City Weekend

Loveless Hong Kong: The elusive quest for romance in city with a growing number of singletons

Astrologers consider 2017 a lucky year to marry, but a changing culture and the fast pace of city life proves to be a barrier for many

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2017, 10:10am

In Hong Kong and on the mainland, the label of “leftover women” – unmarried women in their 30s – has long haunted the female sex. Often well-educated, career-driven and financially independent, these women are broadly considered “too old” to marry. And to some, they are effectively “dead”.

Although this misogynistic attitude has becoming less pronounced in Hong Kong, it does still have influence in the dating scene. And Valentine’s Day is just one of the occasions when single women, particularly, face excruciating questions from friends, family and colleagues about their relationship status.

Hong Kong singleton Vicki (not her real name), a 29-year-old English teacher, said her family would accept it if she never married, but only if she pursued a long-term relationship that produced children.

“They believe a woman should have a family so when she is old, her family will take care of her ... They wouldn’t want me to be a ‘leftover woman’,” she said.

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Despite the pressure, Vicki said she was comfortable delaying marriage and having children.

“When I was in my early 20s, I felt a bit of pressure to marry by my early 30s,” she said. “But now, as I approach 30, I don’t feel much pressure because when you’re becoming mature, you gradually understand that marriage is not something you can rush, so it’s fine for me to get married whenever I want.”

Although they face less stigma than their female counterparts, Hong Kong’s unmarried men are also subjected to similar questioning about tying the knot – particularly around Lunar New Year.

Pressure to marry young is something that Raymond (not his real name), a 25-year-old Hongkonger and media professional, said he knows well. But unlike Vicki, his parents would be unlikely to accept it if he instead pursued a long-term relationship.

“They are still comparatively traditional and stubborn about the ideal lifestyle – as a person who ‘gets married and lives happily ever after’,” he said.

Hong Kong is expected to see more weddings in the Year of the Rooster because of the double spring in the Lunar New Year cycle, which is considered lucky for newlyweds because it symbolises new life.

The phenomenon tends to occur every four years, and astrologers predict it could prompt a 20 per cent increase in weddings in 2017.

But it may not be enough to buck the declining popularity of marriage here. According to 2015 census data, there were 28,837 weddings in 2013, down from 32,523 the year before. This was perhaps unsurprising given the average Hong Kong wedding now costs an estimated HK$300,000, and rising property prices have made it increasingly difficult for young people to buy their own home.

We just don’t have enough bandwidth to bring someone new on board [for] a relationship.
Ariadna Peretz

Meanwhile, the number of people divorced or separated in Hong Kong rose from 28,929 in 1991 to 172,335 in 2011. During the same period, the number of unmarried females aged 15 and over increased from 20.1 per cent to 29.2 per cent, while unmarried men increased from 27.8 per cent to 33.5 per cent.

Dr Sandy To Sin-chi, sociologist and the author of China’s Leftover Women: Late Marriage among Professional Women and its Consequences, said she believed the “auspicious” year would bring about more weddings, and that marriage remained an important goal for most Hongkongers.

“I don’t think it is normally a choice to be single,” she said. “Marriage status is still significant here. Even those who delay it and have children, I think they will eventually sign the papers even if it is just for practical reasons, such as inheritance.”

Big city pressures

Long working hours, small living spaces and the fast pace of city life have long been blamed for difficulties in finding love. Hong Kong has the longest average working week in the world at 50.1 hours, a UBS survey found last year.

Ariadna Peretz, founder of matchmaking business Maitre D’ate in 2015, said Hongkongers found it hard to slow down and commit to a relationship, resulting in a “pending-better-offer” phenomenon where people are always looking out for someone better.

“We do too much in Hong Kong: too much work, too much travel, too much working out,” she said. “We just don’t have enough bandwidth to bring someone new on board [for] a relationship.”

More work hours have also contributed to delaying marriages, making it harder to meet a partner simply through friends’ introductions, according to Violet Lim, co-founder and chief executive officer of Lunch Actually, a local Asian dating service.

“Some Hong Kong singles are conservative and find it hard to open up to meeting new people or approach people they do not know,” she said.

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But Lunch Actually’s over 4,000 members – mostly professionals and executives in their late 20s to mid-30s – have also become more flexible in their dating preferences, Lim observed.

For expatriate daters, Hong Kong is a transient place, compounding the sense that relationships are likely to be short-lived. Interracial couples are also rare, which is unsurprising given 95 per cent of the population is ethnically Chinese.

The small but growing database of around 100 singles who Peretz works with, who are largely expatriate professionals in their 30s, are often ambitious and overachieving – characteristics that affect both their careers and their love lives, she said.

