When my journalist friend Mr Li invited me for an urgent lunch, I went with pleasure. Two years ago, Mr Li was exiled from his head office in Beijing to a job in Shanghai. He did not explain the reasons, but he is too outspoken and critical to survive unscathed in an official newspaper. He chose a teahouse whose food is cheap, but which allows its customers to stay for an unlimited time. I was hoping to pick up some gossip - when the Shanghai party chief will lose his head, or what President Hu Jintao would have told 'Little Bush' if his Washington trip had not been cancelled - but was unprepared for what I found. With Mr Li was a middle-aged woman with blue eyes and a nose slightly too large to be entirely Chinese. She was Yiwana, 46, daughter of a Chinese mother and a Russian father who had returned home after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. 'I want you to find me a foreign husband,' she said. 'I do not care if he is rich or poor or what his age is. I just want a good man. I have told my daughter to marry a foreigner, too. Can you help?' Yiwana said she had had an unhappy marriage to a member of the People's Liberation Army. 'He was from a village and had strong feudal ideas. He was not good to me. We could not communicate.' He was especially angry that her only child was a girl and that the delivery was by Caesarian section rather than a natural birth. The couple separated in 1995 and divorced in 2002, when Yiwana came to Shanghai. She then went to dating agencies but did not find anyone she liked. 'My conclusion is that Chinese men are not good and that I should marry a foreign one. 'My life has been very hard,' she said, showing her hands, the skin worn by years of housework and labour as a hospital nurse. In China, a strong prejudice remains against a divorcee, especially a woman, in both urban and rural areas. I did not know how to respond, other than to say I would do what I could. She was clearly serious in her intentions but is playing in one of the most competitive markets in China. In Shanghai, thousands of women are seeking western husbands. Most of them are younger, prettier and more academically qualified than Yiwana, and have a better grasp of English or another foreign language. There is nothing unusual about seeing a foreigner in his 50s or 60s walking along the street, hand-in-hand with a Chinese woman in her 20s. Whether they are after love or money is hard to say. But many are the stories of western men who leave China happily with their brides and find themselves dumped six months later, after she has acquired a new identity and some of his assets.