Rules of engagement for a modern woman
Bride Wannabes, a recently concluded local reality TV show featuring five fearless women looking for husbands, was an instant hit. The Equal Opportunities Commission condemned it as sexist and discriminatory against women; bloggers hotly debated the techniques for ensnaring eligible men advocated by the 'life coach' and 'relationship expert' in the show, while the five aspiring heroines attracted brickbats and bouquets to varying degrees. What is it about this show that has stirred such strong emotions?
The Chinese name of the show - Shengnu Love to Fight - is actually more uncharitable than its English rendition. The shengnu in the title, 'blossomed woman', is a play on the term 'surplus (or leftover) woman', used first by mainland Chinese media to describe well-educated, high-income women well past their 'marriageable' age who are unable to find husbands. It was one of the 171 new Hanyu terms and phrases listed by the education ministry in 2007.
On the mainland, surveys show that the largest number of shengnu are found in the teeming, big cities - some 800,000 in Beijing alone by one estimate.
It is not surprising that the problem of shengnu is most acute in Hong Kong, China's most developed city. It is estimated that, proportionally speaking, Hong Kong has the largest share of shengnu - about 700,000 to 800,000 single women with an average age of 40. Government statistics show that the median age at marriage of Hong Kong women who were married for the first time rose from 23.9 years in 1981 to 28.7 in 2010, while the proportion of 'never married' Hong Kong women rose 61.3per cent from 1986 to 2010, while that of men grew by only 16.2per cent.
While the show may have exaggerated certain episodes of the matchmaking stories for dramatic effect, anecdotal evidence does confirm that Hong Kong women, from iron ladies to ironing ladies, do face growing difficulty in finding suitable partners for life.
It is easy to blame rising educational attainment and incomes, plus competition from attractive and accomplished women from the mainland, for the increasingly desperate predicament of Hong Kong women. The efforts made by many single women, and their anxious parents, to find a match underscore the reality that, whatever their educational and professional qualifications, women still yearn for mates who would make their lives complete.
The painstaking advice given by the coaches to remake the five women - from losing weight to straightening one's teeth and learning to tilt your face to look at your date at a 45-degree angle - raises some interesting, age-old questions about the relationship between the sexes. In this day and age, do women still crave domination, as a recent article in Newsweek about the fantasy life of working women would have us believe? Would men be accepting of high-achieving women only when they are able to dominate, and does physical attractiveness remain the key to unlocking the secrets of a fulfilling, lifelong relationship?
While it is tempting to dismiss the worship of physical fitness and movie-star good looks as a fetish fuelled by our fiendishly commercial society, physical attractiveness has always been at the core of the human struggle for survival. Leonard Shlain, a medical doctor turned author, points out in one of his best-sellers that, for millions of years, the perils of childbirth prompted our ancestral mothers to carefully choose their partners, and their need for 'meat iron' to make up for their loss of blood compelled them to choose whoever appeared the strongest and best able to bring it home.
Likewise for men, especially those who still believe in the institution of marriage, reproductive capacity remains a prime consideration in their choice of a mate.
Against such constraints, it is understandable why many women looking for suitable partners feel trapped in a race against their biological clock. Modern reproductive science has created more options for both men and women and extended the window for procreation, but not eliminated the time pressures.
The question remains: in modern society, when many women are capable of working crazy hours, earning more than men and functioning as better managers, do they still need to put up a semblance of submission to render themselves marriageable?
I believe that the future of the relationship between the sexes will remain as interesting and mutually satisfying as it has been for ages, and there is no need for women to deliberately put themselves in a subservient position to be alluring to men.
The reality is that the complexity and the pressures of modern life are such that men and women need each other as equal partners in the quest for a fruitful life.
Whatever one's 'life coach' or 'relationship expert' may have to say about appearance or mannerisms, modern women will only succeed - whether in finding partners in life or at work - when they have come to terms with themselves, and have acquired the courage and confidence to insist that they be accepted on their own terms.
Some men want to dominate, but there are others who prefer to be dominated. Likewise for women. And that's what makes the relationship between the sexes - symbolised by a game of chess in The Waste Land by T.S. Elliot - so eternally interesting.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party