videos for Instagram — had the potential to make money. At the time, she was still a beginner in the world of creating beautiful shapes from e-cigarette vapors.

“I don’t even remember the name of the brand,” the 26-year-old said with a laugh as she recounted the day she got the phone call from a vape liquid company that wanted to endorse her.

While the science behind vaping and health is still very much out — Hong Kong just last week announced plans to ban e-cigarettes altogether — Debora insists her own experience came with a green light from her doctor.

“I had a history of pneumonia, and I used shisha technique as part of my treatment,” she recalled as we spoke to her on the sidelines of last month’s Jakarta Vape Fair.

Debora Chen, 26, poses for a photo after competing in vape cloud trick competition during the 2018 Vape Fair in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8 September 2018. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
Debora Chen, 26, poses for a photo after competing in vape cloud trick competition during the 2018 Vape Fair in Jakarta, Indonesia, 8 September 2018. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

“One time, a friend introduced me to a vaping device. I found some similarities between these devices, so I asked my doctor if I could change to [an e-cigarette]. He said it was OK, so I started to vape.”

For the uninitiated, vaping is the act of inhaling the vapors produced by a battery-powered “e-cigarette,” which heats a liquid when a button is pressed. Most common e-cigarette liquids contain extracted nicotine — thus the ongoing public debate — although there are also nicotine-free varieties on the market.

Debora had been vaping for seven months before a friend challenged her to attempt some cloud tricks. She proved a quick study and was soon making videos for her Instagram account. That ultimately led to sponsorship, a full-time job as a creative at a vaping company, and her entry into the world of competitions, where we found her last month.

A vape cloud tricker warms up before vape cloud trick competition during the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in South Jakarta. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
A vape cloud tricker warms up before vape cloud trick competition during the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in South Jakarta. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

Money changes everything

Cloud trick competitions are a major attraction at every vaping fair. Prizes vary from IDR2 million (US$132) to IDR50 million ($US3,291). At the Vape Fair, the biggest such event in Southeast Asia, the top prize is at the upper end of that estimate, Debora told us.

Debora, one of only a few women to get into the competition scene, lost to a male counterpart in the preliminary round of this year’s event.

“Only two female participants participated this time. It’s too bad that we both lost, but winning or losing is just part of it,” she said.

It’s estimated that at least 100 “trickers” compete regularly in Indonesia. Debora herself has participated in numerous competitions over the past three years — winning once in Bali.

Osel Chandra, 21, demonstrates some of his vape cloud tricks inside a vape shop in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
Osel Chandra, 21, demonstrates some of his vape cloud tricks inside a vape shop in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

Asked how much she can earn promoting a product to her 17,500 Instagram followers at this point, she offered a somewhat guarded response.

“It varies. I cannot tell the details,” she said. “I can only say the range is between IDR2 million and IDR10 million (US$132-US$658) per brand, with obligations that vary.

“Making and posting three to seven photos and two videos for a brand, for example. It very much depends on the contract.”

Fathiba, a vaping star who occupies a somewhat headier place in the vape-o-sphere, said it’s been something of a dream job for him in terms of earnings.

Young men enjoying flavored vapors inside a vape shop and cafe in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
Young men enjoying flavored vapors inside a vape shop and cafe in Tangerang, Banten province, Indonesia. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

When we spoke to him back in May, he said he was then partnered with four to five China-based brands. When we encountered Fathiba again at the Vape Show last month, he said that number had jumped to 10 in the four intervening months.

On a typical project contract, one overseas brand might ask him to produce three short, entertaining promotional videos and one photo, then publish them on Instagram and YouTube, he explained. He currently has over 22,700 followers on Instagram.

“For a package like that, I get paid at least US$500 USD, and orders are up to six packages per month,” Fathiba said.

An average of US$3,000 per month is excellent money by middle class standards in Indonesia. Aside from his China-based deals, Fathiba also has a contract with a leading Indonesian vape liquid brand. And when it comes to cloud trick competitions, Fathiba is routinely asked to judge, which means additional fees.

“A leading vape artist like my friend Verry Kartika, with his 87,600 followers on Instagram, earns much more than me,” he added.

Thara Aprilia poses for a picture with her e-cigarette while working at a well-known brand's counter at the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in South Jakarta. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
Thara Aprilia poses for a picture with her e-cigarette while working at a well-known brand’s counter at the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in South Jakarta. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

Chen deferentially refers to upper-level stars like Fathiba or Verry Kartika as “vape artists.”

“It is a general term used for vapers who are famous, very popular in social media, and have contracts with international brands,” she explained. “They are the celebrities of the vaping world.”

That celebrity extends to areas beyond trick competitions. Cloud chasing (competitions in which vapers attempt to produce increasingly long vapor shapes on stage), vape modeling, product reviews, or coil building (the art of installing coils for e-cigarette devices) are also paths to fame in the community, she said.

Hanging on to that fame, however, can be hard work.

“We have to shape our skills constantly, inventing new creations whenever possible,” Chen said. “If you are a product reviewer on YouTube or Instagram, you need to post on a regular basis and be prepared with fresh ideas as well. Your audience doesn’t want to watch you do the same concept every time.”

That pressure to constantly innovate leads to a relatively early exit from the competition life for some.

It’s a tough racket

Osel Chandra, 21, is one who couldn’t see a long-term future in the scene. After more than a year competing in cloud trick competitions, he told us that he felt he wasn’t making any progress.

“Yes, for now, I am quitting,” he said during a conversation at a vape shop in Tangerang, Banten province.

Despite having what to layman’s eyes seem like more-than-impressive cloud trick skills, Osel’s highest achievement thus far has been making the final 16 in an international competition in Yogyakarta. He was also sponsored by one Jakarta-based brand to compete in numerous competitions until early this year — but his business was declining.

“A cloud tricker must have things other than skill,” Osel said, suggesting that confidence is just as key.

Visitors puff on their e-cigarettes during the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in South Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 6, 2018. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
Visitors puff on their e-cigarettes during the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in South Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 6, 2018. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

“I would say that the successful cloud trickers were born to be ones. They have natural talent and self-confidence, so they are always capable of beating nervousness on stage.”

Back in 2016, Osel was among a rush of young Indonesians who were inspired to try their hand at cloud tricks after watching videos produced by vaping artists on Youtube and Instagram.

“Actually, I began to vape because of one reason: I like cloud tricks. I wanted to do those tricks myself, creating videos for fun. Competitions came after I got an offer by a vaping brand that wanted to endorse me, but that was not continued,” Osel recalled.

And if you’re wondering, no, Osel wasn’t a smoker before taking up e-cigarettes, though he’s quick to insist that he hasn’t found it to be addictive.

Silvia Arnisa exhales vapors for a photograph while working as a promoter at the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in Jakarta. Photo: Reynold Sumayku
Silvia Arnisa exhales vapors for a photograph while working as a promoter at the 2018 Jakarta Vape Fest in Jakarta. Photo: Reynold Sumayku

Today, he still believes the entertainment side of the vaping industry holds promise, he just doesn’t see himself being the one to benefit.

“Now I’m just an occasional vaper. Maybe someday I’ll be back again, doing the tricks, but not for competitions or an ambition to become a vape artist. I’d make videos for fun only, like I was doing when I first started.”

Editor: E-cigarette products are to become fully regulated this month in Indonesia following a rapid growth in the industry over the past few years. Apart from the surrounding debate on public health, it is a trending lifestyle, particularly among middle class Indonesian living in the big cities of Java Island and Bali. There are approximately 3,500 entrepreneurs running vape shops.

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