Her database currently has two women for every man, a ratio she attributed to more women seeking committed relationships and men being less likely to seek professional assistance.

While free dating apps feature a wide range of singles, services such as Lunch Actually claim to be unique because they “hand-pick” matches for people who may not have time to swipe through profiles, and also provide a level of confidentiality.

“We do all the work, and all our clients have to do is show up and enjoy the date,” Lim said.

Numbers game

In his book Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, John Birger highlighted how in many parts of the US, there is a widening education gap between the number of young female and male graduates, meaning there is a surplus of single, well-educated women in their 20s. For heterosexuals, this creates a dating scene where men can afford to be picky, he suggested, while women are often under pressure to “marry down” by partnering with a less educated man.

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Analysing Hong Kong’s gender statistics suggests the same phenomenon could be occurring here. Census data showed there to be more than 3.9 million women and 3.3 million men in the city – a gap of more than half a million. Of these, 84.3 per cent of men were educated to secondary school level or above, compared to 78.4 per cent of women. But crucially, among the younger generation, more women than men were found to be enrolling at university.

Add to that the percentage of women in higher education programmes funded by the University Grants Committee has increased from 50.1 per cent in 1991 to 54.3 per cent in 2015/16.

Unsurprising then that some of the city’s most expensive dating agencies are targeted at career-driven women. The matchmakers that run these agencies suggest Hong Kong women are “too fussy”, and must broaden their criteria in order to find a good man.

When you think about how imperfect many relationships are, they start to reflect and think back to when they were coming home to a partner and dreading it.
Dr Melanie Bryan

Dr To agreed there is generally a “mismatch” in the Hong Kong’s dating pool, and more prominently in the mainland, because in Chinese culture, the most educated and financially independent women are often not considered marriage material.

But she concluded this is due to a pervading patriarchal structure, and not the fault of the women.

“There are a lot of single professional women out there who are just too busy to meet people,” she said. “And because women are getting more accomplished, men might feel intimidated. There is subsequently a mismatch because men often marry younger women who earn less than them.

“The education levels of women are rising, but the culture has not modernised at the same pace. It is lagging behind but that is normal as well.”

Premarital counselling

Despite the overall decline in marriages and increase in divorces in recent years, couples hoping to tie the knot appear to be taking marriage seriously. Some couples now seek premarital counselling to decide if they are really compatible.

Dr Melanie Bryan, an individual and couples therapist who has practised in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, said she was currently supporting “highly educated, thoughtful and self-aware” clients who wanted to prepare themselves for marriage.

She said most were cohabiting, but experienced a significant shift in the dynamics of their relationship once they got engaged, with some deeper conflicts bubbling to the surface.

“Couples conflicts tend to focus on expectations around finances, geography, family involvement and child rearing,” she explained. “I think it is incredibly useful to discuss these issues. What I see again and again is couples at loggerheads over certain issues. Many of them have lived together for a long time but the transition into a marriage relationship brings out lots of issues.”

Meanwhile, Dr Bryan said singletons often dealt with anxiety issues or things holding back their career. She said female clients particularly were often concerned about the prospect of never meeting a long-term partner.

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“I hear a lot of ‘I am afraid of ending up alone’,” she said. “But when you think about how imperfect many relationships are, they start to reflect and think back to when they were coming home to a partner and dreading it.”

She added some clients became trapped in a cycle of short physical relationships, which only compounded their loneliness.

“I do not hear this so much with men,” she said. “With men it is to do with infidelity.”

The LGBTI scene

Meanwhile, for members of the Hong Kong LGBTI community Valentine’s Day can be a hard time regardless of whether you are in a relationship or not.

The city still does not have anti-discrimination or same-sex marriage laws, with no sign of either being introduced in the near future.

Tommy Chen, executive officer of Rainbow Action, said the lack of an anti-discrimination law continued to inhibit LGBTI people, who often feel uncomfortable being “out of the closet” to their family and colleagues.

While women at work often receiving flowers from their partners, Valentine’s Day can prove to be particularly awkward for lesbians as they may be offered dating advice from colleagues who do not know their sexuality.

“The LGBTI community experience a different sort of life in this way,” he said. “They have to cover it up. It is very difficult. Some people would say, ‘why don’t you just come out at work?’ But this is not always realistic.

“I think even for LGBT couples, they feel like they cannot hold hands in the street.”

Despite polls suggesting 60 per cent of Hongkongers would be in favour of an anti-discrimination law for LGBTI people, Chen said he was not confident that the government would introduce any such laws any time soon.