Monday, March 11, 2013

Marriage markets in China

Brook Larmer writes in the NY Times about the changing marriage market: The Price of Marriage in China (I like the URL better than the headline: it refers to business/in-a-changing-china-new-matchmaking-markets.) Her story (well worth reading in its entirety) follows two marriage markets, one an expensive matchmaking service for wealthy men, one an open air market in a park where mothers seek spouses for their children.

"Ms. 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.
"When the woman walked into H & M, Ms. 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?”

Three miles away, in a Beijing park near the Temple of Heaven, a woman named Yu Jia jostled for space under a grove of elms. A widowed 67-year-old pensioner, she was clearing a spot on the ground for a sign she had scrawled for her son. “Seeking Marriage,” read the wrinkled sheet of paper, which Ms. Yu held in place with a few fragments of brick and stone. “Male. Single. Born 1972. Height 172 cm. High school education. Job in Beijing.”

Ms. Yu is another kind of love hunter: a parent seeking a spouse for an adult child in the so-called marriage markets that have popped up in parks across the city. Long rows of graying men and women sat in front of signs listing their children’s qualifications. Hundreds of others trudged by, stopping occasionally to make an inquiry.

Ms. Yu’s crude sign had no flourishes: no photograph, no blood type, no zodiac sign, no line about income or assets. Unlike the millionaire’s wish list, the sign didn’t even specify what sort of wife her son wanted. “We don’t have much choice,” she explained. “At this point, we can’t rule anybody out.”

In the four years she has been seeking a wife for her son, Zhao Yong, there have been only a handful of prospects. Even so, when a woman in a green plastic visor paused to scan her sign that day, Ms. Yu put on a bright smile and told of her son’s fine character and good looks. The woman asked: “Does he own an apartment in Beijing?” Ms. Yu’s smile wilted, and the woman moved on.
"As many as 300 million rural Chinese have moved to cities in the last three decades. Uprooted and without nearby relatives to help arrange meetings with potential partners, these migrants are often lost in the swell of the big city.

"Demographic changes, too, are creating complications. Not only are many more Chinese women postponing marriage to pursue careers, but China’s gender gap — 118 boys are born for every 100 girls — has become one of the world’s widest, fueled in large part by the government’s restrictive one-child policy. By the end of this decade, Chinese researchers estimate, the country will have a surplus of 24 million unmarried men.

"Without traditional family or social networks, many men and women have taken their searches online, where thousands of dating and marriage Web sites have sprung up in an industry that analysts predict will soon surpass $300 million annually. These sites cater mainly to China’s millions of white-collar workers. But intense competition, along with mistrust of potential mates’ online claims, has spurred a growing number of singles — rich and poor — to turn to more hands-on matchmaking services.
"Dozens of high-end matchmaking services have sprung up in China in the last five years, charging big fees to find and to vet prospective spouses for wealthy clients. Their methods can turn into gaudy spectacle. One firm transported 200 would-be trophy wives to a resort town in southwestern China for the perusal of one powerful magnate. Another organized a caravan of BMWs for rich businessmen to find young wives in Sichuan Province. Diamond Love, among the largest love-hunting services, sponsored a matchmaking event in 2009 where 21 men each paid a $15,000 entrance fee.
"The company’s wealthiest, highest-paying clients — 90 percent of whom are men — show little interest in lectures or databases. They want exclusive access to what Ms. Fei coolly refers to as “fresh resources”: young women who haven’t yet been exposed to other suitors online. It’s the love hunters’ job to find them.

"Besides giving clients a vastly expanded pool of marriage prospects, these campaigns offer a sense of security. Rigorous background checks screen out what Ms. Fei calls “gold diggers, liars and people of loose morals.” Depending on a campaign’s size, Diamond Love charges from $50,000 to more than $1 million. Ms. Fei makes no apologies for the high fees.

Why shouldn’t they pay more to find the perfect wife?” she asked me. “This is the most important investment in their lives.”
"One afternoon when we met, the normally animated Ms. Yang slumped onto the sofa, exhausted. She had just spent an hour with a rich Chinese businesswoman in her late 30s. The woman proposed spending $100,000 on a campaign to find a husband who matched her status.

“I had to tell her we couldn’t take her case,” Ms. Yang said. “No wealthy Chinese man would ever marry her. They always want somebody younger, with less power.

"We sat in silence a minute before Ms. Yang spoke again. “It’s depressing to think about these ‘leftover women,’ ” she said. “Do you have them in America, too?”
"The marriage candidates on offer in the parks, she discovered, were often a mismatch of shengnu (“leftover women”) and shengnan (“leftover men”), two groups from opposite ends of the social scale. Shengnan, like her son, are mostly poor rural men left behind as female counterparts marry up in age and social status. The phenomenon is exacerbated by China’s warped demographics, as the bubble of excess men starts to reach marrying age.

Finding a Chinese spouse can be even more challenging for so-called leftover women, even if they often have precisely what the shengnan lack: money, education and social and professional standing. One day in the Temple of Heaven park, I met a 70-year-old pensioner from Anhui Province who was seeking a husband for his eldest daughter, a 36-year-old economics professor in Beijing.

“My daughter is an outstanding girl,” he said, pulling from his satchel an academic book she had published. “She’s been introduced to about 15 men over the past two years, but they all rejected her because her degree is too high.
"Even in the countryside, where men’s families pay bride prices, inflation is rampant. Ms. Yu’s family paid about $3,500 when Mr. Zhao’s older brother married 10 years ago in rural Heilongjiang. Today, she said, brides’ families ask for $30,000, even $50,000. An apartment, the urban equivalent of the bride price, is even further out of reach. At Mr. Zhao’s current income, it would take a decade or two before he could  afford a small Beijing apartment, which he said would start at about $100,000. “I’ll be an old man by then,” he said with a rueful smile.
"Not long after our conversation in McDonald’s, Mr. Zhao met the woman at a coffee shop. It was, he told me later, even more awkward than most first dates. A rural migrant and door-to-door salesman, he struggled to find a shared topic of interest with the woman, a 35-year-old entrepreneur and Beijing native who had arrived driving a BMW sedan.

The lack of chemistry didn’t seem to bother the woman, who told him about her profitable photo business and the three Beijing apartments she owned. Mr. Zhao didn’t find her unattractive, but how was he supposed to respond? Then, even before broaching the possibility of a second date, he said, the woman made a proposition: if they married, he wouldn’t have to work again.
"in the end, he couldn’t imagine being subordinate to a woman. “If I accepted that situation,” he asked me, “what kind of man would I be?
"The news frustrated Ms. Yu. “Kids these days are way too picky,” she said.

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