Is China's "Singles Day" the Loneliest Day of All?

Most Chinese people go looking for sales. Christopher Beam went looking for love.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Some Chinese consider Singles Day – November 11, which, when written as 11/11, looks like a Pictionary sketch for “loneliness” – an opportunity to find love. Others take it as a chance to buy stuff. Over the last few years, e-commerce sites like Alibaba have turned romantic insecurity into sales, offering deep discounts on just about every item imaginable. This year, online vendors sold $5.7 billion worth of goods, more than twice what Americans spent last Cyber Monday. It was only a matter of time before some bright entrepreneur looked at these dual purposes of love and commerce and thought, "Why not do both?"

The Singles Day event I attended was organized by the dating website Baihe and held at a bar in Beijing’s posh Sanlitun neighborhood. Men, mostly in their thirties, who’d paid steep sums – a VIP membership on Baihe can cost up to $3,000 per year – had the opportunity to meet eligible young women who attended for free. The event was modeled on the wildly popular dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao, which translates as “If You’re Not Serious, Don’t Bother Me.” (The English title is “If You Are the One.”) But whereas the TV show features a panel of women interrogating one man, this event flipped the formula: Ten of Baihe’s most eligible Beijing bachelors grilled a series of ladies, assessing their attitude, appearance, and overall marriageability. This version had more symbolic power, I thought, since it dramatized China’s lopsided gender ratio, in which men are expected to outnumber women by 24 million in 2020. The event’s money-for-love premise didn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact, it was in keeping with the spirit of the TV show: In the most famous moment of Fei Cheng Wu Rao, a young woman quipped that she’d “rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”

The MC shushed the crowd. “Today is the most important day of the year,” he announced, and invited the ten bachelors up to the front of the bar. Each wore a number, 1 through 10, and stood behind a placard with his name on it. They went around introducing themselves. Bachelor No. 1, wearing a cream-colored jacket and a gelled bouffant hair-do, said his name was Zhang Nan. He was 34, and had the “simplicity” of a Tianjin native but the “friendliness” of a Beijinger. No. 6, a handsome 32-year-old named Ma Long sporting a blazer over a t-shirt, said he worked in finance, and his hobbies were exercising and investing. No. 9, a 29-year-old businessman from Xinjiang wearing a gray suit and turquoise tie, introduced himself with a saying: “If you want to be loved, you have to love others.” No. 10 showed off his English: “Happy to meet you!” No. 2 was a no-show – he’d gotten stuck in traffic. Each bachelor had a small mushroom-shaped light on the table in front of him, which at the beginning of each round would light up. If/when he lost interest in a contestant, he would push the mushroom to turn it off.

The first contestant, wearing a short black skirt and fluffy white sweater and a mask like in Eyes Wide Shut, took the stage to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” She removed the mask and introduced herself: Her name was Han Weiwei, she was 22, and she likes older guys, especially engineers. She’d already had some boyfriends before, she said, but the relationships got messy, so this time she was looking for “a simple kind of love.” Bachelor No. 1 got right to the point: “You’re still young. How long would you want to wait to get married?” Weiwei answered that a relationship is between two people, and there’s no fixed timeline for marriage – you just have to see how it feels. A few of the men turned off their mushroom lights. No. 6 asked about her astrological sign. She said she’s a Leo (courageous, cocky), and that she “discriminates against Virgos” because they’re too picky. Some more mushroom lights went off. The host interrupted: “These uncles” – the crowd laughed – “seem to think your age is an obstacle.” There was also concern that she would be upset if her husband came home late. At this, one of her girlfriends took the microphone and defended her. She might not like it if her husband worked late, she said, but if she could tell he was tired, she wouldn’t fight with him. After she finished talking, all the lights went off.

The second bachelorette was a Virgo (modest, detail-oriented), 29 years old, and planned to start her own clothing store. She’d broken up with a long-term boyfriend four months before. Bachelor No. 10 wanted to know more about this. How could he be sure she was over her ex? She assured him they broke up peacefully, and that she’s adjusted. Still, when she was done talking, all the lights went out. This struck me as a bit extreme. One of the hosts asked Bachelor No. 1 why he’d lost interest. “It’s because she’s a Virgo,” he said. He’d known some Virgo girls, he said, and they all made him crazy. One of the hosts took this moment to make a short speech about how astrological signs aren’t everything. I asked my Chinese friend if the men had really rejected the woman because she was a Virgo. “I think it’s actually because she’s too old,” she told me. This was the best case for astrological signs I’d ever heard: an excuse to turn someone down when you don’t want to hurt their feelings.

The third round ended quickly, which I found surprising: The contestant, a 21-year-old with bright orange hair wearing a loose pink top and a black skirt, was easily the most attractive so far, and seemed more confident than the others. But again, the bachelors thought she was too young. The distaste was mutual: When they revealed which bachelor she preferred, it turned out she’d written down “#2,” the one stuck in traffic.

