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Too Old At 27: The Extraordinary Pressures On Asian Women

Beyond her late 20s, a woman in Asia faces huge hurdles in finding a husband. It's especially hard if she is educated and has a career.

DJ and entertainer Cheuk Wan-Chi
DJ and entertainer Cheuk Wan-Chi
Julie Zaugg

HONG KONG — Cheuk Wan-Chi is in a hurry. She has just finished a business meeting in Soho, the trendy district of Hong Kong, and has another in an hour. Looking impeccable with red lipstick and a white dress, she sits down and props a pair of gold-colored high-heeled shoes on the table.

This 36-year-old DJ, writer, actress and filmmaker is the epitome of an accomplished businesswoman. In these past two years she has published five books, directed a movie and performed in her own comedy show. She is about to go on vacation in Taiwan with some girlfriends, and then travel to Peru alone.

Yet this short brunette hides a secret. "I feel alone," she confides in her beautiful deep voice. "After 30, I am considered a Sheng-nu (a remnant of a woman, in Mandarin), since I am not married."

Cheuk Wan-Chi is part of a generation of educated women who are very successful, but struggle to find a mate. The women often live in Chinese mega-cities, in Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea. They are doctors, lawyers, stock brokers; and they are becoming more and more numerous.

In China, the average age of marriage has risen from 19 in 1950 to 27 years old today. In 2007, the Chinese government officially introduced the term Sheng-nu in its lexicon to describe single women over the age of 27.

The phenomena has become so common that it is the subject of a Chinese television series, "Will You Marry Me and My Family?" Singapore has a government agency, the Social Development Network, that helps educated single men and women find partners. Some Koreans even hold ceremonies — named bihonshik — where they wear long white dresses and celebrate bachelorhood.

If these accomplished women find it hard to stay single, it is because they feel the burden of a patriarchal society that values youth above all else. "Age is very important in Asia," says Mein Lin, a resident of Hong Kong who runs a dating agency. "Men want younger women, whom they believe are more docile and admiring. At 25, they want someone who is 22, at 35, they look for someone who is 28, and at 40, they prefer women who are 31. After 35, women no longer exist."

University degrees and professional accomplishment frightens men as well. "They are intimidated by strong women who earn more than them or have more advanced careers," continues Mei Lin.

Cheuk Wan-Chi agrees, noting that in Asia, men traditionally support women. "When the positions are switched, they panic," she says. "One of my boyfriends left me with a note accusing me of being too smart."

This phenomenon is also accentuated by the rise of women with higher education. In Hong Kong, women represent 53% of students. In China, women hold 19% of CEO positions. "This evolution has turned traditional marriage practices in Asia upside down," says Joy Chen, a Chinese-American who wrote the book Do Not Marry Before Age 30.

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The logic is as follows: A man of category A, with a university diploma, will marry a woman of category B, with a high school education; a category B man will marry a woman in category C, with a primary education, and a C man will marry a D woman, who has no education at all. This leaves women in category A and men in category D without partners.

By choice

Yet for a growing number of Sheng-nu, being single is a choice. "In Asia, sharing tasks is still not a reality: Women are expected to clean, cook, and take care of children, even if they are employed," explains Sandy To, a sociologist at the University of Hong Kong who has studied the Sheng-nu phenomenon. "Some prefer being single to this kind of relationship."

At the same, says author Chen, modern women have too many expectations. "They want a millionaire, who is also romantic, handsome and faithful," she sighs.

A video named "No House, No Car" published on Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube, went viral in 2011. "If you don't have a house, if you don't have a car, get lost, you don't interest me," sings a group of women.

A study published last week showed that Chinese women expect a partner who earns at least 6701 RMB per month ($1,025 dollars), while the average salary of Chinese men is only 2808 RMB ($429).

Testing the market

Yet in Asia, marrying later — whether by choice or not — brings its share of problems. "The pressure is constant: parents that organize dates with the sons of their acquaintances, friends who constantly ask when you're going to get married, colleagues who judge you," says Sandy To.

In China, men have started to advertise their time online: For $5 an hour they play the role of a loving boyfriend. Each weekend, the People's Park in Shanghaibecomes a market for single men and women. Dozens of women stroll with their daughters' portraits and CVs, hoping to find them husbands.

"For centuries, if a woman in Asia was not married, she had no identity, no chance of survival," explains Joy Chen. "This shows the pressure applied by parents. They consider not having a son-in-law or grandchildren shameful."

Moreover, in a society without social services, parents count on their children or grandchildren for support in their old age. Cheuk Wan-Chi finds it difficult to convince her parents and grandmother, with whom she lives, that her choice is the right one.

"My mother fell in love with my father when she was 20 because he had a nice motorcycle, and my grandmother had three children with a man she didn't love," she says. "How am I supposed to explain to them that I prefer to stay single until I meet the right man?"

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