Shopping for a partner is big business in China. Credit Nino Mascardi/Getty

Shopping for a partner is big business in China. Credit Nino Mascardi/Getty

It’s that time of year again. Cartoon hearts take over the advertising billboards, friends send each other cards and in the subway women dressed as angels hand out flyers for a “love supermarket”, in which hundreds of photos of potential partners line the walls. Yes, it’s nearly November 11 — Singles Day in China.

Guang Gun, or “bare branch” day as it is known here, was first celebrated by university students in the 1990s, who chose the date because of its four lonely figures: 11/11. For some, it’s a day to take pride in the singlehood. For others, it’s a time to say goodbye to their single status: all over cyberspace, Chinese “netizens” leave posts inviting each other to take the number 11 bus at 11.11am. In case anyone is in doubt about the purpose of this flash-mob, attendees are told to bring a single chopstick “to help fate find you your other half”.

It should come as no surprise that Singles Day was born in China. Today, there are 36.8 million one-person households, according to Government statistics. While that may be a small percentage of the population (in the UK, more than 30 per cent of people live alone), the growth rate is staggering.

In the past five years the number of one-person households in China has risen by 29 per cent.

This burgeoning demographic is becoming big business and Singles Day is the jackpot. On November 11, clubs, cinemas and karaoke joints offer discounts encouraging singles to commiserate together. Escort agencies advertise men and women for rent “so you don’t have to be alone on this day”. And, as with Valentine’s Day, the card industry has also been quick to capitalise on this opportunity. At the top end of the market, retailing at 68RMB (£6.30), are the musical cards, which play such tasteful numbers as Rene Liu’sLifelong Loneliness and Zhang Chu’s Lonely People are Disgraceful.

Perhaps the biggest winner on Singles Day is the online dating industry, which is estimated to be worth £74 million this year — almost triple its 2008 value of £26 million. Among those cashing in is Gong Haiyan, the 34-year-old founder of jiayuan.com. With 27 million registered users, the company is China’s largest dating website and was one of the first to see the potential of Singles Day. Every year since 2004, it has held parties on November 11 for 1,111 guests, with tickets costing £10.50.

“Half of my classmates were single. I thought it would be a fun way to meet people,” Gong says. “In the past, relatives introduced you to potential partners. Now with people moving away from home this is unrealistic.”

Mass migration and the break-up of family units are just two factors behind the surge in Chinese singletons. The gender gap — a hangover of the one-child policy — is well documented. By 2020, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 23 million Chinese men will have no choice but to remain bachelors.

Add to that China’s soaring divorce rates (in 1985, 450,000 divorces were granted; in 2008, there were 2.3 million) and you have an increasing number of older singles on the market.

Women, especially, tend to delay the big day as getting married can be a bar to promotion, but if they wait too long they risk being thought past their shelf-life at 30 and given the unflattering label of shengnü (leftover lady). The result is a mad dash to find a life-partner in their late twenties, creating lucrative opportunities for dating industry newcomers such as Wo Zai Zhao Ni. Last Singles Day, the company launched the novel concept of the “love supermarket” — for a small fee of £9.25, clients can put their photos on the company’s walls.

Situated in a soulless office block just above Beijing’s Xizhimen underground station, the love supermarket is at first not that easy to find. But with a knowing nod, the security guard says that Wo Zai Zhao Ni is on the 11th floor. As we walk through the glass doors, a row of hearts dangling from the ceiling tell us that we’ve at the right place.

The carpet is purple and all the member photos are displayed in lilac frames, the men’s as well as the women’s. Some are taken against idyllic backdrops created in a photo studio, others last-minute in a dimly-lit living room; all sport big grins. Underneath each picture are the person’s vital statistics: age, salary, profession and home town. “It’s just a matter of time before someone browsing the pictures chooses you,” says Gao Shan, the company secretary.

There are a couple of clients milling round: one woman is busy registering. “We require all clients to bring their official documents,” Gao says. “This way, we are superior to online dating agencies, where people put up false information.”

Near by, another client carefully studies each photo frame. Weekends, during lunch breaks and after work, are the busiest times, Gao adds. “The room can get packed with people and sometimes clients meet each other this way. It’s a very successful formula. We’ve had many marriages,” says Gao, pointing to a box of chocolates on the table, supposedly a thankyou gift from one happy set of newlyweds. On Singles Day this year, Wo Zai Zhao Ni will add another innovation to its repertoire: the love express — a vehicle filled with profiles, which will come direct to clients’ doors.

“People are too busy working to find love,” Gao says. “Then, one day, they wake up and time is running out.”

Zhen Chengjuan, who is eyeing profiles at the love supermarket, feels this way. “Singles Day is too miserable,” Zhen says. “You think ‘I’m about to turn 30 and I’m celebrating this festival again’. I’m here because I don’t know where else to look.”

Zhen’s parents were introduced to each other by their families, but now this sort of matchmaking is far less common. Instead Zhen is part of a generation of “siblingless” children who grew up in high-rise blocks with little opportunity to mix with others. While they were at university, their parents and professors pushed them to concentrate on their studies, to spend long hours poring over books, confined to their rooms, and not to distract themselves with campus romances. In fact, the nationwide ban on university students marrying was only lifted in 2005.

Now, at work they often find themselves in an all-female shopfloor or an all-male office. The result is a population little-used to interacting with the opposite sex. This is where men such as self-styled love guru Vincent Qi come in. A former psychology student, he’s made a career helping people adapt to Western-style dating.

For £190, which is no small sum considering the average office worker in Beijing earns £325 a month, he gives 12 hours of seduction coaching, including trips to bars to practise techniques.

“Chinese men are really awkward in social situations,” says the Western-educated Qi. “If I introduce them to someone, they act like golf caddies and hide behind me. They can’t even approach friends of friends.”

It would be wrong, however, to pity this empire of Chinese singletons.

Not all of them are unmarried because they work too hard, are too socially isolated and lack the family support network they had in the past. For many it is a lifestyle choice. “We are not so willing to rush into or stay in loveless marriages as our parents did,” Gong says.

Now, young Chinese people can choose for themselves — and they’re more likely to be picky about it. Dating is increasingly seen as an enjoyable experience in itself, not just a means to marry. Or, as Qi likes to put it: “It’s like buying a pair of jeans. In the past, you could choose size but that was it.

Now, you’ve got skinny, cropped, flares — all sorts of styles and colours. You can date who you want and you take your time to find the right fit.”

Dating, like much else in China, has finally opened up to the free market.

First appeared in The Times on November 8, 2010.