Matchmaking, Shanghai-style

Sudha Menon | Updated on June 14, 2019 Published on June 14, 2019

Find a pair: Shanghai’s senior citizens paste the profiles of their children or grandchildren on umbrellas that line the pathways at People’s Park

The Umbrella Market is a sliver of hope for the desperate parents and grandparents of the city’s singletons

A proposal for marriage — I least expect it, being much married and on the wrong side of 50. That too in chaste Mandarin, in the middle of a park in distant Shanghai, from the 70-year-old mother of the prospective groom.

It is a chilly Shanghai morning and my sister and I have spent two hours being wide-eyed tourists taking in the sight of scores of elders doing a group tai chi class in the People’s Park. Hunger pangs are setting in and we decide to look for a café when, all at once, around a bend, we come upon a sea of colourful umbrellas on both sides of the pathway. We stop in our tracks, uncertain: Is it an art installation? Are the umbrellas on sale? If so, I want the one with the yellow and red owls painted on it, I tell my sister.

We walk closer to find that behind the umbrellas are elderly men and women seated on tiny foldable chairs, talking nineteen to a dozen. On each umbrella is a sheet of paper with writings in Mandarin. More curious now, we move from one umbrella to the next.

Meanwhile, our arrival causes a buzz in the gathering of the umbrella people.

Some of them are visibly sizing us up and, having survived tons of canny street vendors hawking everything from Louis Vuitton and Givenchy rip-offs, I am prepared for just such an ambush.

“Just say ‘Bu yao (don’t want)’ and keep a stern face,” I whisper to the sibling.

That is the exact moment our eyes light on the large paper stuck on a yellow umbrella, with text in English and Mandarin: “Female, born in Oct 1974, 1.66m height, PhD from London School of Economics & Political Science. Now is working at Imperial College London since 2008.” She is unmarried and is looking for a boyfriend, a Chinese or a foreigner, based in the UK.

Find me, please: A profile at the Umbrella Marriage Market


We now realise we have walked into Shanghai’s famed weekend Umbrella Marriage Market, a vibrant offline marketplace started in 2004 by a network of marriage brokers and steered by the parents and grandparents of thousands of single men and women in the city who have no time to find love.

To the tourists who pass through the dazzling, vibrant city, its glamorous young men and women have an enviable lifestyle and plenty of money, going by the brands they flaunt. What they don’t see is the real story behind the fancy glares: Caught in the crosshairs of a society that puts a premium on education and high-profile careers, many of them are lonely and loveless. There are those who don’t have the time to invest in a relationship, while others choose to remain single in order to focus on career.

The 2010 Census showed the male-female ratio at 118:100 in China. This gap has further added to the pressure on the parents of the city’s suitable men. There is also a perception that many of the women are averse to marrying someone who is less qualified or earning less than them. A University of Kent study indicates that by 2020, there will be 24 million ‘brideless’ men in China.

All of which probably explains the throng of silver population hustling and bustling at the marriage market this Saturday morning. Many of them have come as couples — the father/grandfather holds fort behind the umbrella advertising the offspring/grandchild’s profile while the mother/grandma walks around studying the profiles of the others.

For the elderly parents who come here — often to the annoyance of their children — weekends at the Marriage Market are also about letting their hair down. Conversations with strangers turn into friendships, and many of them use the day at the park to participate in the free-of-cost dance or tai chi sessions.

The sibling and I, meanwhile, are enthralled by this real-time dating/marriage site and walk around reading the profiles of faceless men and women. Among those that catch our eye is an upcoming singer who wants a stay-at-home wife, a widower with two kids and a house and car, and a 32-year-old female banker who wants a husband and an apartment.

Curiously, the elderly parents seem willing to step beyond tradition when it comes to the choice of spouse for their offspring. Many of the profiles mention that they are open to welcoming foreigners into the family. Which is probably why I am at the receiving end of the aforementioned proposal.

Before I know it, we are in an animated conversation — in Mandarin, with the help of an app — with a woman who appeared from behind an umbrella with pink stripes.

“You are beautiful,” says the mother.

Xie-xie (thank you),” we reply.

“Are you looking for a husband? My son is handsome and single. Has his own business. Only 48 years old.”

Sis and I look at each other, startled.

Bu yao. Bu yao,” we chorus and flee.

Sudha Menon is the author of five non-fiction books, including her latest, Feisty At Fifty

Published on June 14, 2019
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