Single mainlanders are learning how to enjoy life on their own

The number of single people on the mainland is rising - and many are learning to enjoy life on their own, writes Andrea Chen

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 9:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2014, 4:46pm

Unmarried and in her early 30s, Shanghai-based Yanni Cai has learned that being single is not the blessing that magazine columns say it is. That's especially true when dining alone in restaurants.

It's hard for her to resist the temptation to try the new Chinese restaurant next to her apartment building, but even harder for her to tell the waitress at the door that she is dining alone.

"No one welcomes a customer ordering a meal for one while occupying a table for two," Cai says. "Also, the serving portions of Chinese dishes are too large for a single diner. No restaurants, except for fast food chains, offer set meals, or a table for one."

Eating with family and friends makes things worse. All dinner conversations end with the question: "When are you going to get married?"

The number of people aged 20 and above on the mainland who have never married has risen from 8.9 million in 2000 to more than 13.7 million in 2010, according to the latest census. Unlike their parents, four in 10 Chinese adults between the ages of 20 and 34 are single.

Despite pressure from peers and family, many singles in major cities such as Shanghai have stopped feeling sorry for themselves, Cai says. Instead, they explore a single lifestyle and aim to live a quality life on their own.

After quitting her job at a Chinese business magazine in 2012, she became an advocate of the single lifestyle, and decided to rescue solo diners from fast food and microwave meals.

Cai set up a Youku channel in December 2012 called Cooking for One. It features weekly five-minute video recipes showing solo diners preparing dishes for themselves, and has 3.5 million views to date. The idea that "Single people also deserve a quality meal" has proved very popular, Cai says.

Her subscribers and Weibo followers are single and share her sentiments.

"Many of my subscribers don't even know how to cook. They simply enjoy watching other single diners cook for themselves. The concept of cooking for one speaks to them," she says. "We are alone, so why not treat ourselves well?"

Professor Sandy To Sin-chi, from the University of Hong Kong, researched Chinese "leftover women" and found that single women with high disposable income enjoy a more glamorous lifestyle than their married counterparts.

"These women like to treat themselves to afternoon tea in a five-star hotel over the weekend. They have no family burdens, no tuition fees to pay and no need to contribute to family income. So they can afford luxury handbags, cars and apartments," To says.

That's not just true of singles on the mainland. American sociologist Eric Klinenberg found that single people in the US also spend more discretionary dollars than their married counterparts.

In his book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, the New York University scholar writes that, on average, the annual expenditure of a single person was US$34,471 in 2010.

That's US$6,000 higher than married individuals without children, and nearly 1.5 times higher than those with children.

In the US, where half of all adults are unmarried, enterprising companies have started to pay attention to singles' newfound buying power, Klinenberg writes. The rising number of glamorous singles in television adverts that once would have featured couples and families is evidence, he argues.

Even diamond rings, long associated with marriage and romantic love, are now being pitched by DeBeers to unmarried women as a treat to themselves.

Lifestyle magazines offering advice and products for single people are popular in Japan, where more than half of adults aged 18 to 34 are single, according to the latest five-yearly survey by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research done in 2010. Restaurants are equipped with bocchi seki, a booth-like lunchroom seat that helps single diners avoid embarrassing dining experiences.

Chinese businesses have also jumped on the bandwagon, especially with singles day sales, which falls on November 11 because the shape of the Arabic numeral one symbolises the status of being single.

Weeks ahead of November 11 last year, online vendors started promoting single-friendly products, from single-sized rice cookers to insurance for singles, with an additional 4,999-yuan (HK$6,300) "compensation" offered if the insured gets married in the first week of November the following year.

Among other products: an "anti-loneliness ramen bowl" caught the eye of single shoppers last year. A photo of the ramen bowl, which has a built-in iPhone dock - which also functions as an amplifier - drew more than 20,000 comments and reposts in a day, after Chinese writer and racing driver Han Han uploaded it onto Weibo two weeks before Singles Day.

Online shoppers spent more than 30 billion yuan on Alibaba's shopping sites in a single day, breaking the 19.1 billion yuan transaction record of the previous Singles Day sale in 13 hours.

The tradition of shopping online for Singles Day dates back to 2009, when Alibaba was looking for a day during the non-peak retail season to hold an annual online shopping event. The company latched on to Singles Day, which was only celebrated by youngsters on university campuses.

"November falls between the Golden Week and Christmas holidays, and is a quiet season for the shopping malls. And we needed to get the word out about the concept of Singles Day," Alibaba chief operations officer Zhang Yong said last year.

The strategy of encouraging people to spend on themselves on Singles Day proved an immediate success. Alibaba processed 52 million yuan through its online payment system during the first Singles Day sale. The following year, the festival saw a threefold rise in the value of transactions.

Klinenberg believes the rising recognition of single consumers implies that being single is now less of a social stigma.

But To argues that on the mainland, this is not the case. From interviews with 50 "leftover women" in Shanghai, she found that conventional marriage values still prevail among single people, even those who have lived or studied overseas.

"In China, the idea of being single is nothing like the Samantha Jones lifestyle in Sex and the City. It is regarded as an unstable and transitory stage of life. To meet someone that can take care of you for the rest of your life and produce children is still something that needs to be done. Almost all of my interviewees said they feel something is missing if they are not with someone."

To says the so-called singles lifestyle on the mainland is probably just a shelter for single people to escape the pressures of society.

Chinese society, deeply rooted in the Confucian tradition, still values family and collectiveness rather than individualism.

Now in her early 30s, Cai says she has already passed the age where she gets anxious about her single status. "Part of me still believes that the longer you have lived alone, the more difficult it will be for you to find the right person," she says.

"But when I reached the age of 30, I found myself more confident in my single life. An opportunity to meet the right person will present itself when it is meant to be."