She’s the first to take the leap. Waiting in the shade of the palm trees is a row of women in similarly skimpy swimwear. Some giggle nervously and adjust their straps. They have every right to be anxious: there’s a lot at stake. Today’s poolside game is an icebreaker at a matchmaking weekend for millionaires at a luxury resort, and while most of the dozen girls have been selected following a six-month nationwide search, the 10 men have each paid 100,000 yuan (over £10,000) to attend. All have one goal in mind: marriage.
“I’m single and my family is urging me to get married,” says Ruby, 28, the woman in the fuchsia bikini. “I want to find a loving man who is good to me, who is very experienced, who is mature, who respects and loves himself. Someone who is very responsible.”
Although too polite to say it, Ruby is also looking for someone rich. China’s spectacular economic growth has, for many, turned dating and marriage into a commercial transaction, and in a country that boasts the second highest number of billionaires in the world after America, material expectations from marriage have soared. It is often said – only half-jokingly – that to compete even at the lower reaches of the urban Chinese dating market men must have at least a car and a flat. (One 22-year-old reality-show contestant famously declared she’d rather “weep in a BMW than laugh on the back seat of a bicycle”.)
Skewed birth rates have further fuelled the fight for a wife – thanks to the government’s one-child policy, more boys than girls are born annually, and by 2020 it’s estimated that China will have 24 million surplus bachelors. Most of these unmarried men live in the impoverished countryside – but even the super wealthy sometimes struggle to find wives, and increasingly they are turning to China’s booming matchmaking industry.
In the past five years companies offering high-end dating services have proliferated. China’s millionaires can attend £2,000-a-ticket one-off singles’ events, or hire “love-hunters” to scour the country searching for the perfect match.
And then there are weekends such as the one in Hainan, organised by Diamond Love, one of the country’s biggest and most exclusive matchmaking companies. Founded in 2005, it has four million registered users, of whom 600,000 have paid annual fees of £10,000 to become a VIP member.
And they get what they pay for: this event, for instance, has been six months in the making, with the company dispatching thousands of “love-hunters” on to the streets to identify potential candidates, approaching 30,000 women, before conducting interviews and tests to whittle the list down to 50. Profiles detailing age, family background, education, height, weight and personal interests were then sent to the male members to decide who should come.
“Superficially, you think these men are just looking for very beautiful women,” explains Ren Xuemei, Diamond Love’s chief marriage counsellor. “But in fact it is more than that. Our members have social responsibilities; they are from big wealthy families or are in charge of big companies.”
To the men, the ability to entertain clients or fit in at social functions is vital, she says. Most of the women here today emphasise their accomplishments: calligraphy, literature, music and the arts (although the recruits are also stunning). According to Yan Hongyu, the agency’s senior manager tasked with ensuring the weekend runs smoothly, they must also “be aware of the three subordinates”, referring to the Confucian belief that a woman should be subordinate to her father when she is a child, her husband when she is married, and her son in her dotage.
Aged between 22 and 32, the women in Hainan range from university students to bankers and fashion designers; they’re beautiful, tall and slender. The men are mostly aged between 40 and 60, and many have ample bellies. They are mostly fuyidai or first-generation rich, having made their fortunes in property, shipping and industry, or as powerful government officials. Some are divorced, others are workaholics who have never been married. The notable exception, an insouciant 27-year-old “second-generation rich”, has been pushed into attending the weekend by wealthy parents eager to see him settle down.
Most of the women who participate in the matchmaking weekend have been selected by ‘love-hunters’ who scout citystreets for nubile candidates (Qilai Shen )
Kitty, a performing artist, was selected for the weekend after being approached by a love-hunter at a shopping mall in Shenzhen. “I was very honoured by the invitation,” she says, adding that “the most important thing is to find someone you can identify with spiritually. Of course it’s a bonus if you find a guy who doesn’t need to be worried about everyday meals.”
Not all of the women had been picked by love-hunters. A few, such as Ruby, were there on the prowl themselves. A so-called “jade princess” (the term for women who have been successful in the jade industry), Ruby runs a family business in southern China and doesn’t quite have the model-like features of the other women taking part in the weekend: a little softer around the tummy, her eyebrows a tad overplucked. At 28, she is considered to be a sheng nu or “leftover woman”, a derogatory term used for unmarried women who are 27 and older.
Ruby paid the £10,000-plus for the weekend. (The other women’s expenses were covered by the male participants.) Still, in a country where women are expected to marry up, taking part at least offered Ruby the chance to meet men who are her financial equals.
“Wealth is important because if both [spouses] are wealthy you can form a joint force to become more successful in business,” she explains. “But I don’t want that at the cost of him not being in love with me.”
It’s a romantic sentiment, and one that many of the women express. “I am ready to commit to family life,” says Elise, a dreamy 28-year-old who works in marketing. “I would like to have someone to cook with, go to the supermarket with, go for a run with.”
On the first night guests mingle awkwardly at a drinks party, the women parading in body-con dresses. One burly man in a floral shirt, who later complains that the female selection is not up to scratch, taps on his iPhone, looking bored.
On the second night, after a day of trust-building exercises and a tour of the location of a hit rom-com, everyone meets on the beach for a barbecue. Couples sit on beanbags encircling a stage, and at intervals the women get up to perform. One does calligraphy, another “sand painting”, a third Chinese dance. (Flower-arranging had been demonstrated over dinner the previous evening.)
