Two parents arranging a date for their respective children at the Shanghai Matchmaking Expo
China’s dating landscape is a little different from the swipe-based cattle call we're used to. The gender imbalance—which is partly thanks to the recently relaxed single-child policy—stacks up to 1.17 boys born for every girl, but that lopsided ratio isn’t working in anybody’s favor; there are still plenty of single ladies and even more single guys.
In fact, many of China’s young people aren’t even getting laid, let alone finding people to rent houses and periodically argue with. The country’s business boom may have created a generation moneyed enough to match the cast of Jersey Shore, yet nobody seems to be taking the same ravenous approach to the dating world as Pauly D et al.
This is a concern for the government, which, for the past few years, has been helping to fund enormous nonprofit matchmaking conventions in Shanghai to inject some orchestrated passion into its young population. The dry spell is of even more concern to the parents of this generation, whose top priority is usually to help create a happy family nucleus for what is normally their only child.
The convention organizers have clearly taken note, as the latest Shanghai Matchmaking Expo saw the introduction of a dedicated room for parents, designed to make it easier for them to swap their kids’ profiles. I decided to head to this area to see if it was helping China’s loveless legions find romance.
Before I got there I met organizer Zhou Juemen, the head of the Shanghai Matchmaking Association. A big personality with strong government ties, she explained how these events—there have been five since 2011, clocking up around 200,000 visitors overall—were largely driven by the demands of parents rather than love-hungry twentysomethings.
“Of those who go to these events, around a third of them are parents,” she said. “Their kids are either too busy with their work or not willing to come. And with the development of computer technology, a lot of work can be done at home, which has contributed to the emergence of ‘indoormen’ and ‘indoorwomen.' The parents are very worried about their kids. But we do not want this event to be only for the parents, so we separate them from the young people by setting up this room. Some parents will choose to come here alone; some parents take their kids."
Based on what I'd been told, I wasn't expecting much hysteria as I walked into the main convention area. The guy in the helmet, however, clearly had different intel; I don't know what that thing was that he was holding, but I assumed it was some sort of crowd control device—an economical way to throat-punch roughly three medium-size people at once.
Turns out I was right. The guard had clearly been anticipating some kind of wall-of-death scenario—hysterical young men and women passionately hurling themselves at one another. But this wasn't a Lamb of God show; this was a room in a convention center full of parents trying to convince one another that their children were worth marrying.
Most were sat around awkwardly, their kids' most important details—age, education, salary—pinned to umbrellas in front of them. The atmosphere felt a bit like a garage sale half an hour after all the good stuff has gone.
Other parents browsed notice boards full of human collectible cards.
Understandably, not that many people wanted to be photographed while they were trying to persuade strangers to have sex with their children. However, this man—Stephen—told me that this was the third time he’d been to the Expo and that he was after spouses for his son and daughter, the former based in Canada and the latter in Shanghai.
“My son is almost 40,” he said, standing proudly next to laminated profiles of his two kids. “I don’t care about location, and I don’t care about nationality. If a girl wants to marry my son, they could move to Canada.”
Stephen had been doling out business cards bearing his kids’ information. He was looking to instigate contact so his children could choose for themselves rather than have a partnership forced on them.
“I care about the girl’s family background,” he said. “ I want a well-educated background. Does my son know I’m here? Er, he knows something, but not… everything. My daughter knows. She’s OK with it.”
Shortly after I spoke with Stephen, a lady burst forward and thrust a picture of a young girl into my hand. “It is better to find a foreigner,” she said, visibly excited. “My daughter works in a hospital and speaks fluent English, so a foreigner is a better fit. And we can’t find foreigners here. You are the only foreigner I’ve seen.”
Flattered as I was, it was hard to judge how much chemistry I'd have with her daughter through a crumpled laminated photograph. Instead of dwelling on that for too long, I started a conversation with the lady’s friend, Zhang Huizhen (above). She didn’t try to set me up with her daughter, but did give some insight as to why she came to the parents’ room.
