CHINA NOVEMBER 19, 2013
Some Chinese consider Singles Day—November 11, which, when written as 11/11, looks like a Pictionary sketch for “loneliness”—an opportunity to find love. Others take it as a chance to buy stuff. Over the last few years, e-commerce sites like Alibaba have turned romantic insecurity into sales, offering deep discounts on just about every item imaginable. This year, online vendors sold $5.7 billion worth of goods, more than twice what Americans spent last Cyber Monday. It was only a matter of time before some bright entrepreneur looked at these dual purposes of love and commerce and thought, "Why not do both?"
The Singles Day event I attended was organized by the dating website Baihe and held at a bar in Beijing’s posh Sanlitun neighborhood. Men, mostly in their thirties, who’d paid steep sums—a VIP membership on Baihe can cost up to $3,000 per year—had the opportunity to meet eligible young women who attended for free. The event was modeled on the wildly popular dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates as “If You’re Not Serious, Don’t Bother Me.” (The English title is “If You Are the One.”) But whereas the TV show features a panel of women interrogating one man, this event flipped the formula: Ten of Baihe’s most eligible Beijing bachelors grilled a series of ladies, assessing their attitude, appearance, and overall marriageability. This version had more symbolic power, I thought, since it dramatized China’s lopsided gender ratio, in which men are expected to outnumber women by 24 million in 2020. The event’s money-for-love premise didn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact, it was in keeping with the spirit of the TV show: In the most famous moment of Fei Cheng Wu Rao, a young woman quipped that she’d “rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”
The MC shushed the crowd. “Today is the most important day of the year,” he announced, and invited the ten bachelors up to the front of the bar. Each wore a number, 1 through 10, and stood behind a placard with his name on it. They went around introducing themselves. Bachelor No. 1, wearing a cream-colored jacket and a gelled bouffant hair-do, said his name was Zhang Nan. He was 34, and had the “simplicity” of a Tianjin native but the “friendliness” of a Beijinger. No. 6, a handsome 32-year-old named Ma Long sporting a blazer over a t-shirt, said he worked in finance, and his hobbies were exercising and investing. No. 9, a 29-year-old businessman from Xinjiang wearing a gray suit and turquoise tie, introduced himself with a saying: “If you want to be loved, you have to love others.” No. 10 showed off his English: “Happy to meet you!” No. 2 was a no-show—he’d gotten stuck in traffic. Each bachelor had a small mushroom-shaped light on the table in front of him, which at the beginning of each round would light up. If/when he lost interest in a contestant, he would push the mushroom to turn it off.
The first contestant, wearing a short black skirt and fluffy white sweater and a mask like in Eyes Wide Shut, took the stage to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” She removed the mask and introduced herself: Her name was Han Weiwei, she was 22, and she likes older guys, especially engineers. She’d already had some boyfriends before, she said, but the relationships got messy, so this time she was looking for “a simple kind of love.” Bachelor No. 1 got right to the point: “You’re still young. How long would you want to wait to get married?” Weiwei answered that a relationship is between two people, and there’s no fixed timeline for marriage—you just have to see how it feels. A few of the men turned off their mushroom lights. No. 6 asked about her astrological sign. She said she’s a Leo (courageous, cocky), and that she “discriminates against Virgos” because they’re too picky. Some more mushroom lights went off. The host interrupted: “These uncles”—the crowd laughed—“seem to think your age is an obstacle.” There was also concern that she would be upset if her husband came home late. At this, one of her girlfriends took the microphone and defended her. She might not like it if her husband worked late, she said, but if she could tell he was tired, she wouldn’t fight with him. After she finished talking, all the lights went off.
The second bachelorette was a Virgo (modest, detail-oriented), 29 years old, and planned to start her own clothing store. She’d broken up with a long-term boyfriend four months before. Bachelor No. 10 wanted to know more about this. How could he be sure she was over her ex? She assured him they broke up peacefully, and that she’s adjusted. Still, when she was done talking, all the lights went out. This struck me as a bit extreme. One of the hosts asked Bachelor No. 1 why he’d lost interest. “It’s because she’s a Virgo,” he said. He’d known some Virgo girls, he said, and they all made him crazy. One of the hosts took this moment to make a short speech about how astrological signs aren’t everything. I asked my Chinese friend if the men had really rejected the woman because she was a Virgo. “I think it’s actually because she’s too old,” she told me. This was the best case for astrological signs I’d ever heard: an excuse to turn someone down when you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
The third round ended quickly, which I found surprising: The contestant, a 21-year-old with bright orange hair wearing a loose pink top and a black skirt, was easily the most attractive so far, and seemed more confident than the others. But again, the bachelors thought she was too young. The distaste was mutual: When they revealed which bachelor she preferred, it turned out she’d written down “#2,” the one stuck in traffic.
