Inside job: Matchmaker

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Gon Laoshi has been working as a matchmaker for eight years, and in that time she’s helped arrange hundreds of marriages—including her own. Three years ago her future husband walked into her office and not only found a wife, but also found a job in her company’s travel department.  She ends the story with a satisfied smile. ‘That’s why I do this job.’


Finding love can be hard, but finding love for a complete stranger—that’s easier, and kind of fun. At the Shanghai Marriage Market, matchmaker Zhou Laoshi and I sit behind two umbrellas resting on their sides, serving as makeshift tables to display profiles of our clients. Hundreds of graying parents—some carrying posters advertising their child’s vital statistics—shuffle through the rows of matchmakers, reading profiles displayed on umbrellas, rolling suitcases, or hanging on long strings.


These profiles say nothing about ‘enjoying long, romantic walks on the beach’, reading less like a personal ad and more like the statistics on the back of a baseball card: Gender: male; Born: 77; Height: 175cm; Degree: bachelors; Job: administrator in an international company; Earns: 260,000; Property: owns a car and an apartment. In America, earnings and property ownership are fourth or fifth or sixth date questions. I still don’t know how much my wife earns. I should get my parents to ask.


Zhou asks me to hold a sign displaying copies of Shanghai Hongyan Matchmaking’s business licenses. In early September the government shut down many unlicensed matchmakers after receiving complaints that some profiles were fake or CVs hadn’t been properly vetted. Matchmakers not only serve to connect, but also to verify background like degrees and income. Asking a third party to verify information is well worth the investment since I can’t count how many candlelight dinners were ruined when I asked to see some ID.


Holding a sign seems like a job an umbrella could do, but an umbrella lacks my natural charisma and I manage to attract a steady stream of parents. Zhou smiles and nods her approval as I begin taking contact information and arranging follow-up meetings at a nearby office. She’s too absorbed speaking with other potential clients to realize most of the parents are approaching me as a potential husband. This has happened before. I once took my son to the marriage market so he could establish a new benchmark for meddling parents. A matchmaker saw us together and asked, ‘Single dad looking for new wife?’ I answered, ‘I’m not single...but I’m listening.’


A stooped, senior woman pushes a photo of a smiling young woman into my hands, and tells me her daughter would be interested in a foreigner husband. I wonder if her daughter told her this or if the mother is speaking for both since many parents come to the marriage market without their child’s consent. One parent after another tells me the same story of a child being too busy to meet anyone because of work. Although parents dominate the marriage market, a matchmaker tells me parents are the ones to initiate her services only half of the time.


After I tell the woman I’m already married, she tells me to pass her daughter’s information along if I have any foreigner friends who might be interested. She hands me a slip with a phone number and statistics: Shanghainese; born in 1983; 7,000RMB in savings; works for a Japanese company. I shake my head and tell the woman, ‘Seven thousand RMB is not near enough money to be worth leaving my wife.’  If my wife is reading this, I didn’t really say that.


Throughout the day I read hundreds of profile papers, posters, cards and banners, and based on a number of factors—including the salary and education of their children—I make the very broad assumption that most of the parents at the marriage market represent a lower income demographic. Also, many of the parents and children were not born in Shanghai. These are both generally considered disadvantages in attracting a partner. Some parents tell me they have been coming to the market week after week for years.


Some matchmakers charge as little as 10RMB a month to display your kid’s information. The highest percentage of prospective spouses were born in the early ‘80s and the ‘70s. I find a few born in the early ‘90s, and this seems young to have abandoned hope of finding someone on your own. I see many born in the ‘60s and ‘50s, and even some in the ‘40s. The oldest profile I find is a woman born in 1933. Is she widowed? Divorced? Never married? I would love to know her story.


First impressions are important, and as I watch parents aggressively haggle with other parents, I like to think I’m witnessing the first meeting between future in-laws. Under those circumstances a Westerner might be inclined to strike a conciliatory, compromising tone, but in China, haggling is the national pastime, and you wouldn’t want a grandchild to descend from weak hagglers.


Zhou and I take contact information throughout the day and arrange follow-up meetings for the coming week at one of Shanghai Hongyan Matchmaking’s three offices staffed by 44 employees managing a portfolio of 6-7,000 prospective spouses. At the office, Gon Laoshi shows me how she groups clients into different folders based on ages and requirements. These files include copies of passports, diplomas, birth certificate, CVs, a picture, and a survey of partner wants.


When Gon asks a client what she or he is seeking in a potential partner, she confirms the stereotype that men usually ask for someone pretty, and women ask for someone with money. I ask why the profiles ask for height, but never weight. I’m not saying a woman’s weight is important—hip to bust to waist ratio is more important than overall weight according to a survey of me—but if a woman is going to be a stickler about your earnings, you might want to know exactly how much your money is paying per kilo.


Her clientele is 55 percent women and two out of three are Shanghainese. In China there is an unofficial ranking of most marriageable cities and provinces. Shanghainese only want to marry other Shanghainese, but she can find someone for anyone if that person is willing to look outside Shanghai. It’s possible a match may take weeks or months, but she could find someone in two days, and has even made a match in less than one. Even with expedited shipping, not even Taobao could deliver a husband in less than a day.


To the romantic, perhaps it sounds cynical to tell a matchmaker you’re not interested in anyone outside Shanghai or below a certain salary or professional level, but relationship experts say the highest degree of erotic love doesn’t last longer than 18 months. As intensity fades, agreement on lifestyle expectations, or whether you’ll live near your parents in Shanghai or her parents in Anhui will be major contributors to your long-term happiness. A matchmaker asks these unromantic questions on your behalf so you can spend the next 40 years pretending you didn’t care.


The romantic in all of us likes to hope love will happen organically. Perhaps today is the day you’ll lock eyes with a handsome stranger on a train. But every country has its inorganic matchmaking rituals from dating sites to speed dating to religiously affiliated meet markets to blind dates. I met my wife on a blind date, which I only agreed to because I was under the impression she would literally be blind. My ideal woman is someone who doesn’t mind if I read a book while she’s talking. Or doesn’t know.


I ask what makes a good matchmaker, and I assume the answer will have something to do with looking good in formal wear since Gon receives dozens of wedding invitations a year. She tells me a good matchmaker needs to communicate well with people, should stick to the customer requirements, and should be willing to give an opinion when a match is not a good option.


She thinks for a moment before adding, ‘You have to use your heart.’


For more details on Shanghai Hongyan Matchmaking visit