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20 November 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:32am

Is China’s “Singles Day” the Loneliest Day of All?

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

By Christopher Beam

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.

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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.