“There are very few male participants,” she sighed. “It is difficult to find the right partner for my daughter. My kid is very shy, so we parents have to be courageous and go out to find the right partner. But I see little hope. The really excellent guys will not come to such events; some were married before, some have family issues. But I have only one child. I will do everything I can to help my daughter solve the problem.”
The average age dropped by about 30 years in the main matching room, but the atmosphere was similarly uncomfortable. Various matchmaking agencies had laid out booths, and a load of twentysomethings perched around trestle tables not talking to one another.
I've never seen a room of young people having such little fun. It was a blunt reminder that this event was not about bumping into someone you might want to see again but a mass cross-referencing operation that, without the importance placed on it by the parents swapping notes next door, wouldn’t even be happening.
Many Westerners might find this whole parent-driven relationship festival a little depressing, but marriage means something very different in Chinese culture. Usually it is a marriage of families as well as individuals; many young working parents have to spend a large amount of time away from their children, who often stay at home with grandparents who have relocated purely to babysit.
It wasn't just parents there to help—there was also a squad of trained psychologists on hand to help with any potential dating issues. One of them was this guy, South Korean Michael Cui, a dating expert—like a pickup artist but without the entitlement and fedora—who had been helping youngsters all weekend in one-on-one sessions.
“They all want a perfect partner, but that’s not possible,” he said. “We tell them, ‘Lower your standards.’ They cannot accept that. That’s the main problem. The second is communication. The man might not know how to talk to the girlfriend. They unconsciously offend the girlfriend, so the girlfriend says goodbye. They have these problems, and I give suggestions.”
He continued, beginning to segue into more of the traditional PUA patter. “Most girls are moody,” he claimed. “Why? Because they don’t feel safe. Why? It’s a theory from Freud. So if a girl is very moody, you should know about their parents. Do they have a good relationship, or did they fight, or did their parents get divorced? If you know they’re from a single-parent family you should think things over. If you think you cannot give her enough safety, say goodbye. If you really like this girl and don’t want to say goodbye—and the girl is very moody—you should think, ‘Do I have enough patience?’ If not, say goodbye.”
I wasn’t sure the concept of moodiness was as gender-specific as Michael suggested, but it was good to know he was there to help either way.
I left the singles convention on a bus ferrying people back into town—a bus, like the main matchmaking room, full of young single people not talking to one another. There was an air of deflation in the air, but with smartphones full of profile photos and pockets full of profile business cards, much of the real matchmaking facilitated by the event was yet to take place.
Earlier, organizer Zhou Juemen had said that, according to official statistics, around 7 to 10 percent of marriages in Shanghai were the result of matchmaking events. I couldn't find confirmation of that anywhere online—and those statistics presumably include the huge amount of smaller company-organized dating events, as well as the government-affiliated bashes—but if it's a legitimate stat it's also an impressive one.
“In the past, we Chinese were more traditional and thought that love would solve everything,” said Zhou. “But now we pay more attention to finding a background-matching partner. We’ve set up this platform to get those young people out of their homes and to broaden their channels of finding dates, and we set up the psychological counselling section to help them enhance their capabilities of love.”
“Background-matching partner” and “enhance their capabilities of love” aren't exactly romantic phrases—I can't imagine we'll be hearing them in an Adele song anytime soon. But at least these events serve to channel, if not lift, the pressure so many Chinese parents place on their unwed sprogs, offering them a forum to tackle it together. Although China is becoming increasingly open to outside ideals, it’s clearly not the case that singles conventions are attended by battle-ax parents dragging their career-minded kids up convention center stairs by the hair.
“I’m here because I’m 27 and I don't have a boyfriend,” one pretty girl said to me, with a shrug, as she browsed profiles with her mom. “It’s my mom’s idea, really. But I don’t mind. I’s fine; I’m of marrying age.”
And for many, it’s as simple as that.
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