From her stake-out near the entrance of an H&M store in Joy City, a Beijing shopping mall, Yang Jing seems lost in thought, twirling a strand of her auburn-tinted hair, tapping her nails on an aquamarine iPhone. But her eyes keep moving. They track the clusters of young women zigzagging from Zara to Calvin Klein. They linger on a face, a gesture, and then move on, darting across the atrium, searching.
“This is a good place to hunt,” she says. “I always have good luck here.”
For Yang, Joy City is not so much a consumer mecca as an urban Serengeti where she prowls for potential wives for some of China’s richest bachelors. Yang, 29, is one of China’s premier love hunters, a new breed of Chinese matchmaker that has proliferated in the country’s economic boom. The company she works for, Diamond Love and Marriage, caters to men, and occasionally women, willing to pay tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to outsource the search for their ideal spouse.
In Joy City, Yang gives instructions to her eight-scout team, one of six squads the company is deploying in three cities for one Shanghai millionaire. This client has provided a list of requirements for his future wife, including her age (22 to 26), skin colour (“white as porcelain”) and sexual history (yes, a virgin).
“These millionaires are very picky, you know?” remarks Yang. “Nobody can ever be perfect enough.” Still, the potential reward for Yang is huge: the love hunter who finds the client’s eventual choice will receive a bonus of more than $30,000, around five times the average annual salary in this line of work.
Suddenly, a signal comes.
From across the atrium, a co-worker of Yang’s catches her eye and nods at a woman in a blue dress, walking alone. Yang circles behind her.
“Perfect skin,” she whispers. “Elegant face.” When the woman walks into H&M, Yang intercepts her in the sweater aisle. “I’m so sorry to bother you,” she says with a honeyed smile. “I’m a love hunter. Are you looking for love?”
“I’m a love hunter. Are you looking for love?”Yang Jing
Three decades of rapid growth and structural change have reshaped the landscape of marriage in China. A generation ago, it was one of the world’s most equal nations, in both gender and wealth. Most people were poor and tight controls over housing, employment, travel and family life simplified the search for a suitable match – what the Chinese call men dang hu dui, meaning roughly “family doors of equal size”.
“The old family and social networks that people used to rely on for finding a husband or wife have fallen apart,” claims James Farrer, an American sociologist whose book, Opening Up, looks at sex, dating and marriage in contemporary China. “There’s a huge sense of dislocation in China and young people don’t know where to turn.”
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, fuelled 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 websites 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 to turn to more hands-on matchmaking services.
Dozens of such services have sprung up in China in the past five years, some of them charging big fees to find and vet prospective spouses for wealthy clients. “These men are lost souls,” remarks Yang. “They worked hard, made a lot of money and left their old world behind. Now they don’t have time to find a wife and they don’t know whom to trust. So they come to us.”
While Yang’s new client, a divorced 42-year-old property mogul, is prepared to pay the equivalent of $500,000, he isn’t the biggest case in the company’s history – in 2011, a man paid $1.5 million for a successful 12-city hunt.
Mr Big, as I’ll call him – he insists Diamond Love not reveal his name – is a member of China’s fuyidai, the “first-generation rich” who have leapt from poverty to extreme wealth in a single bound, often jettisoning their first wives in the process. Diamond Love’s clientele also includes many fuerdai, or “second-generation rich”, men and women in their 20s and 30s whose search is often bankrolled by wealthy parents keen to exert control over their marital choices as well as the family inheritance.
But fuyidai like Mr Big are accustomed to being the boss and can be the most uncompromising clients.
Mr Big has excruciatingly specific requirements for his second wife. The ideal woman would look like a younger replica of Zhou Tao, a famous Chinese TV host: slim with pure white skin, slightly pointed chin, perfect teeth, eyelid surgery to Westernise her eyes, and long, silken hair. To ensure her good character and fortune, he insists her wuguan – a feng shui-like reading of the sense organs on the face – shows perfect harmony.
“When clients start out, all they want is beauty – how tall, how white, how thin,” explains Yang. “Sometimes the person they’re looking for doesn’t exist in nature. Even if we find her, these clients often have no idea whether that would make their hearts feel settled. It’s our job to try to move them from fantasy towards reality.”
"Sometimes the person they’re looking for doesn’t exist in nature. It’s our job to move them from fantasy to reality.”Yang Jing
Fantasy, of course, is precisely what Diamond Love sells. Yang’s boss, Fei Yang, is a smoky-voiced woman in a black leather jacket who used to trade in electronic goods. Inviting me to sit on a bright pink couch in her lushly carpeted office, she describes how the firm has “spread the culture of the relationship” since 2005, when it opened in Shanghai. It now has six branches, with 200 consultants, 200 full-time love hunters and hundreds more part-time scouts, virtually all of them women.
Teacher Fei, as her employees call her, runs a series of “how to be a better wife” workshops that coach women on the finer points of managing a wealthy household, reading their husbands’ moods and “understanding the importance of sexual relations”. The fee for two 14-day courses is $16,000.
But Diamond Love’s chief target is men – the wealthier the better. The company’s four million members are mostly men who pay from a few dollars a month for basic searches to more than $15,000 for access to exclusive databases, with customised assistance from a professional love consultant.
The company’s wealthiest, highest paying clients – 90 per cent of whom are men – show little interest in lectures or databases. They want exclusive access to what 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 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. Fei makes no apologies for the high fees.
“Why shouldn’t they pay more to find the perfect wife?” she reasons. “This is the most important investment in their lives.”
Even before Mr Big signs a contract, Yang senses trouble. She and a colleague have culled the company’s exclusive databases to find women to serve as templates for the love hunters’ search. Together with Mr Big, they look at the files and pictures of their top 3000 women. He rejects them all. “
Even if the girl’s eyebrow was just a half-millimetre too high, he would toss the photo out and say, ‘No good!’” recalls Yang. “He always found something to complain about.”