On day two of the matchmaking weekend the men and women have a barbecue on the beach. (Qilai Shen)
Ruby belts out My Heart Will Go On in quivering, poorly enunciated English. Only one of the women, Lisa, a sweet, waif-like media student, will later confess to feeling uncomfortable with the transactional nature of the weekend. “I felt we were a bit objectified because only girls performed,” she says. “Why only the girls and not the guys?”
The performance is open to the public, and an audience of beach-goers in Speedos settles on nearby deck chairs to watch. As one little girl stands transfixed, she asks her grandmother, “What are they doing?” “They’re trying to get married,” comes the reply.
The Hainan weekend may seem extreme, but matchmaking is a tradition that dates back thousands of years in China. And although forced or arranged marriage was banned in 1950, finding a partner remains a formal process for many. The matchmaking industry has gone into overdrive, not just to cater to the rich but also because of government unease over the numbers of older single professional women.
“Marriage is seen as a factor in promoting social stability,” explains Leta Hong Fincher, the author of a forthcoming book on “leftover women” and gender inequality in China. “There is lots written in the state media about how all these tens of millions of unmarried men pose a threat to society. But at the other end of the spectrum, unmarried women who are not fulfilling their ‘duty to the nation’ by getting married and having children are also seen as a threat.”
As it has moved from communism towards a freer economy China has become a richer – and also increasingly unequal – society. And as a disproportionate few make fortunes, leaving tens of millions of ordinary people behind, many women see marrying a rich man as a short-cut to wealth.
Other companies are catching on fast. Launched just last year, the Chinese Entrepreneurs’ Club for Singles now boasts 100 members, many of whom, it claims, are on Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List. Standard annual membership fees are over £20,000, plus about £40,000 for each city in which a search is conducted.
Last year, its chief love-hunter, Wu Can, 32, was handed a particularly tricky case: a prominent 42-year-old billionaire had asked for a 10-city search. The girl had to be 5ft 5in, young, slim, with smooth alabaster skin. And a virgin. Wu got to work, searching shopping malls and city streets. Her job is to spot that indefinable something – a sparkle in the eyes, a smile – that might please her client.
“I look at what she is wearing, how she walks, the attitude she gives me,” explains Wu. “We follow her around to see what shops she goes into, what kind of customer she is.” After eight months she hit the jackpot: a 23-year-old media student. The student and the billionaire are now dating.
The women then perform for the men (Qilai Shen)
Love-hunting is a fiercely competitive business – bonuses for finding a match can reach five times a love-hunter’s salary – and largely attracts ambitious career women. But Wu believes her job is about more than earning a living; she says she is “helping other people create happy marriages”. She bats away suggestions that women are objectified or demeaned by the process. “I don’t think of these women as commodities or products. Every girl is independent and has her own thoughts. At the end of the day it is up to her to decide whom to date.”
The success of the matchmaking agencies has had a ripple effect. Exorbitantly priced courses are springing up, aimed at grooming women into respectable wife material. Diamond Love has a High-End Marriage Wisdom School, which teaches girls manners, parenting skills, how to get along with the opposite gender (including sessions on how to be charming, sexy and “gentle as water”) and make-up application – all for a fee of about £2,000 for three days.
Marriage Quotient offers similar courses but with a difference. Run by a life coach called Liang Yali, the Shanghai-based service caters solely to “leftover” or divorced career women in their mid-thirties who have high-powered jobs but no husband. She holds seminars on “how to show love and get love” as well as a year-long VIP course costing well over £30,000.
Liang is not a matchmaker; instead, she aims to build confidence by providing health, diet and make-up advice as well as a psychological assessment, to discover what might be holding her clients back, such as low self-esteem. She also helps them write their profiles and edits the messages they send to prospective dates.
“In Chinese tradition, [women over 30] are treated like trash,” says Liang, who met her own husband – an American industrialist older than she is – when she was a 35-year-old divorcee with a child. Faced with such ageism, many clients search further afield; so far they have found husbands in nine different countries.
Couples relax on the beach. (Qilai Shen)
Back in Hainan the weekend has drawn to a close. The final activity is a “rose-giving” ceremony not dissimilar to the one in the American reality show The Bachelor. Each male has been instructed to give a rose to whomever has caught his heart. Tension is in the air.
Ruby arrives in her finest: a strapless baby-blue and pink dress, stilettos, jewels dripping from her neck and ears. Roses are doled out. A stout millionaire in glasses mops sweat from his brow as he hands a rose to the woman who “has made a deposit in my bank of love”; she coyly lowers her eyes.
A 50-year-old divorcee gives his rose to Elise. Ruby waits patiently. Then a slim, serious-looking man steps forward. He is 42 and a property magnate who has never married. “My job this weekend is to select a wife,” he had said earlier, citing parental pressure. “I cannot wait forever.” He clutches two roses and addresses the audience sombrely. “Ruby is the jade princess of my heart.” Unable to hide her surprise, Ruby wipes away a tear. She accepts the rose.
Later, at a beach bar, Yan is ecstatic. She is well on the way to meeting her target of arranging second dates for half the attendees. “This is the most satisfied I’ve felt all year,” she says.
After the rose ceremony the property magnate and Ruby arrange their next date. (Five months on, I learn five couples have been on multiple dates.) He will make the hour-and-a-half flight to her home to meet her parents. As all the attendees gather in the lobby to check out, Ruby emerges in a flouncy summer dress. Clutching her sunhat, she waves to the other girls. The property magnate sweeps up her luggage and escorts her to the waiting car.