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It's late at night in Beijing, and Yu Hong (pseudonym), 29, is standing on the roadside, trying to get a taxi to go home. The night is bleak and so is her heart. A strong sense of disappointment overwhelms her as she tries to count how many times she has left a group dating event without meeting anyone that appealed to her. She is starting to find these activities excruciating and meaningless.
Yu has been working in Beijing for years after finishing her postgraduate studies in the UK. She has a decent income, a good family background, and a gentle nature and does not understand why it is so hard to find someone to love. She has invested both her time and money in various online and offline dating services and activities but with limited success.
"The online love lesson was 12,000 yuan ($1,815) for six months and my dating club membership was 1,600 yuan. You can pay for extra activities as well so that you can have more chances to meet the right person," Yu said.
With a limited social circle, Yu thinks this is the most direct and efficient way to get a date. Her life is a reflection of many singles in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and with the so-called fourth singles' wave already hitting China, single women and men are shelling out the big bucks to find dates and, hopefully, mates.
According to 2017 statistics from Southwest Securities, a national security company that studies the single economy in China, there are nearly 200 million single adults in China, and the competition in the marriage market is increasingly fierce. Statistics from the same company valued the dating industry in China at 2.7 billion yuan in 2015, and projected further growth as more post-80s and 90s Chinese singles hit the market.
Various dating products, including websites, apps, online-to-offline services and specialized clubs, have mushroomed, enticing singles to pay for a better chance at love.
With the fourth singles' wave hitting the country, competition in China's marriage market has become increasingly fierce. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Big money, small returns
"Many of my single friends have bought dating services. I'm not the only one who spent a lot," said Yu.
Fast approaching their 30s, Yu and her friends are eager to find a partner and get married, even if finding Mr Right comes with a high price tag.
"The information online is too mixed. You cannot tell what is real from what is fake, and you cannot even tell whether the person is married by simply looking at his profile," Yu said.
She also noted that most dating websites lack a strict verification system and many people use a fake identity to gain access to the opposite sex. Some even use the platforms for booty calls, she said.
Yu said the pretenders are easier to spot when you speak to them. For example, the jig is up when a so-called PhD student studying abroad uses vulgar language or when a handsome "unmarried" guy accidentally talks about his son.
Yu said picking proper potential mates from messy data pools is exhausting, which leaves her and her friends no choice but to register for offline services.
"Normally, the more value you have in the marriage market, say a pretty face or a shapely figure, the less they will charge you and vice versa," Yu said.
Offline dating services start at 10,000 yuan, and the price increases according to your physique, social and educational background and your requirement for a future partner. Membership fees can reach nearly 200,000 yuan a year, Yu explained.
To get an added edge, Yu also invested in online love lessons that promised to teach how to improve one's attractiveness and enhance one's value in the marriage market as well as how to approach different types of men. But for her, the effect was limited.
"Dating skills might help you get the first date, but they don't work in the long run," she said, adding that she has been on dates with many men over the past two years, but none of them grew into something more meaningful.
Group dating events can be very costly but remain popular in China. Photo: Li Hao/GT
The cursed 30s
The price for people in their 30s is even higher. In the marriage market, 30 is a watershed. People at that age often have a greater difficulty finding dates. Therefore, they have to pay more.
"We have two different price systems, and for those who are in their 30s, we charge more for both men and women," said a product manager surnamed Zhang who works for a well-known Chinese dating company.
Zhang said the practice is very common in the industry, and the line is strictly drawn at one's 30th birthday.
Zhang's words echo the dating experience of Wang Ying (pseudonym).
Wang has been working in Shanghai for more than a decade and has a solid economic foundation. She still feels disappointed and helpless when she recalls the days she paid for arranged dates organized by a dating website.
"Every time they arranged a date for me, they charged 10,000 to 20,000 yuan without a promise of any certain results," said Wang.
She spent more than 40,000 yuan in six months for the service. She thinks the benefit is that the service saves her a lot of time and helps her screen out unqualified candidates. However, she is still single.
"It is a double-edged sword. The person you like might not have feelings for you and vice versa," said Wang.
She eventually stopped using the service due to its high cost and uncertain results.
The expense for men is also not cheap. In fact, sometimes it is doubled because they not only pay for the services and apps but also for the dates they go on.
"For people at my age, we cannot just go to a cheap restaurant or some random café. A decent date normally costs me hundreds and sometimes even thousands of yuan," said Gorge Liu, who is in his 30s and works in Beijing.
He said dating has become an essential part of his monthly consumption, and he thinks men are in a more vulnerable position financially when it comes to love.
Recently, Wang has been asking herself if it is worth it. The zero transparency in the whole service industry makes her feel cheated somehow.
Her most satisfactory date was the second one they arranged for her. He was a handsome, young, rich and well-educated man.
"[He] was way better than my original requirement in every aspect; it was just too good to be true," said Wang.
She said he showed strong interest in her as well but never contacted her after they met, and she cannot help wondering whether the company hired him.
"I searched online and found many people who have had similar experiences, but the thing is that we cannot prove our suspicions because the whole process is not transparent," said Wang.
She also feels embarrassed about investigating the date because being single at her age is somehow considered "shameful," and she is reluctant to let her friends find out that she paid for dating services.
"It would be really great if the industry could be more regulated and monitored, and if customers could see how their money is spent," Wang said.
It's all about appearances
All in all, many people still think dating is about "face" and appearances, especially for women.
"Appearance and dress style are essential measures that we use to calculate the complexity of partner hunting. The more beautiful and young you are, the more likely you are to get dates, so we charge less," said Zhang.
Zhang explained that even with a similar social and educational background, a better look could save someone thousands or even tens of thousands of yuan when it comes to purchasing dating services.
Judging someone based in their looks works for men as well. According to Zhang, more and more females now put more value on a good face rather than the man's finances as a growing number of women are more financially independent.
Zhao Ping (pseudonym), who is in his 20s, is a "victim" of this mindset. With a fully-paid apartment, a private car and a good income, Zhao appears to have satisfied the essential requirements for marriage; however, his 165-centimeter height stands in the way.
"It's all about face and appearance; let's face the music. If you are at a disadvantage, you need to be either super-rich or super-smart," Zhao said.
As the new year approaches, he feels increasing pressure from his family who push him to marry early.
Despite the challenges, Zhao has a positive outlook on his future in the marriage marketplace.
He said a good strategy is to build an emotional foundation with the girl online first and not to arrange a face-to-face meeting before she knows who you are inside well enough to overlook appearances.
"I'm kind, humorous and smart, and I think that would make up for my appearance," Zhao said. "I still believe in love."