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May 14, 2012

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Love's cross-cultural challenges

AH, romance - that quintessential expression of springtime! It's said love has no bounds, but that's apparently not quite the case this season as Shanghai prepares to hold its largest matchmaking party.

This year's event will be held in Expo Park from May 26 to 27, with up to 30,000 singles expected to sign up in the prowl for partners. Foreigners need not apply.

Though marriages between Chinese and foreigners - once considered strictly taboo - are not uncommon nowadays in China, stigmas remain. The wariness hasn't been helped by tales of exploitative matchmaking operators eager to milk the lovelorn market of women from developing countries and men from wealthier nations.

Against the rules

It's technically against the rules in China to sell international matchmaking services, though that hasn't stopped the proliferation of operators.

"The market should be opened up because marriage has no boundaries of nationality and age," said Wang Weiming, secretary-general of the Shanghai Matchmaking Organization Administration Association. "Many countries, such as Singapore, don't make a distinction between domestic and international matchmaking."

He said shutting down the market in international matchmaking would only lead to underground operations and even more possible problems.

The State Council issued a notice in 1994, prohibiting cross-cultural matchmaking in China, but there is no specific law targeting the practice. That's caused problems as more private matchmaking agencies come into the market. Supervision is muddy at best.

"The notice has not been abolished, and no new one has yet been promulgated. Therefore, no one dares to approve these businesses," said Lin Kewu, deputy director of the marriage administration office of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau.

In Shanghai, businesses involved in cross-border or cross-cultural matchmaking haven't been shut down. They face fines of up to 30,000 yuan (US$4,838) if prosecuted, but few ever are.

"It is a sensitive and complicated issue," Lin admitted.

Finding true love has proven a treasure trove for matchmaking enterprises the world over. More and more frustrated singles are willing to pay for help in finding that elusive soulmate.

In Shanghai, a large number of agencies are trying to cash in on the business. Some claim they are only involved in helping people find "friends" as a cover for their activities. Some don't bother to disguise their efforts at all.

The pitfalls are many. Some foreign "candidates" seem to vanish after lovelorn women have paid fees of up to 30,000 yuan to meet them. In other cases, Mr Right turns out not to be single after all, having been hired by an agency simply as a come-on.

Meeting candidates

Among five matchmaking agencies telephoned at random, two said they provide matchmaking services without regard to national origin. Some of the five agencies are Internet-based and one among them is an application site for the next weekend matchmaking party.

A staff worker surnamed Zhu from Jin Guo Yuan on Xujiahui Road - which has the same name as another famous matchmaking agency in the city but in different Chinese characters - said she has potential "candidates" in an age group from many countries, including Canada, Switzerland and the United States.

After people apply and pay a consultation fee that is normally about 2,000 yuan, Zhu said she sends the applicants photos of foreigners. If someone looks inviting, the overseas "candidate" is asked to arrange a visit to Shanghai. More fees are charged.

Zhu bragged how one local girl married a Norwegian man after two months of dating. But neither Zhu nor other operators were prepared to discuss overall success rates.

At the end of the interview, she told Shanghai Daily reporter that she has a scientist overseas who is keen to find a Chinese wife.

"Don't be shy! Come for a look!" she offered.

A staff worker from Jin Wei, another agency, said that business specializes in Japanese "candidates." People are asked to pay a 100 yuan registration fee for starters.

A heartbreaker

A Shanghai Internet user identified only as xiaoai3399 said she sought matchmaking help through the Weibo microblogging site. She was charged 65,000 yuan as a broker's commission by a matchmaking agency that claimed to have eligible Japanese bachelors.

She paid 7,000 yuan in advance and then was introduced to a 52-year-old Japanese man. She was told she must pay all the money if she decided to date him. So she paid the full amount.

After a month, the Japanese man came to China. He said he was willing to marry, but the wedding arrangements were in the hands of the marriage broker and only five friends could be invited to the wedding banquet, which was to be held in a down-market restaurant.

The Japanese man finally admitted he was charged four million yen (US$52,000) by the broker. The arrangement stipulated that the bride would get no trousseau, gifts or money. It was all too much for "xiaoai3399." She broke off the "engagement" and didn't get a fen of her money back.

"It was a dirty deal but what can I do?" She posted online.

Looking for romance can be a labor of love, and a heartbreaker at that.


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