Bachelorette No. 4 was a hit: tall, pretty, a Scorpio (curious, stubborn), worked in HR for an investment company. When the guys peppered her with questions (“Where are you from?” “I want to ask you about your sign…”) she answered playfully (“Guess.” “Why are you always asking about signs?”). Bachelor No. 10 flipped his name placard upside down, which meant that he would never turn his light off – a dramatic display of commitment. In the end, she narrowed it down to him and bachelor No. 5. She asked them one last question: “What quality can you not tolerate in a woman?” No. 5 said he hates it when girls fight with him for no reason. No. 10 said he doesn’t like a girl who gives up easily. She picked 5.

With only eight guys onstage, they invited up two replacements: A 34-year-old Beijinger named Gao Wei who looked like he’d been cast in a Chinese remake of Grease, and me. I introduced myself: “Hi everyone, my name is Chris, I’m from Boston in the United States, and I don’t care at all about astrological signs.” This did not endear me to the audience.

The next contestant, Sun Jin, looked uncomfortable from the beginning. She kept glancing away distractedly; I thought she might be sick. She’d been living in Japan for the last three years, and had just quit her job to start her own fashion brand. The hosts remarked at how “stable,” “powerful,” and “strong” she was. A friend came up to testify that she’s very organized, and calm under pressure. While this was all very impressive, I got the strong sense she didn’t want to be here, so I turned off my light as a sort of protest vote. She finally picked the Grease guy, who seemed to be having trouble smiling. When the host asked him why he wasn’t more excited, he said he didn’t expect to be picked. Then why hadn’t he turned off his light? I asked my friend. “Maybe he forgot,” she said.

The crowd was starting to look bored, especially when the next contestant, a 25-year-old hipster-looking girl wearing Chuck Taylors, said she was just there to “buy soy sauce,” slang for “for no reason.” I decided it was time to raise the stakes. “Do you believe in fate?” I asked her. Yes, she said. The host pressed her: What if she met the same person on the subway three days in a row – would she say hello? “It depends,” she said. The host said this means she’s “not very romantic,” but I was on her side. My interest waned, however, when she said her hobbies were “going to work” and “sleeping.” I pushed my mushroom light off. By the end, only Bachelor No. 1 still had his on. At the moment of reckoning, she approached him … and turned it off for him. “Sorry,” she whispered.

The last contestant, Li Jue, entered to the sound of ten hearts pounding. She was tall, classily dress, 25 years old, and a Cancer (conservative, sensitive). However, there were concerns, articulated first by Bachelor No. 5: “You’re so beautiful,” he said. “How can you give your boyfriend a feeling of security?” In other words, how could he trust her not to run around? No one seemed to think this question was weird, including her. She said she’s very respectful, and likes to stay at home. If anything, she said, she gets too attached. No. 3 had a different worry: How tall did a guy have to be to date her? She said she could date someone 3 cm shorter than her, but no more. He wordlessly turned off his mushroom.

Li Jue narrowed the pool down to two: No. 5, a friendly architect, and No. 9, the nattily dressed guy from Xinjiang – even though the latter had turned off his light. (I shouldn’t have said I didn’t care about signs – amateur move.) But when she asked No. 9 why he’d turned his light off, he seemed to have a minor existential crisis. If they’d met in another situation, he might have liked her, he said, but under these conditions he was feeling a lot of pressure. He worried she’d picked him only because he dressed well: Really, he said, he’s just a normal guy. The speech had its intended effect: She picked No. 5. 

After the game ended, a handful of singles hung around to exchange contact information with the bachelors/bachelorettes and other audience members. If fate had intervened, it wasn’t obvious. The room was quiet. Everything felt so serious. No one had acted the way you’re supposed to act on a dating show, cracking jokes or trying to prove how fun they were. It was more like a job interview in front of a panel of bosses.

Then again, love isn’t a laughing matter to these guys. They really, really want to get married – enough to drop a few grand on a Baihe VIP membership and show up on a Monday night. Spring Festival is around the corner, after all, and no thirtysomething wants to have to go home and face his parents empty-handed again. Plus, compared to paying a “bride price” and other starkly transactional marriage practices, signing up for a dating service is pretty tame.

From this perspective, the women’s relative calm seemed less like quiet weakness than quiet strength. “Chinese girls are all a little introverted,” explained Zhu Yinyin, who owns the bar that hosted the event, “they don’t like to put themselves on display.” More to the point, they held all the cards. They were young, attractive, and accomplished. If they didn’t put on a show, maybe it was because they didn’t have to.

On the way out, I asked Zhang Nan, Bachelor No. 1, if he thought this boutique approach to dating was worth the price. It was, he said, since you can save a lot of time and energy otherwise spent on sorting out good prospects from bad. As for today’s event, he said, “it’s just another way to meet someone.”

Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

A singles speed-dating event held at Pudong Century Park in Shanghai, China. Photo: Getty
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt