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Inside Job: marriage market dad

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: finding his ‘son’ a wife

It’s perhaps the coldest day of the winter so far when I arrive at the Temple of Heaven to take on the role of marrying off my substitute son, Time Out Beijing’s photographer Ma Ke, in time for Spring Festival. It’s a fresh -8°C and strong winds are whipping up swirls of dust from the dead lawns. I join a group of around 20 bundled-up middle-aged parents by the Seven Stars Stone. Predominantly women, they gather here up to five days a week to try to find a spouse for their grown-up children; I have just one shot.

I’d prepared a poster in advance with Ma Ke’s vital statistics – height, weight, profession – and roughly what he’s looking for in a wife: kindhearted, his age or younger, ‘reasonably pretty’. I take it out to show the group and get some feedback. ‘Where’s his hukou?’ ‘Does he own property?’ ‘How much does he earn?’ ‘What do his parents do?’ Apparently, as Ma Ke has a desirable Beijing hukou (registration) that needs to be put in the headline to read ‘Beijing Male, 26’. My craft project had also failed as I thought it would be best to have a photo of him in the poster, but that’s a complete no-no as the poster itself must be totally anonymous. I’m shown how you have to keep the photo in a separate wallet, which I am only to offer to those I trust to see it, which, in this case, is anyone.


At the Temple of Heaven market, the poster display procedure is to put your announcement on the floor and stand behind it. Due to the wind we have to weigh the ads down with stones. Sharp, painful blasts sporadically rip the posters away from under their rocks and heap them over the railings in the dust beds. Let’s just say there’s not a lot of passing trade.

Does it ever work? Yes, I’m told, there have been some successes, but not all that many. Often the children will find their own fiancés. Do the children know? Of everyone I ask, they all say that to begin with the children didn’t know and were annoyed when they found out, but have all come to accept their parents’ help. Whenever a potential match is made they let the kids get in touch and don’t get involved in any of the next steps. Do any of the parents ever hook up? Of course not. It’s about the children, though there are places to go to advertise older people, we’re told.

I ask if any of the fellow parents are interested in Ma Ke for their daughters. It’s a unanimous ‘No, he’s too young’. Mrs Fan explains that in China it’s best for bride and groom to be almost exactly the same age. The bride can be a little bit younger, but the closer the better. Looking around, I see how most of the children up for grabs were born between 1982 and 1986. In fact, all the daughters are a much better match for… me. The parents close ranks.


Suddenly I’m bombarded with questions and claims. ‘We have two properties – both without mortgages.’ ‘We’re an intellectual family with a lot of degree holders.’ ‘If you marry my daughter then what will happen? She’s an only child so if you take her abroad what will I do?’ ‘Would you change your nationality to Chinese?’ ‘Do you own or rent your house?’ ‘What percentage of your wage do you spend on rent?’ ‘Are your parents healthy?’ ‘Why isn’t your sister married?’

Then out come the fliers. The parents all have miniature posters made with the same details as the ads. I’m handed fliers all round; stacks are given to Ma Ke to pass on to older friends.

At midday one of the fathers announces, ‘The shift’s over!’ and we pack away our posters. Everyone is the worse for wear because of the sheer cold, but, other than that, all are in good spirits. The mother from the ‘intellectual’ family tells me ‘I don’t mind coming here for my daughter. It’s hard to find someone. Just don’t put my face on the internet as people will laugh at me – those who don’t understand’.

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