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December 14, 2009

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Nonprof it cupid in Pudong

FAN Benliang, a retired teacher, leaves her cupid's dating salon on Saturday with dozens of scorecards and a bulging bag of personal information sheets about men and women seeking a date.

It is almost 10pm and Fan, the matchmaker and organizer of the weekly dating salon, walks home from the tea house on Zhangyang Road with her work cut out for her. She tries to put the "right" people together in hopes they will click and eventually marry.

Fan, fondly known as Auntie Fan, is well known in Pudong New Area and has been a matchmaker for four years - running a salon for the last two.

For the 58-year-old cupid, it's a labor of love - she does this without charge.

"I have to read through all these sheets tonight, sort them by age, gender and occupation for later matching," says Fan. "If possible, I try to memorize all the information by heart."

She looks at the scorecards - women rating men and men rating women - based on their presentations and a short chat at the salon. She tries to decide who she could bring together for a date.

Auntie Fan is something of a celebrity in Pudong for her good works and shrewd pairings of young people, and some not so young.

Over four years she has arranged hundreds of dates that led to around 100 steady-dating couples and more than 10 marriages so far. It's tough work.

Her small study is piled high with files of more than 1,500 persons, aged from 20 to 47 years old, but only 400 are men. "Men are a scarce resource - this is a common social phenomenon," she says.

Although the traditional preference for males in China means there's a demographic shortage of women, in cities the numbers are not so skewed. But it's hard to find a good man.

Women over 30 are difficult to match. Sometimes they're considered leftovers and many are well-educated professional women who have high specs for a man.

Men always go like hotcakes, even if they're in their 40s, as long as they are financially secure. If they're wealthy, they have to fight women off.

Fan, who does this all on her own, held her fist dating salon two years ago in the Yangjing Grand Hall in Yangjing residential community two years ago. More than 200 young people came, so do more than 100 anxious parents who wanted to check it out to make sure it was on the level.

"It seemed there were six girls fighting for one boy," Fan recalls. "Too many girls, boys were precious. And the situation is getting worse today."

When she held the dating salon in the Pudong Public Center in August, a total of 287 single men and women showed up - only 28 were men.

The so-called "precious 28" included those who were divorced, older than average for marriage, some had no flats (an apartment is a prerequisite for marriage), and some were too short - women want tall men.

The matchmaker is always on the lookout for men and says she tries to "catch boys" in every possible way. In the supermarket, the park and even in the hospital (when she was ill), Fan would stop some middle-aged women or men to ask if they had a son.

"Does he have a girlfriend? Is he willing to join the salon? I've got many good girls," she asks.

In most cases, she gets brushed off, but occasionally she lands a man, a precious prospect.

Fan persuaded a woman to take her handsome, high-salaried son to the salon. Though he didn't find his Ms Right, Fan and the mother became good friends.

"Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with society and the marriage views of young people today," she says. "Some girls are too materialistic. They don't see the true meaning of marriage."

Most women who turn to Auntie Fan insist that possible mates be good-looking, high-salaried, well-educated and most important, own an apartment.

"It's ridiculous. Are they marrying the man, or just marrying their flats, occupations and money?" asks Auntie Fan.

Fan has her own ways of dealing with these "gold-diggers."

She often puts their information at the bottom of the pile for a few weeks, letting them wait anxiously.

Or she may introduce a greedy girl to her ideal man, so perfect that he can have his pick: He brushes her off.

"I hope they learn their lesson after being given the cold shoulder. The idea is to marry the right one, not the perfect one," says Fan. "But some men are picky too and can be unreasonable."

A divorced 38-year-old man earning more than 500,000 yuan (US$73,530) a year had (and still does) only two requirements for his wife - pretty and well-educated. He doesn't care whether she has a job.

"He was a big 'it' in the salon," says Fan.

In one month she introduced him to more than 25 pretty women, but he turned all of them down.

"The reason was always, 'They're ugly, not pretty enough'," she says.

She told him many times that she would drop him if he didn't change his attitude. The man didn't change, he insisted on perfection and his prospects remain dim.

But he was moved by Fan's sincerity and brought his younger brother to the salon, too.

"His brother also has a successful career but he's much more easygoing and more concerned with a girl's integrity and inner beauty," says Fan.

She introduced him to a likely girl last month and they hit it off and started dating.

Fan's typical day usually begins with reading over personal data and requirements. Sometimes she's so busy she forgets to have lunch.

But it can be hard to concentrate because she is often interrupted by phone calls from anxious parents or visited by anxious young people.

Fan decided to go into matchmaking when she retired four years ago after teaching political science for years.

"I just feel happy when I see two people who are matched perfectly. Many are going to hold their wedding parties next year and they're inviting me to attend," she says.

Her husband, a teacher at the Shanghai Maritime University, was initially opposed to her matchmaking, but now he has gotten into the spirit too. He bought her a mobile phone and taught her to send short messages to facilitate her work.

But all her furious SMSing gave her a case of myotenositis, inflammation of the thumb and muscle tendon.

The salon is held every Saturday night at Tian Shengju tea house on Zhangyang Road. She discovered it by accident on a rainy day this summer - there were other venues before.

The salons are crowded, the tea house owner was delighted and set aside a small room for Fan as a work studio.

Every single man and woman is welcome. To register and be admitted they must take their ID card, academic credentials, hukou (residence permit) and employment certificate.

"I have to verify the information is real and valid," says Fan. "It's my responsibility to the people who trust me."

When the party is underway, each person is asked to step onto a stage and briefly introduce themselves in three short sentences, including name, age and occupation.

If anyone is interested in someone, he or she contacts Auntie Fan to set up a speed-date then and there.

"I tell them not to be shy. Just be brave," she says.

Then comes the free talk session. In many cases, as men are rare, it often happens that several women are attracted to one man.

"The man cannot say no. He has to talk with everyone for at least three minutes. It's my rule and everyone obeys it," Fan says. "You have to communicate. Appearance is just the first step, and always deceptive. Further communication is more important to get to know a person."

The salon runs from 7pm to 10pm.

"It's exhausting but it keeps me smiling happily for three hours. What an amazing thing," Fan says.

The first salon was held two years ago in the dimly lit back-door area of Jincai High School. But it was too dark and some people complained they couldn't see clearly.

Then it moved to a culture center in the nearby neighborhood, but the management wanted to charge for use of the space. Fan said no.

"I don't earn a coin from matchmaking," she says.

Frustrated again, Fan relocated the salon to the front yard of the local police station.

"It was brightly lit, spacious, transport convenient and safe," she says.

But security guards ejected them. Fan showed them her ID, hukou, teaching certificate and even her family album to assure guards that what she was doing was on the up-and-up.

"I told them they could get wedding candies and chocolates to share the sweet moment if my clients become couples," she says. "They finally understood."

Even during bad weather, people came to the salon. Neither cold weather nor typhoons stopped Fan. She always arrived on time.

The guards were touched. The day after the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games was Saturday and more than 50 people and their parents showed up.

"It was difficult to organize such a crowd on the first day of the games," Fan recalls, "but warm-hearted guards helped us find a place in a park across the street."

Now Auntie Fan has lots of volunteer help, mostly her neighbors and parents whose children she successfully matched.

Some people have tried to buy Fan's lists for high prices, but she has refused. "It's my duty to protect the privacy of my clients and their information. They trust me and I am trustworthy."

Auntie Fan's biggest wish is to hold a group wedding sometime next year, saying, "It would be amazing to see them hand in hand."


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