Bachelorette No. 4 was a hit: tall, pretty, a Scorpio (curious, stubborn), worked in HR for an investment company. When the guys peppered her with questions (“Where are you from?” “I want to ask you about your sign…”) she answered playfully (“Guess.” “Why are you always asking about signs?”). Bachelor No. 10 flipped his name placard upside down, which meant that he would never turn his light off—a dramatic display of commitment. In the end, she narrowed it down to him and bachelor No. 5. She asked them one last question: “What quality can you not tolerate in a woman?” No. 5 said he hates it when girls fight with him for no reason. No. 10 said he doesn’t like a girl who gives up easily. She picked 5.
With only eight guys onstage, they invited up two replacements: A 34-year-old Beijinger named Gao Wei who looked like he’d been cast in a Chinese remake of Grease, and me. I introduced myself: “Hi everyone, my name is Chris, I’m from Boston in the United States, and I don’t care at all about astrological signs.” This did not endear me to the audience.
The next contestant, Sun Jin, looked uncomfortable from the beginning. She kept glancing away distractedly; I thought she might be sick. She’d been living in Japan for the last three years, and had just quit her job to start her own fashion brand. The hosts remarked at how “stable,” “powerful,” and “strong” she was. A friend came up to testify that she’s very organized, and calm under pressure. While this was all very impressive, I got the strong sense she didn’t want to be here, so I turned off my light as a sort of protest vote. She finally picked the Grease guy, who seemed to be having trouble smiling. When the host asked him why he wasn’t more excited, he said he didn’t expect to be picked. Then why hadn’t he turned off his light? I asked my friend. “Maybe he forgot,” she said.
The crowd was starting to look bored, especially when the next contestant, a 25-year-old hipster-looking girl wearing Chuck Taylors, said she was just there to “buy soy sauce,” slang for “for no reason.” I decided it was time to raise the stakes. “Do you believe in fate?” I asked her. Yes, she said. The host pressed her: What if she met the same person on the subway three days in a row—would she say hello? “It depends,” she said. The host said this means she’s “not very romantic,” but I was on her side. My interest waned, however, when she said her hobbies were “going to work” and “sleeping.” I pushed my mushroom light off. By the end, only Bachelor No. 1 still had his on. At the moment of reckoning, she approached him … and turned it off for him. “Sorry,” she whispered.
The last contestant, Li Jue, entered to the sound of ten hearts pounding. She was tall, classily dress, 25 years old, and a Cancer (conservative, sensitive). However, there were concerns, articulated first by Bachelor No. 5: “You’re so beautiful,” he said. “How can you give your boyfriend a feeling of security?” In other words, how could he trust her not to run around? No one seemed to think this question was weird, including her. She said she’s very respectful, and likes to stay at home. If anything, she said, she gets too attached. No. 3 had a different worry: How tall did a guy have to be to date her? She said she could date someone 3 cm shorter than her, but no more. He wordlessly turned off his mushroom.
Li Jue narrowed the pool down to two: No. 5, a friendly architect, and No. 9, the nattily dressed guy from Xinjiang—even though the latter had turned off his light. (I shouldn’t have said I didn’t care about signs—amateur move.) But when she asked No. 9 why he’d turned his light off, he seemed to have a minor existential crisis. If they’d met in another situation, he might have liked her, he said, but under these conditions he was feeling a lot of pressure. He worried she’d picked him only because he dressed well: Really, he said, he’s just a normal guy. The speech had its intended effect: She picked No. 5.
After the game ended, a handful of singles hung around to exchange contact information with the bachelors/bachelorettes and other audience members. If fate had intervened, it wasn’t obvious. The room was quiet. Everything felt so serious. No one had acted the way you’re supposed to act on a dating show, cracking jokes or trying to prove how fun they were. It was more like a job interview in front of a panel of bosses.
Then again, love isn’t a laughing matter to these guys. They really, really want to get married—enough to drop a few grand on a Baihe VIP membership and show up on a Monday night. Spring Festival is around the corner, after all, and no thirtysomething wants to have to go home and face his parents empty-handed again. Plus, compared to paying a “bride price” and other starkly transactional marriage practices, signing up for a dating service is pretty tame.
From this perspective, the women’s relative calm seemed less like quiet weakness than quiet strength. “Chinese girls are all a little introverted,” explained Zhu Yinyin, who owns the bar that hosted the event, “they don’t like to put themselves on display.” More to the point, they held all the cards. They were young, attractive, and accomplished. If they didn’t put on a show, maybe it was because they didn’t have to.
On the way out, I asked Zhang Nan, Bachelor No. 1, if he thought this boutique approach to dating was worth the price. It was, he said, since you can save a lot of time and energy otherwise spent on sorting out good prospects from bad. As for today’s event, he said, “it’s just another way to meet someone.”
Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic.