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Sex and relationships

Dating in China: apps, speed dates, and parents in parks scouring singles’ profiles for a match for their children

Finding a mate is a serious business for China’s single men and women, all the more so when Chinese New Year is looming. Some use speed dating, others apps to which they may pay thousands; their parents resort to an old-fashioned way of seeking a match

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 6:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 7:50pm

Millions of Chinese are heading home this week for the Lunar New Year holiday, a time that should be among the happiest for people across the country; however, for those who remain single, parental expectations can make it a stressful one.

The West will be celebrating Valentine’s Day on Wednesday with flowers and chocolate, but love and dating is a far more serious business – in every sense of the word – in China. With only a short time left before the holidays, there is no time to waste.

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Li Jian, a 29-year-old bank manager, was among the 32 single men and women gathered at a nondescript cafe in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen for a recent speed-dating event hosted by a local company called Little Dates.

Li has precisely eight minutes to check out each potential mate, and is optimistic that, by the end of the four-hour exercise, he will walk away with one.

“When my grandmother passed away last year, I failed to fulfil her dying wish of bringing a girlfriend home,” says Li. So now that his maternal grandmother is in her nineties, he is making a more serious effort. 

Likewise, 36-year-old engineer Yu, who does not want to reveal his full name, says family pressure to get married is so intense that returning home for the upcoming holidays is a difficult proposition.

The search for a perfect match is not limited to single people. Across town, 60-year-old Chiu Ngat has been visiting Shenzhen’s Lianhuashan Park every day for the past 15 months to inspect hundreds of dating profiles hanging on fences, browsing for a potential son-in-law.

“I know there are online platforms,” says Chiu, “but it is more reliable when you have actually met their parents”. Like Chiu, many parents have similar worries over the relationship status of their children. 

According to government statistics from 2015, there were an estimated 200 million single people in China, and as a result matchmaking is big business – a 10 billion yuan (US$1.6 billion) industry, to be exact, according to iResearch Consulting Group. 

The online dating segment, in particular, is growing quickly as an increasing number of single people, especially millennials, look to the internet for love. 

Although there are Tinder-like apps such as Momo and Tantan, casual dating is frowned upon in China. And single people, under heavy social pressure to marry, have little time to waste before settling down.

Matchmaking sites and apps – many of which are accessible through WeChat, China’s most popular social media website – recruit users by promising to seal the deal, and quickly, showcasing examples of success stories.

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Marry U, for one, asks registered users to choose when they expect to tie the knot – within six months, a year, or two at most.

Most apps earn revenue by charging a monthly rate or an application fee. However, scrutinising an endless scroll of dating profiles to find the perfect match can be tedious, so companies sensing a business opportunity now also offer tailored services. 

The largest Chinese dating site, Zhenai.com, with more than 140 million registered users, provides VIP services: professional matchmakers pair up users with potential spouses according to the criteria they set, and counsel them throughout the process; users are guaranteed to walk down the aisle within a given period of time. The service doesn’t come cheap – prices start at 18,000 yuan (US$2,850) and can go up to 100,000 yuan.

Jiayuan, a rival matchmaking site, refines the profiles of paid members, but to the extent that they sound too good to be true. “She is slim with curves in all the right places, constantly smiling everywhere and anytime, and her entire body gives off an artistic aura,” one description reads. “She looks like a doll. When you speak to her, her eyes blink at you,” another says.

I know there are online platforms, but it is more reliable when you have actually met their parents
Chiu Ngat

How well these services work is questionable. One woman reportedly asked Zhenai for a refund after she paid more than 100,000 yuan and met six candidates, but was still not able to find the man of her dreams – a millionaire.

Desperate times calls for desperate measures, however, and many single people are willing to pay such sums to find love.

Aside from matchmaking, these sites also offer online classes in which so-called professionals coach people on social and flirting skills. 

On Baihe, another top matchmaking site, a set of 18 audio clips on “How to land the girl of your dreams in seven days” is available for 298 yuan. “This course will lead you into the unknown realm of love and help you gain new flirting skills and approach,” the course description reads. 

A 108-yuan course purporting to teach sexual skills, titled “Explore females’ secret garden”, bears the tagline: “Instead of winning her heart, why not conquer her body.”

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Despite its growing popularity, online dating is not without peril. It is not uncommon to run into frauds posting fake information. “Some girls, after chatting for a while, will start asking you for money,” says Zhang, a 24-year-old, one of the participants at the Little Dates event, who also declined to give his full name. 

Last year, an operator of an app based in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong was reportedly raided for swindling 300 million yuan by creating fake accounts of female users with sexy profile pictures.

Using these accounts, the company sent automated messages to hit on male users, charged them money to continue the conversation, and cajoled them into buying gifts. 

They are not as awkward as traditional blind dates, where it’s just one-on-one
Speed dater Li Jian

Another matchmaking site, in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, went to even greater lengths before being shut down by authorities last year. It charged 2,599 yuan for a three-month membership, then got employees to pose as potential partners, text users online and go out with them on dates. Since the quality of candidates affects the reputation of the companies behind such apps, some are designed to rigorously filter out scammers.

Despite the convenience of meeting people digitally, offline group dating events remain popular – and they take many forms.

Some are co-organised by companies to help employees hook up. Others are organised to get together hundreds of single people from the same province. Still others are spin-offs of the popular Chinese television dating show If You Are The One, and invite participants onto stage to show off their talents. 

“They are not as awkward as traditional blind dates, where it’s just one-on-one,” says speed-date hopeful Li Jian, who explains that many events are held at venues such as karaoke parlours or amusement arcades to cater to young people. 

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Dress codes also vary. One event, held at a water park in Beijing, caused controversy for requiring all the participants to wear orange bikinis or swimming trunks. 

Event organisers may also have high expectations of participants. A dating party held in Shanghai at Christmas was targeting only “elite singles”, and participants needed to hold an MBA degree, have studied abroad, or have graduated from one of the top 40 universities in China. 

Little Dates enforces real-name verification. “We check their ID and require users to validate information such as where they work and their university degrees,” says Su Jun, the service’s founder and chief executive, which has 50,000 users in Shenzhen and is planning to expand to other Chinese cities. “This is really important for the credibility of the app.” 

Although not mandatory, users can also provide information about their financial assets, including any properties and vehicles they own, which tends to give them a higher chance of scoring a date.

At last month’s event, which cost 150 yuan a head, each participant was given a spreadsheet containing information about members of the opposite sex taking part, such as their names, date of birth, job title, hometown, and hobbies. 

Yet there is no guarantee that even the most sophisticated filter system will weed out bad dates. 

At the speed-dating event, a 43-year-old divorcee is frank about what he means when he says he expects his next partner to be family-centred.

“Men like us work until late at night, so of course, when we go home, women should be the ones doing the housework,” he says. 

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Back in Lianhuashan Park, the search continues for Chiu Ngat. The chances of success are low, the mother admits. From what she has learned, there were only six successful couplings in the park last year. 

But with her daughter nearing 40, she will take that chance over finding no one at all.