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April 20, 2010

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Aunty matchmakers - 'Make me a perfect catch'

MATCHMAKING is an ancient profession and online matchmaking and mate-finding services abound today. But many no-nonsense aunty matchmakers (meipo) are still putting people together. Yao Minji delves into matchmaking - and emerges (still single) to tell us about it.

Li Meihua meets a reporter in a small dim-sum eatery on Tianshan Road and gets down to business. She has no time for pleasantries. The 68-year-old auntie doesn't even introduce herself before she fires off questions at prospective quarry.

"Are you married?"

"Do you have a boyfriend?"

"Do you have an apartment? Where is it? How large is it? Which floor is it?"

"What do your parents do?"

"Is your company in the public sector or corporate?"

The retired civil servant has developed this rapid-fire method of information gathering from her hobby, her real passion, as a matchmaker, or meipo - mei means matchmaking and po refers to an old woman. She's been at it for 30 years.

In ancient times meipo was an important woman's profession. Today's movies set in the old days show typical meipo characters as women in their fifties or sixties, wearing colorful clothes, with exaggerated make-up and red mouths. Most importantly, they have a large mole above the mouth (ideally on the right, but either side is okay).

People with moles above their mouth are said to be great talkers, they can talk black into white and would make great lawyers - or matchmakers.

The mole is so much a part of the character that it's known as meipozhi, or woman matchmaker's mole.

The earliest record about matchmakers can be found in "Book of Songs," written as early as 1,000 BC.

Auntie matchmakers advise: This is for marriage, not for love

In ancient times, people's lives were limited to their own families and in most cases people knew very little even about their next-door neighbors. They didn't know which family had a marriageable daughter or son, their age, looks, inherited wealth and prospects. This is where the meipo steps in.

These women, determined networkers, are often familiar with the basic information about each family in the area. Many were midwives, healers, tailors, flower sellers or had other jobs that put them in contact with many people. Midwives, of course, knew all the birthdates.

Gradually, having a matchmaker became tradition and a must in ancient China. There's an old saying that legitimate marriage needs "words from parents and speeches from matchmakers." Those who don't receive the proper words are considered siben, or elopers, and deemed not to have a legitimate marriage.

Parents go to the meipo when their children reach the appropriate age and meipo will match names on her list according to their requirements. Usually, they match people from families of similar social class and education background. The meipo also takes the birthdates of the man and the woman to a fortune teller to predict how harmonious the combination would be.

In those days, it was believed that a woman without a matchmaker must be ugly and have no good qualities. Only the worst men would marry such women. It is quite the opposite today.

Back to the dim-sum encounter with our matchmaker, auntie Li.

"Usually, it is the parents who come to me because their children are too ashamed to be known to be going to a matchmaker," says Li who started putting couples together 30 years ago.

She is only one among the dozens of passionate aunties, all amateurs, who devote their free time to mahjong and matchmaking in the city. No one really knows how many there are, though there are many matchmaking services.

These aunties trade gossip about families over mahjong and consider it a great pleasure to help realize a marriage.

They have qualities in common. They are passionate about matchmaking, it's a labor of love. Although it's a tradition to give presents and red envelopes (cash) to meipo at wedding, these aunties mainly do it out of pleasure.

They are confident and skillful at extracting all the information they want from a person, and are sometimes quite demanding. It's difficult for young people, many of them shy and sheltered, to refuse to answer the questions. No one wants to be impolite.

Five matchmakers were interviewed for this article, and they all asked the same series of questions - all at a fast clip.

Each auntie of them has a list of men and women, usually containing the basic information - height, profession, monthly income, parents' jobs, apartment and its value, and several pictures. They don't ask about hobbies and interests, goals and values.

Despite their ages, these aunties are sharp and have committed all the information to memory. They rattle it off. Give them such-and-such requirements, and they'll quickly pull out a few names off the top of their head.

Auntie Li was general manager of a government-owned guest house in Fengxian District and had a lot of free time even before she retired. She has always been eager to make friends, so naturally she started putting young men and women from her networks together.

The first couple she matched has come back to her seeking help for their daughter, a 24-year-old nurse.

According to Li, a hospital-related job is bad news for matchmaking, especially for women, because it is too busy. Women are supposed to have plenty of time to devote to their husband and family.

For both men and women, civil service and other secure jobs in the public sector are preferred.

"The single most important condition for a woman is to be pretty," says Li. "It is even better if she works in the public sector, which means a lot of free time. If she has an okay income, that means she has more choices for men with incomes higher than hers."

Her current list contains around 200 women and 20 men. When she thinks she has a prospective match, she informs both parties and asks the man to call the woman and set up a meeting. These often take place in fast-food restaurants where they don't have to linger and can split the bill. She attends if they request it.

One 27-year-old Europe-born Chinese went to auntie Li. She was told to lower her expectations, especially given her age. She was advised to tell any man that she earns less money a month and definitely not say that she holds a master's degree. She was also told to add a couple of centimeters to her height.

Auntie Li also told her that she couldn't arrange a meeting right away because it was so-called "Ghost Week" following the Qingming Festival.

"It is so much more difficult in matchmaking today compared with 30 years ago. People were much easier to work with then," complains Li.

"At that time, as long as the man was good-hearted and honest, it was a good match. Now, all these young women keep saying that they have no 'feelings' for the men. But they have to consider their own situations - they get older and their circle of options gets smaller every single day."

Lower your standard - that's Li's big piece of advice for women.

She adds that some picky young women in their late 20s just keep seeing different men and don't try a second time with someone they don't immediately fancy.

Li is confused about why all these young women wouldn't lower their standards, despite the cruel reality of 200 women to 20 men on her lilst.

Some of the women are as young as 20 years old and still in university, "but their parents are worried that all the good men would be gone when they graduate and step out into society. They want to get prepared early."

She calls those over 25 the "difficult" group and those over 30 the "impossible" group."

Other matchmakers sympathize.

Hard case

Mary Lin, a 31-year-old corporate executive, is in the "impossible" group, and is on the long list of another very frustrated matchmaker.

Lin has seen 48 men for blind dates in the past 14 months and is still not satisfied. She has set up three more for April and plans to see more later.

"I'm actually just doing it as a habit now since everyone around me is so worried about my marriage. But since I'm already in the impossible group, why should I compromise now?" asks Lin.

She says going on blind dates is like going on job interviews these days - nothing happens, you just keep going and get numb to it.

Lin is a big problem for Katherine Wang, a 72-year-old Chinese American, who came back to stay in Shanghai six years ago after an 18-year stay in Los Angeles. Wang devotes herself to matching "young elites," as she calls them, mainly overseas Chinese, "returning turtles," and children from rich families.

She says that independent women are difficult to match. She advises Lin to talk less, not take charge of the conversation, be more feminine and less assertive.

Usually, Wang asks the man to call the woman and set up a blind date. These are usually a cafe in a five-star hotel; the guy picks up the tab.

Sometimes, she also attends if they request it, to make introductions and break the ice.

One of her success stories is matching the son of a former Swiss Chinese diplomat with a daughter of a real estate developer. Wang calls it her "greatest achievement, a perfect combination of money and knowledge."

She says that once young people agree to meet, "it's usually pleasant and they're talkative. They know why they are there - for marriage, rather than love."


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