The soaring price of marriage in China

Chinas economic explosion and wealth inequality have created new markets for matchmaking

The soaring price of marriage in China

From her stakeout near the entrance of an H&M store in Joy City, a Beijing shopping mall, Yang Jing seemed lost in thought, twirling a strand of her auburn-tinted hair, tapping her nails on an aquamarine iPhone 4S. But her eyes kept moving. They tracked the clusters of young women zigzagging from Zara to Calvin Klein Jeans.

They lingered on a face, a gesture, and then moved on, darting across the atrium, searching. “This is a good place to hunt,” she told me. “I always have good luck here.”
For Yang, Joy City is not so much a consumer mecca as an urban Serengeti that she prowls for potential wives for some of China’s richest bachelors. Yang, 28, is one of China’s premier love hunters, a new breed of matchmaker that has proliferated in the country’s economic boom. The company she works for, Diamond Love and Marriage, caters to China’s nouveaux riches: men, and occasionally women, willing to pay tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to outsource the search for their ideal spouse.

In Joy City, Yang gave instructions to her eight-scout team, one of six squads the company was deploying in three cities for one Shanghai millionaire. This client had provided a list of requirements for his future wife, including her age (22 to 26), skin color (“white as porcelain”) and sexual history (yes, a virgin).

“These millionaires are very picky, you know?” Yang said. “Nobody can ever be perfect enough.” Still, the potential reward for Yang is huge: The love hunter who finds the client’s eventual choice will receive a bonus of more than $30,000, around five times the average annual salary in this line of work. Suddenly, a signal came. From across the atrium, a co-worker of Yang caught her eye and nodded at a woman in a blue dress, walking alone. Yang had shaken off her colleague’s suggestions several times that day, but this time she circled behind the woman in question.

“Perfect skin,” she whispered. “Elegant face.” When the woman walked into H&M, Yang intercepted her in the sweater aisle. “I’m so sorry to bother you,” she said with a honeyed smile. “I’m a love hunter. Are you looking for love?” 

A generation ago, China was one of the world’s most equal nations, in both gender and wealth. Most people were poor, and tight controls over housing, employment, travel and family life simplified the search for a suitable match – what the Chinese call mendang hudui, meaning roughly “family doors of equal size.”

China’s transition to a market economy has swept away many restrictions in people’s lives. But of all the new freedoms the Chinese enjoy today – making money, owning a house, choosing a career – there is one that has become an unexpected burden: seeking a spouse.

Single men have a hard time making the list if they don’t own a house or an apartment, which in cities like Beijing are extremely expensive. And despite the gender imbalance, Chinese women face intense pressure to be married before the age of 28, lest they be rejected and stigmatised as “leftover women.”

When I first visited the Beijing office of Diamond Love last year, Yang was fretting over a love-hunting campaign for a potential client: a divorced 42-year-old property mogul who was prepared to spend the equivalent of more than a half-million dollars. This wouldn’t be the biggest case in company history; two years ago, a man paid $1.5 million for a successful 12-city hunt. But the pressure felt more intense this time. It wasn’t just that Yang would vie with hundreds of other love hunters for a possible winner’s bonus of $32,000.

Uncompromising clients

Mr. Big, as I’ll call him – he insisted that Diamond Love not reveal his name – is a member of China’s fuyidai, the “first-generation rich” who have leapt from poverty to extreme wealth in a single bound, often jettisoning their first wives in the process. Diamond Love’s clientele also includes many fuerdai, or “second-generation-rich,” men and women in their 20s and 30s whose search is often bankrolled by wealthy parents keen on exerting control over their marital choices as well as the family inheritance. But fuyidai like Mr. Big, who has built a fortune in computers and real estate, are accustomed to being the boss and can be the most uncompromising clients.

Mr. Big had an excruciatingly specific requirement for his second wife. The ideal woman, he said, would look like a younger replica of Zhou Tao, a famous Chinese television host: slim with pure white skin, slightly pointed chin, perfect teeth, double eyelids and long silken hair. To ensure her good character and fortune, he insisted that her wuguan – a feng shui-like reading of the sense organs on the face – show perfect harmony.

Even before Mr. Big signed a contract, Yang sensed trouble brewing. She and a colleague culled the company’s exclusive databases to find women to serve as templates for the love hunters’ search. Together with Mr. Big, they looked at the files and pictures of their top 3,000 women. He rejected them all.

A few days earlier, just as Mr. Big was set to sign the contract and begin paying his $600,000 fee, a woman from a competing agency contacted him. Displaying inside knowledge of his contract with Diamond Love, she offered to carry out an even more comprehensive search. Mr. Big called Diamond Love in a rage that his confidential information had been leaked.

Within hours, according to Yang, the office’s management team ferreted out and dismissed the office mole – a secretary whom the competitor had recruited as a spy. But it took a full week of apologies and vows of enhanced security to coax Mr. Big to finally sign the contract.  The day Mr. Big signed, Yang took a flight to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, where she would kick-start the campaign. During her 20-day search there, she had recurring nightmares.

One afternoon in Chengdu, after slurping down a bowl of beef noodles at Master Kong’s Chef’s Table, Yang noticed a young woman sweeping past her into the restaurant, chatting on a cellphone. Long black hair hid most of the woman’s face, but there was something captivating about her laugh and easy gait.

“She seemed open, warm, happy,” Yang said. After a moment of indecision, Yang followed her inside, apologised for the intrusion and switched on her charm. Linking arms with the woman – one of her patented moves – Yang came away with her phone number, photograph and a few pertinent details: she was 24, a graduate student and a near-ringer for the TV hostess Zhou Tao.

The love-hunting campaign for Mr. Big yielded more than 1,100 fresh prospects who met his general specifications, including 200 in Chengdu. “The cruel process of culling,” as Yang called it, whittled that number to 100, then 20, and finally to a list of eight.

Yang’s hunting skills and tenacity had paid off again, giving her two of the eight finalists, and a 25 per cent chance of winning the bonus of $32,000. In June, Mr. Big flew to Chengdu for meetings with the three local finalists.

His final date in Chengdu was with the Zhou Tao look-alike whom Yang had approached at the noodle restaurant. The two barely spoke without the consultant’s prodding. Still, Mr. Big seemed pleased by the woman’s sense of privacy when he inquired about her father’s job. “He’s a civil servant,” she said. What level?
“Management.” It took several minutes – and a blunt question about his title – before she acknowledged that her father was, in fact, the boss of an influential government office. “From childhood,” she told him, “my father taught me to keep a low profile.”

Suddenly, this seemed like a suitable match in the Chinese tradition of family doors of equal size. Yang was pleased that her love-hunting had hit the mark, but she wished that the courtship would move faster: a $32,000 bonus could make a big difference to her family. After texting and phoning, the couple met again in Beijing and then took a holiday in a mountainous area of western Sichuan province. In Chengdu, though, he declined to meet the woman’s parents, and instead of joining her at a wedding of her friends, stayed behind in the hotel.

The couple has not yet decided to marry. But they are still dating exclusively, and Yang says Mr. Big is serious about marriage. Nobody pays a half-million dollars “just to play around,” she says. “He just needs a little more time.”

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