With more than $500,000 on the line, Yang is beginning to doubt her ability to deliver. And not just for Mr Big. One afternoon when we meet, the normally animated Yang slumps onto the sofa, exhausted. She’s 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,” admits Yang. “No wealthy Chinese man would ever marry her. They always want somebody younger, with less power.”
The day Mr Big signs his contract with Diamond Love and begins paying his fee, Yang flies to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, where she’ll kickstart the campaign. “I always feel unsettled during a campaign,” she reveals, “but this time, the stress [is] crazy.”
Her team of 10 love hunters scour university campuses and shopping malls for three weeks, trying to meet a daily quota of 20 high-quality women, or two per person. Yang offers a bonus, about $16, for every candidate above the quota and sets a personal goal of finding 10 “class A” women a day herself.
One afternoon in Chengdu, after slurping down a bowl of beef noodles at Master Kong’s Chef’s Table, Yang notices a young woman sweeping past her into the restaurant, chatting on a mobile phone. Long black hair hides most of her face, but there’s something captivating about her laugh and easy gait. “
She seemed open, warm, happy,” remembers Yang. After a moment of indecision, Yang follows her inside, apologises for the intrusion and switches on her charm. Linking arms with the woman – one of her patented moves – Yang comes away with her phone number, photograph and a few pertinent details: she’s 24, a graduate student and a near-ringer for TV hostess Zhou Tao.
The love-hunting campaign for Mr Big yields more than 1100 fresh prospects who meet his general specifications, including 200 in Chengdu. “The cruel process of culling,” as Yang calls it, whittles that number down to 100, then 20 and finally to a list of eight. (For Diamond Love, a fringe benefit of lovehunting campaigns is that the hundreds of rejected potential mates can be cycled into its databases – a process of replenishment paid for by its richest clients.)
The company subjects the finalists to another round of interviews and psychological evaluations. Barely two months after the search began, Mr Big receives thick dossiers on each of the eight, with detailed information about their families and finances, habits and hobbies, and physical and mental conditions.
Finally, a series of grainy videos lands in his email inbox. The first shows the top three prospects from Chengdu, sitting and standing, walking and talking, smiling and laughing. One of them, a demure 24 year old with long black hair and black hotpants who seems poised in front of the camera, is the graduate student whom Yang pursued on a hunch at the noodle restaurant.
Yang’s hunting skills and tenacity have paid off again, giving her two of the eight finalists and a 25 per cent chance of winning a $32,000 bonus. (For finding two of the top 20, she’s already earned a share of a smaller bonus.) When I ask about the reward, Yang demurs at first. “My aim is just to find a match that makes both people happy,” she states, before adding: “Inside my heart, I want my girls to win.”
Yang has worked hard for the opportunity. She heads to her job early in the morning, leaving her five-year-old son in her mother-in-law’s care, and returns after 8pm. She’s often gone for weeks at a time on love-hunting trips. Her husband, whom she married at 22, when he was 35, ran a trucking logistics company that folded in 2009. Since then, he hasn’t worked much. With one large bonus, Yang bought him a car that he tinkers with. Her occupation has given her a rather jaded view of the prospects for career women like herself. Once she tells me half-jokingly: “It’s a good thing I’m already married. I would never stand a chance.”
“It’s a good thing I’m already married. I would never stand a chance.”Yang Jing
Mr Big flies to Chengdu to meet the three local finalists. In the elevator of the Shangri-La Hotel, he fidgets nervously with the part in his moussed hair. He’s invested more than $500,000 in the search and is about to see if the money was well spent.
His final date in Chengdu is with the Zhou Tao look-alike whom Yang approached at the noodle restaurant. At first it seems to be a mismatch, and not just because of the 18-year age gap. He knows nearly everything about her – her dating history, her recent acceptance to a graduate school, her father’s lofty government post – while she knows little more than his height and weight. She doesn’t even know his name. Diamond Love has told her only that his net worth exceeds $800,000.
The young woman tries to keep things casual by taking him to a local restaurant. But Mr Big insists on bringing along a female consultant from Diamond Love and sitting awkwardly off to one side during the meal. According to the consultant, Li Minmin, he sits in this position “to better evaluate her profile, her skin and her teeth”.
The two barely speak without the consultant’s prodding. Still, Mr Big seems pleased by the woman’s sense of privacy when he inquires about her father’s job. “He’s a civil servant,” she replies. What level? “Management.” It takes several minutes – and a blunt question – before she acknowledges that her father is, in fact, the boss of an influential government office. “From childhood,” she tells him, “my father taught me to keep a low profile.”
Suddenly, this seems like a suitable match in the Chinese tradition of “family doors of equal size”. Here are two discreet people of similar social status: a wealthy entrepreneur and the daughter of a high-ranking official.
After dinner, Mr Big cancels all other dates with finalists and dispatches Li to buy a Gucci handbag for the woman as a token of affection. Barely a week later, he flies her to Hainan island off the south coast of China for a holiday at a beachside resort. The two stay in separate rooms. When they return, Li insists that “the relationship is still pure”.
Yang’s pleased that her love hunting has hit the mark, but she wishes the courtship would move faster: a $32,000 bonus could make a big difference to her family. After texting and phoning, the couple meet again in Beijing and then take a holiday in a mountainous area of Sichuan province. In Chengdu, though, Mr Big declines to meet the woman’s parents and instead of joining her at the wedding of her friends, stays in the hotel.
The couple has not yet decided to marry. But they’re still dating exclusively, and Yang says Mr Big is serious about marriage. Nobody pays half a million dollars “just to play around”, she points out. “He just needs a little more time.”