Grasping each other's hands in the candle light, the men and women chant: 'Tonight we have company, tonight we are not alone.' These 40 people have never met before but they share two things in common: a failed marriage and membership in Shanghai's first divorce club. More than 200 divorced women and men have joined the privately run club since it opened in mid-February, though organisers say women make up 70 per cent of the membership. They include engineers, company managers and journalists aged from their late 20s to early 60s. But the future of the club is facing some uncertainty and is operating in a legal grey area pending official registration. Co-founder and hostess of the club Wang Yue continues to hold weekly parties complete with refreshments and lucky draws, as well as tours like trips to Zhejiang over the May Day holidays. Members say the club plays an important social role not met by the government by helping them to say goodbye to frustration and loneliness. 'I have to get out of the house and meet people. There is too much loneliness at home,' said Xie Rong, 50, who divorced her husband a few months ago after she discovered he was seeing a woman 16 years his junior. 'I am the one who makes the higher income. I am the one who mainly supports the family. So why should I tolerate his infidelity?' said the middle-level manager at a state-owned company. Things have changed in the past decade. Divorce no longer derails a career, though many still feel it carries a social stigma. With more people accepting the idea of separation, the divorce rate in Shanghai has rocketed, with 36,300 couples formally divorced in 2004, almost double the rate 10 years ago. In 1980, a mere 3,300 couples divorced. The club organises an activity at least once a week. Women usually wear elaborate make-up and men dress in suits. They sit in a circle, talking or even singing and dancing if the spirit moves them. A flood of publicity after the club opened brought authorities to the small white villa in downtown Shanghai. The city has insisted that the club register, but the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau is refusing to take applications from any non-governmental organisations. Co-founder Ms Wang has taken down the sign for the Weiqing, or 'maintaining love', club and is using another name pending registration. At events, the most frequent topic of conversation is unhappiness with their previous marriages. But Ms Wang tries to encourage members to talk about something else. Divorced herself, she says the goal of the club is to provide a forum for people to forget about old relationships and start looking for new ones. 'I want to help these divorcees find a second chance,' says Ms Wang, who runs several other businesses. Every week she selects 30 to 40 members to join the party, trying to make good matches. At the start of the evening, she asks members to introduce themselves. She tells them to repeat after her phrases like: 'Tonight we will make ourselves happy.' And 'tonight we will make good friends'. She encourages them to invite each other out for dates. Professional marriage counsellors sometimes attend the party to answer questions about love, marriage and even legal affairs. These services are not free, but membership in the club costs only 280 yuan a person, though some activities have an additional fee. Experts attribute the increase in divorces to a more liberal social environment. Xu Anqi, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the government had loosened social control and the public was more accepting of divorce. 'Twenty years ago, people had a very low opinion about divorce. If your marriage was finished, so was your reputation and future career. But now no company cares about that anymore,' she said. One club member, Yang Mian, who left her husband nearly a decade ago after discovering he had a mistress, saw her chances for promotion at her government job vanish at the time. Her boss believed she wouldn't be able to handle the job because she couldn't even save her own marriage. In today's society, there are even more opportunities for extra-marital affairs because of internet dating, business trips and permissive attitudes, experts say. A person becoming more successful in their career than their spouse is also likely to cause friction in the marriage. Just as importantly, people can now afford to be divorced, especially in cities like Shanghai. They no longer need two salaries to support a family. They can buy commercial housing and do not have to share a tiny flat. 'Marriage is not a must for better living quality any more,' said Gu Jun, a sociology professor at Shanghai University. 'As a result, husbands and wives are becoming less tolerant towards each other. For many couples, divorce seems to be the only solution.' Female members of the divorce club echo that sentiment. Many have their own careers and make a good living themselves, which gave them more alternatives when they decided to leave their husbands. 'Women can survive without men. If their husbands cheat on them, the women won't keep silent like their predecessors. They ask for a divorce,' Professor Gu said.