My Chinese friends kind of cringe when I ask them. The image of the nosey, interfering busybody Chinese parent that seems to pop up whenever there’s a documentary or a news item about daily life in China. This is true, as my new friend I made at the CES* tells me. He’s kind of reticent about being specific, but over the four days and nights we hang out and sample the Las Vegas party life, the booze and various relaxants I ply him with do their job well. In a country where they’re only now starting to rethink the concrete one-child-per-family law Chairman Mao passed more than 60 years ago, just how the present culture works is fascinating to me.
What we have to understand vis-a-vis the notion of ‘busybody’ Chinese parenting is simply that each family (well, every urban family) is small and there are no siblings, only possibly grandparents to help out. To be a successful professional matchmaker in a city like, say, Shanghai or Nanking, makes you a big deal in the world of Chinese enterprise, like someone who has raised the cash to acquire a McDonald’s franchise.
It can be a horror show. According to my new friend, a park in Shanghai is the site of a weekend marriage market, where elderly relatives shill pictures and videos in order to broker matches. But it’s not just poor ignorant folk who commit to such archaic methodology, but a significant number of educated urban dwellers still do it ‘old school.’ Consequently, between dealing with ever-ready-to-broker matchmakers and interfering family members, singles, especially educated ones with money, young people desperately seek a means of avoiding such interference. So, naturally, as in the west, necessity is indeed a mother of invention and a number of entrepreneurs have created a bevy of smartphone apps offering a less formal approach.
The number-one-with-a bullet app is Momo. It uses any smartphone’s built-in GPS to help users find profiles and photos of others in their area they can talk to, online or offline. Indeed, Momo is so totally boffo these days that it has added 30 million registered users since July, according to The Financial Times, taking their total to 80m.
“It really gets everybody in authority most angry, though,” he told me. “People dating for fun and maybe…” he whispered, “maybe one time, two time sex. Not so serious. For fun, you know? Not serious. Both Chinese man and woman want to meet people they are in common with, but never want marriage too young, like parents.”
Other new Chinese dating apps include Dou Jiang You Tiao, a launch with backing from Irish venture capital group SOSventures that puts together singles with hobbies like chess or learning foreign languages in common; or, Zhantai, where matched users meet according to where they live or commute to. And despite the deep conservatism of Chinese society in general, there is now Blued, another super-successful app for gay men which now has 2m users and well over US$3m in funding from a Shanghai investor.
The serious money, however, is a challenge, but it can pay off like the lottery. As China booms and diversifies, so do the number of millionaires, now in the hundreds of thousands. Tinder was created for them. Families organize, looking for certain educational qualifications, specific height requirements and assets. Tinder does all the necessities once practiced by grandmothers and village elders. The services mentioned earlier are considered to be services for the lower classes by wealthy-types who may not have been born wealthy, but have altered their bourgeois habits fast. The ones on Momo may not last, but the folks at Tinder act as guarantors. So, along with what could be a million dollar fee, Tinder puts up a sort of promised extra surety fee of another million, so that both families can prove they’re ‘honest brokers.’ So, if a marriage breaks up quickly, in a period of, say, less than a year, Tinder promises to pay a kind of compensatory insurance fee. And although that may sound like a daunting business model in western terms, the fact is that the divorce rate is very low in China. Even Jiayuan, the leading Chinese dating website, which has both US and UK stock market listings is in for the long run and already putting out feelers to both Momo and Tinder over sharing the wealth.