Desperately Seeking A Son-In-Law: Inside A Modern Chinese Singles' Market

In Beijing parks and throughout the rest of China, “singles’ markets” are held, organized by the parents eager to marry off their children.

Advertisements at the marriage market in Shanghai's People's Park
Advertisements at the marriage market in Shanghai's People's Park
Cyrille Pluyette

BEIJING — Several hundred people are gathered in Zhongshan Park, just next to the Forbidden City, in the heart of Beijing. Carefully lined up along pathways framed by high red walls and venerable cypresses, they are surprisingly subdued. Each of them — all adults of a certain age — stands behind a small piece of paper placed on the cement slabs. Several tap their feet to fight against the cutting cold of this winter afternoon.

The pieces of paper (small posters really) are protected by laminated pockets and pinned to the ground by stones. They contain inscriptions, either printed or handwritten. Some are decorated with photos of young people. The gathering is a market of sorts. Only the items on offer, it turns out, are people — single people, to be precise.

The "singles market" is organized by parents hoping to marry off their adult children. The posters are in fact advertisements, written by the parents to catch the eye of customers. Li Qian is a 30-year-old employee at an accounting firm, one of the announcements reads. She was "born to a cultivated family" and gifted with a "fine and delicate face," it explains.

Others highlight the person's assets, such as a car or a "two-room apartment close to the second ring road" — a well-off neighborhood. The selection of suitors is equally demanding. One flyer makes it clear they're seeking a "kind" man "measuring between 5'6" and 5'9"." He must be a native of Beijing, own a car and have "a stable income," it goes on to say. Another family is looking to match their son with a woman born after 1986 — but not in 1988 — because the zodiac sign that year (dragon) could be in conflict with that of her son's. He was born in 1982, year of the dog.

These desperate matchmakers meet in the 600-year-old park every Thursday and Sunday afternoon. Similar "markets' exist elsewhere in the capital, and in China's other major cities. The strict tradition of arranged marriage, which governed male-female relations in China for millennia, including during the Maoist era, has certainly become more flexible since the 1980s. Children now have more liberty to marry someone of their choosing. And yet, in a society still bathed of Confucian culture, elders continue to interfere in the love life of the next generation, either by using "veto power" to challenge a match they deem financially or socially unsuitable, or by pressuring young people — who are getting married later and later in China — to hurry up and find someone.

One of those parents is Li Jianhua, 60. He wears a baseball hat with a hood over it, and has his sign pinned on his coat. His goal is simple: to have a grandson or granddaughter. "At 37 years old, it's time for my son to get married. But at work he only interacts with other men," the frustrated father explains. He says he introduced several women to his son, but to no avail. "Here's one that I found. But he didn't even contact her," he said, showing off a charming portrait on his cell phone.

Li Jianhua isn't the only parent who decided to take matters into his own hands. A mother with a fleece hat and red gloves admits that she came here without her daughter's knowledge. The daughter, she says, would be "very upset" if she knew about it. The woman also says she regrets having been so protective in the past. "We forbade her from dating boys when she studied at university, expecting her to land a stable job. But now she's too busy," the mother says. "She's 29. She's my only child and it will soon be too late for her to have a baby."

Two other women — one from the city of Tianjin, the other from the Shanxi province — have gotten to talking and are hoping to set up their respective children, both 34. One of them takes a moment to reflect on the evolution of Chinese customs. "In the past, one had to accept the husband that they imposed on us without saying anything. And after, he had all the rights," she says. "Today, young people can refuse to go so far if our suggestions don't suit them. They are freer, but then they have more trouble finding their other half."

The posters are in fact advertisements, written by the parents — Photo: Spezz

Regulars at the singles market appreciate the fact that it costs nothing, unlike marriage agencies and numerous specialized websites. They also like the direct contact it allows them to have with other parents. Under a tree, three women exchange pieces of paper, on which they scribbled information and phone numbers, before putting them carefully in their handbags. One of them, in a khaki down jacket, is suddenly doubtful: She wants to check the physical appearance of the young woman intended for her son. The cell-phone photograph seems to reassure her, as does the fact that her potential daughter-in-law earns nearly $1,500 per month.

Even if parents no longer have absolute power, they still wield a lot of influence. "Even today, children cannot make a choice without the consent of the family," says psychologist and dating consultant Zhou Xiaopeng. A 2014 poll by the dating site Baihe found that 76% of young people opt for a spouse who conforms to the criteria of their parents. More than a third of respondents said they'd even be willing to give up a frowned-upon relationship. "It's linked to tradition, says Zhou Xiaopeng. "Respect must be shown to parents by complying with their views. When they are displeased, the children can suffer the consequences."

The psychologist says that in public, Chinese people don't want to be seen as kowtowing too much to their parents. At the same time, many "seek academic success or marry to make their families proud," so much so that some don't hesitate to rent a false spouse from a specialized website for the week of Chinese New Year, in order to avoid the harassment of their loved ones, she says.

Because marriage must above all contribute to material success, the parents' criteria are very strict. One takes into consideration the wealth of the family being married into, their place on the social ladder and their geographic origin. A city girl shouldn't, for example, marry a country boy. Elders see these "rules' as necessary to assure the financial and social well-being of the next generation, something that's easier said than done in a country where the cost of real estate has become exorbitant in the big cities.

This suffocating control is reflected in reality TV shows. The channel Dragon TV, based out of Shanghai, launched a wildly successful show of this type in December. In each episode, five young men and their families are brought face-to-face with just as many young women, also accompanied. The elders, of course, call the shots. In one episode, Zhang Lu, a 27-year-old daycare director, implores the women in his family to choose a pretty wife for him. But his aunts say the prettiest ones are lazy. "His wife must be hardworking, hardworking!" she shrieks.

In real life, this kind of tough talk isn't always appreciated. "Young Chinese people have less and less tolerance for interference by their parents," says sexologist Li Yinhe, even if they generally end up submitting.

Wu Ning, a 29-year-old woman from Zhejiang province, has been living through this kind of ordeal for three years. Her 60-year-old parents live 30 kilometers away in a rural area. They have two daughters, neither of them are married. The mother organizes meet-ups with men every month and calls every few days to put pressure on her.

The young woman "detests' the obligatory side of these dates, which never amount to anything. One suitor was "effeminate," she says. Another thought of himself as very funny but wasn't. A third ran through his achievements for more than an hour without asking her any questions. None have been to her liking. And yet, she also has difficulty rejecting the matches flat-out because, despite everything, she wants to reassure her mother. In the meantime, pressure keeps building. Now her mother is pushing for her to find a job closer to home, so as to better organize her love life, it would seem.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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