Winter branches

Speed dating games on singles’ day – Alec Ash


Just as the cold winds sweep the last leaves off Beijing’s trees, Monday was “bare branch” day in China – 11/11 being an appropriate date to be dateless. Singles’ day (guanggunjie) is mostly about online shopping now, but retains the more traditional function of making all the single twigs feel inadequate. When I texted “What are you doing this guanggunjie?” to a handful of partnerless Chinese friends, I got back the same curt reply from three: “Sleeping.” I’ll know better than to ask next year.

There also was a spattering of singles’ events in Beijing last night. I went to one such meet-up, all in the name of youth culture research of course. In lieu of the regular Chinese Tuesdays post (Sunday’s FAQ on learning Mandarin hit that spot), and in addition to my post on this wider topic for Analects, I thought I’d write the night up.

The Happiness Singles Culture Member’s Club (“The Home of Single Friends”) is a singles’ club in north-east central Beijing, around since 2003. Annual membership fees range from 3000 to 10,000 yuan, and over 40,000 lonely souls have signed up to its associated website. It holds events every weekend, from speed dating (supei) to the popular group roleplaying game “Killers”. I found Monday night’s event through a search on the listings website Douban. Gentleman must be over 24, ladies over 22. Everyone must bring their photo ID or passport.

100 yuan bought a newcomer like me past the front desk, into an open space with plush booths for strangers to sit and talk. In the next room there were a couple of pool tables, a row of swinging double seats garnished with cuddly bears, and an open floor space with a podium and piano. Calligraphy hung on the walls: 让世界充满爱 (“Let the world be full of love”, a song lyric). There was no bar, only water bottles for two yuan behind the registration desk. This is not a place to relax with a drink. This is a place to find your future spouse.

The night kicked off at 7.30 with a game called “five hundred seconds”. 16 ladies sat down in a circle of high stools, arranged facing out. 16 gentleman stood in an outer ring facing in – one of them, yours truly, the only foreigner there. We walked around them in a clockwise circle, like very embarrassed lions scoping out prey that was avoiding eye contact. The host asked questions, and whoever answered first got to choose where to stop (abandoning the rest of us to luck of the draw) so we could have an eight minute conversation with whomever we were facing.

The questions were simple enough. (“What three characters do you get when you combine a male ox and a female ox?” “Liang tou niu – two oxes.”) The problem was that the first two gents to answer were too shy to decide who they wanted to talk to, and looped the circle in endless timidity until the host had to cut in and stop us all. Each time, the same eight minute conversation ensued, characterised by the mutual plumbing of information to determine compatability (age, background, job) and ending with the exchanging of details (or not) on cards provided.

After a few rounds, we moved onto the next game. Guys and gals alike stood in a big circle, holding hands. We were told to pass a count along the circle, but to say “pass” for every number which included, or was a multiple of, seven. So: 12, 13, pass, 15, 16, pass, 18, 19, 20, pass, etc. It’s a game I played at school, so I didn’t embarrass myself. If you slipped up, you had to go into the middle of the circle and introduce yourself, then field a question.

A single bare branch on its own may be broken, but clump many bare branches together and they … will all act very embarrassed. This was proven most painfully true when one chap in the middle was asked to point out which girl in the group he liked best. The three minute silence that followed (yes, three minutes, I counted it) was horrifying, as he stumbled over the prospect of singling someone out. When he finally did, the host complimented his bravery and we applauded him. Then the girl was asked to stand on his feet and he was told to dance. He stomped her around the circle once, like a clunking elephant, and they avoided eye contact for the rest of the evening.

The final game was the simplest of the lot. The MC held eight long red strings in their middle, clenched in a fist. The ladies each took a string from one end. The lads each took one from the other. The MC let go – and left the group to untangle itself and find out who was holding the other end of your string. Then (you guessed it) you went and talked with them for eight minutes. Name, age, background, job. Name, age, background, oh, I know someone from your home province, job. Name, age, background, job, oh can you help me get a position in that company? Name, age, sorry you’re too young/old, awkward time filling. Delicate prodding to see if you have an apartment, a car, a nest egg.

The direct tone of the speed dates were no surprise. For the participants it was a bit of fun, yes, but behind it all it was the search for a potential life partner. I was a curiosity of course, but when I asked how someone usually looked for a partner, or why they came along that day, the answer was always the same. The only other way was to rely on introductions from friends and colleagues. The “circle was too small,” and none of the ladies liked going to bars, as there’s no sense of security (anquangan) – that is, guys at bars could just be players (xianren).

Hanging around the edges of the game, another score of singles watched from the shadows. Some chatted and paired off. Some peeked over the top of their smart phones, pretending to be busy texting, only to leave alone. Some groups of girlfriends observed the guys in the circle, and traded comments. For their benefit the host made a point of repeating salient information that cropped up over the microphone, like someone’s age or profession. “86, the foreigner was born in 86. And he’s very clever, he can count in Chinese.”

The night winded down after a couple of hours – the end signalled by the blast of pop music, and a mass desertion of the dance floor. Back pockets stuffed with the contact information of some half dozen prospects, the bachelors departed, including your humble correspondent, into the winter night – where not so much love, but more a biting chill, was in the air.