It is 3pm on a Monday and I am seated in a conference room on a high floor in Tiktok’s Singapore office. I am 15 minutes early for my meeting but the time passes quickly, thanks to a panoramic view of the city through the ceiling-to-floor windows bracketing the room. When Shou Zi Chew bursts in, I leap to my feet, startled out of my reverie.
Dressed in a pair of jeans and a simple T-shirt, Chew makes a beeline for me with his hand outstretched. “I must say, I never expected to do a Vogue interview,” he jokes. We sit down to chat and he listens to my questions intently. When he answers, he is open but never overshares. I get the sense that a personal interview like this one is not yet second nature to him, but he is determined to make this worth my time.
Chew became the CEO of TikTok in May 2021, just two months after he had joined the app’s parent company—China-based ByteDance—as its chief financial officer. Since his appointment at TikTok, the social media platform specialising in short-form video content has grown considerably, surpassing one billion users worldwide under his leadership.
In March, the 40-year-old Singaporean testified in a US Congress hearing about TikTok’s relationship with China and protections for its youngest users. Several global news outlets characterised the questioning targeted at Chew as “contentious” and “aggressive”—with US lawmakers repeatedly cutting him off midsentence—and video clips of the hearing quickly went viral.
One unforeseen consequence of this virality came in the explosion of Chew’s public presence. As his composure, congeniality and eloquence during the congressional hearing drew praise online, Chew’s 19,000 followers on TikTok grew to nearly four million. In just a week, he had gone from being relatively hidden from the public eye to a household name.
“The publicity that came along was unexpected. But as a company that is growing, it is important to be a little bit more visible so that people can understand us better—and we can earn the trust that we need to,” Chew reflects.
On his TikTok account (@shou.time), Chew now posts at least one video a month, sometimes more. When it comes to subject matter, they run the gamut.
Some videos are informative, like when he shares new product developments at the company, or shares mini-vlogs of exhibitions he visits around the world. Others—like one where he uses CapCut transitions to telekinetically change his outfit—are more tongue in cheek. “I try to use the effects we offer in the TikTok library from time to time. You might have seen some of them. There was a ‘green flag’ one and some AI ones. Those are very fun,” he says.
While he is no longer shying away from the public eye, Chew’s family is where he draws a line. “I do try and keep my family out of the spotlight.”
Still, he is happy to share that his wife and he welcomed a new member to the family this year—their third child. “There’s quite an age gap between this kid and the previous kid. My wife and I are relearning everything, like changing diapers,” he laughs.
Chew met his wife, Taiwanese-American Vivian Kao, while they were pursuing MBAs at Harvard Business School. They got to know each other the summer after their first year, when they had internships in California. Kao was working for Better Place, a clean energy start-up.
At the time, Chew was working for a start-up too. It was called Facebook.
Today, the family is based in Singapore, where Chew was born and bred, and his parents and siblings live. Growing up in the city in the ’80s and ’90s, he had, in his own words, a typical Singaporean childhood.
He shares: “I went to a neighbourhood primary school called Hong Dao Primary School. It doesn’t exist anymore and has been assimilated into Anderson Primary School.” As a child, he reminisces fondly about playing soccer at the void deck with his friends. “I wasn’t very good, but I’d keep asking for the ball and they’d pass it to me. Then I’d have no idea what to do with it.”
He then went on to The Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College—since merged to become Hwa Chong Institution— which consistently ranked among the top schools in Singapore.
“I made some lifelong friends in secondary school and junior college whom I still keep in touch with,” he says. “Then came National Service, of course. It was exactly what you’d expect. I have lots of stories of us training in the jungles of Brunei.”
TikTok’s headquarters are spread across Los Angeles and Singapore. Chew travels extensively to the US and around the globe—and battles a killer time difference with his colleagues abroad. Still, he says, nothing feels like home. “You know that feeling when you haven’t been back in Singapore for a while? You touch down at our beautiful airport and then are hit by the humidity the minute you step out onto the street. That’s home.”
Chew traces his journey with TikTok back to a decade ago, when he first met the team behind the app while leading a group of one of ByteDance’s earliest investors.
“About 10 years ago, I met these founders who were building a very cool app. The idea behind it was interesting. Let’s recommend content to people based not on who they knew, but on their genuine interests,” Chew says, excited like he’s hearing it again for the first time. “They were small then—a team of 30. But I became a user of TikTok and really connected with what it was trying to do. It brought joy to a lot of people, and that was something I was drawn to.”
There is an earnestness with which Chew speaks about TikTok that perhaps explains why the company has reached such heights with him at the helm. He is, without an inch of pretension, a true believer in its power.
“Do you know Khaby Lame, the most followed person on our platform? Khaby was not famous. He was a factory worker in Italy before he became popular on TikTok,” Chew shares. “Obviously, he is very funny and people connected with that. But they were able to discover him because TikTok is a platform that allows for that. If it were based on who Khaby was before he started making content, there would have been very limited means for him to be discovered. That, to me, is the most powerful thing about this platform.”
Chew is alluding to the democracy of content on the app. TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, or “discovery engine”, as Chew calls it, is the app’s most unique trait. Unlike any other social media platform before it, TikTok shows you content based not on your social network but what you truly like.
“The beauty of TikTok is that it is designed for everyone to be heard”
According to Chew, TikTok’s algorithm uses machine learning to analyse the behaviour of its users across the globe (who number over a billion), using patterns in their responses to different pieces of content to come up with tailor-made recommendations for each user. So, does TikTok read your mind? Yes, with the help of math.
“The beauty of the product is that it is designed for everyone to be heard. If you have good content that resonates with people, they will see your video. It’s not only the users who are already famous who can grow their platform here—TikTok gives everyone a voice.”
It is, in part, due to this evening of the playing field that TikTok has become a frontrunner in recent years in driving cultural conversation and trends. From fashion to music, the app’s creators and users now form an all-powerful ideological marketplace that dictates what becomes popular worldwide.
“There’s this great story of a TikTok user longboarding down California with Ocean Spray cranberry juice and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ playing in the background. That song re-trended in the top hits because of his videos,” Chew shares. According to Ocean Spray’s CEO, the cranberry product company saw a spike in demand too.
Where, then, does all this influence go from here? To Chew, the evolution of TikTok is an open-ended question that must be left as such. “These things cannot be engineered; they have to be authentic and organic.”
That may be so, but the sheer rate of TikTok’s growth has led to myriad consequences, from escalating speculation on when the app will go public with what analysts anticipate to be a blockbuster IPO to governments debating restrictions and bans on the platform. With the weight of it all on his shoulders, I wonder out loud how Chew unwinds after work.
“It is hard. You constantly have to try and carve out some time to slow down a little bit. I’m still trying to find that balance. I don’t think I have a very good solution to this yet,” he says.
Well, I could offer some advice. As I tell him, there is nothing I like more after a long day than curling up in bed with the lights out, ready to scroll for hours on my TikTok For You feed.
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Styling Desmond Lim
Fashion assistant Nicholas See
Make-up Zhou Aiyi/Makeup Entourage
Special thanks to XTRA
Order your copy of the November ‘Play’ issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands from 10 November 2023.