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In China, matchmaking means gold digging

SHANGHAI, China – “They look normal,” said my colleague, Bo Gu.

We were sitting on the fringes of a luncheon banquet, casting an eye over a group of 20 Chinese bachelors – of varying ages and thickness of hair – purportedly with a personal wealth of at least $1.4 million each.

Indeed the men did look normal, which is why we found it puzzling. They were taking part in a banquet organized by the Golden Bachelor Matchmakers, a company whose main revenue stream comes from finding female companions for wealthy men.

The company set up the first online dating web site designed specifically for multimillionaires. It’s worth clicking on even if you don’t read Chinese.

“These guys are worth a million U.S. dollars?” I asked again. They looked quite sociable, chatting animatedly amongst themselves and exchanging business cards. “And they’re having trouble meeting women?”

Looking for love in all the right places
We turned to look at the 20 hopeful women to be paired off with the men. Draped in jewels and wearing evening gowns, they sat demurely at their tables. None of them were chatting or eating.

It wasn’t until everyone had to introduce him or herself that the energy level picked up.  (Actually, most of the men talked while the women performed dances.)

It was also then that we realized that maybe the men did need a little help.

Han, a Shanghai male who works in the financial services, offered a brief bio. “I like swimming and other exercises,” he said. Then he launched into an emotional recitation of a poem by Su Dongpo from the Song Dynasty. The women looked bored but clapped politely when he was done.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Parents review photographs of prospective mates for their children at a weekend Shanghai marriage market.

The next millionaire seemed more promising. Wearing a dark suit, Xia Ning walked up to the stage and talked a little bit about himself. “I was born in 1977. I’m a Leo.  My ancestral home is in Sichuan.”

His self-deprecation nearly won over the audience. “I can’t dance or sing,” he said. “And I would make a terrible impression as a stand-up comic.”

But then he pulled out a PowerPoint presentation, with which he proceeded to lay out in great detail his interests, hopes, plans, and vision of the ideal partner and ideal family. There were bullet points galore. Complete with photos of fluffy white rabbits and rainbows.

And then there were men like Steven He, a good-looking 28-year-old with an impressive pedigree in addition to his impressive bank balance.

A graduate from the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing who dabbles in golf, enjoys movies, and speaks fluent English, he appeared perfectly capable of meeting women on his own.

When asked why he'd joined the Golden Bachelor club, he answered, “I wanted to meet women another way.”

Gold diggers
“People misunderstand the rich guys,” said Gong Haiyan, the CEO of Jiayuan, an online dating website that occasionally hosts special events for single millionaire men. “Everyone thinks they can find a girl, but it’s not actually easy for some of them…These men usually don’t want others to know that they are looking for girls. And they worry if they go out hunting girls they’d only find gold diggers.”

And gold diggers seem to be everywhere.  At least in China’s current pop culture, where reality TV dating shows like “If You Are the One” have attracted large numbers of viewers.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

At this Shanghai marriage market, a key trait featured on posters advertising potential husbands is whether they own a house or car.

The show seemed to capture some sort of mating zeitgeist when it first began airing and a female contestant, Ma Nuo, responded to an invitation by a poor young man to take a ride on his bicycle by saying, “I would rather cry in a BMW.”

Her put-down generated a huge outcry among viewers, social commentators, and government officials (who later sought to restrict the content of the show as part of ongoing efforts to legislate morality and social mores).

But it also seemed to reflect a pattern evident in the real world, where dating agencies, online dating sites, and even old-fashioned matchmakers have placed a priority on financial status above all else.

At a weekend marriage market in central Shanghai, where parents gather to find mates for their sons or daughters, the trait listed at the top of virtually every handwritten poster trumpeting the suitability of a single man is his income or assets (for example, whether he owned a house or car).

Love in a pragmatic climate
“Love is very tightly intertwined with pragmatism,” said Mina Hanbury-Tenison, a writer from New York who has lived in Shanghai for 13 years. “I often walk around the streets and I see...mothers walking with their daughters, and you can hear the conversations. ‘Oh, what does he have? What’s his 'tiao jian' (standard of living and income)? Does he have a house and does the house have a mortgage?’”

Hanbury-Tenison has a keen ear for this kind of dialogue. She's published a book, “Shanghai Girls Uncensored + Unsentimental: How to Marry Up and Stay There.” It is based on the war stories of Shanghai friends and, in particular, the extensive experience of one woman Hanbury-Tenison befriended soon after the American author landed in Shanghai. Tongue-in-cheek in tenor, it nevertheless offers some well-observed insight into how Chinese women in Shanghai climb up the socio-economic ladder by way of marriage.

“For some girls living in the big city, they're under a lot of pressure. They may only make $294 to $441 a month," said Gong. "Their wealth is their young age and beauty."

And with a skewed gender ratio – more men than women, as a result of the one-child policy in a society that still prizes sons over daughters – women of a marrying age are in high demand.  As such, they're in a position to be picky about their potential mate’s looks, status, but especially income and wealth.

Courtesy Mina Hanbury-Tenison

The cover of Mina Hanbury-Tenison's book,

The desire to marry into money may be a fairly universal phenomenon, but in China, it seems new. To a certain extent, that trend reflects the economic boom the country has enjoyed during the past two to three decades and the consequent embrace of materialism. “People have just gone crazy about money,” said Hanbury-Tenison.

On the other hand, a centuries-long tradition of matchmaking also means the Chinese are quite familiar with the concept of making a good match.

“In China, it's always been about arranged marriages. When people marry it’s a social (and) economic link,” observed Hanbury-Tenison.

In other words, marriage here is sometimes still about more than simply two people falling in love. It's about the merging of families and adding a certain patina to their social status as a result.

What at first glance looks like a materialistic attitude might also reflect a hard-hearted pragmatism, particularly in modern society, where studies show that often the single biggest source of conflict in relationships is money.

“Nobody just marries guys or girls, because they’re nice or like soul mates,” said Hanbury-Tenison. “But underneath all that language is the hard reality of life, which is: can you survive together at a level of lifestyle you want?”

Xu Xiaoyuan – a marketing executive from Sichuan currently looking for a boyfriend – put it just as succinctly. While she says she could marry someone without a lot of money or assets, the 23-year-old still believes, “[Having] financial means is a foundation for a good relationship.”