Sunday evening, June 6. On the stage ablaze with lights stand 24 women, most in their early 20s, and not yet betrothed, waiting for their chance at “fast matchmaking.” Before each of the women is a green-lighted podium with her number, her name and a switch. A young man descends from a glass elevator: first shoes, then pants, then the black jacket, black glasses, and a black hat hiding a lowered head. Pop music and applause break out.
Meng Fei, the bald host aged 39, asks the 28-year-old handsome Shanghai man: “Why do you dress like a magician?”
We hear a nervous reply, ”Eh…they say I look a bit like Harry Potter…”
After some good-natured teasing, Meng Fei hands the young man a digital pad and asks him to choose one girl who “arouses your heart. “
We see the number he enters– “1” – but it is concealed from the women on the stage. Suspense immediately builds. This woman, Xie Jia, is a college student 22 years young, who says she did not discover herself as a woman until age 21. Good looking, intelligent, she has nonetheless rarely been chosen by men, and has been standing there for many installments. Judging by appearances, the two look like a match. I find myself hoping Xie Jia will be taken away in this man’s arms.
The women appraise him for a first impression. Meng Fei turns to all, “Please choose.”
Ding, ding. Two girls’ lights go off – “Not interested.” Most leave theirs on (I am relieved to see Xie Jia among them), watching the "magician" with open curiosity.
Meng Fei asks the two girls why they turned off their lights.
”I have no interest in Harry Potter,” one woman replies. Laughter ensues from the audience.
“He does not make me feel secure,” says the other, "not at all."
Three more thresholds await the man. If, after that, there are still lights on, he’ll be able to enter the final stage “rights reverse to the male.” Otherwise he receives a “failure exit." The suspense is that of a well-plotted drama.
Only this is a reality show that is more engaging than most movies I’ve seen. Titled after Feng Xiaogang's popular movie, “If You Are Not Sincere, Don’t Bother Me” (非诚勿扰), the weekend matchmaking show broadcast on Jiangsu Satellite TV is currently China's highest rated program. I first heard about it shortly after its launch in January, but did not pay much attention because reality shows don't usually interest me. Over time, however, more and more Chinese friends were telling me how fun it is to watch. When I started to watch the re-made Three Kingdoms on PPStream, Jiangsu TV had bundled it with “If You Are Not Sincere, Don’t Bother Me” for weekend prime time. Once I clicked it, I was hooked.
To my dismay, the young man who looked like Harry Potter did not pass the women's scrutiny. Before he had a chance for "rights reverse to the male," all the lights had gone off, including Xie Jia's, who apparently was not aware of his admiration. I'm not sure which of his statements, "I can peel lobster very fast," or "I love to hand-wash clothes on a washboard," had turned her off, except that those words did not demonstrate whatever quality Xie Jia was looking for in a man.
The program is one-hour long, and each male guest is given 20 minutes or so on stage. For the installments I've seen so far, the majority of male guests got a "failure exit." Even for those lucky ones who enter the final stage, the remaining lights often do not include the woman "arousing his heart." Thus successful matchmaking remains rare. At times, however, a happy ending can move the audience to tears.
Last Saturday, after two men exited with failure, an ordinary-looking, round-face young photographer with a collected, quiet humor took away his choice woman, Liu Huan, unexpectedly. The outcome was unusual because of the beautiful young woman's odd situation: Liu Huan had been on stage together with her mother. She had turned her light off early on, however the mother kept her light on. When Meng Fei asked why, the mother said the man would be an ideal son-in-law for her. Toward the end, six lights were still on. Meng Fei told the young photographer if he wanted one of those, he could take her hand right away. But if he insisted on Liu Huan, he might end up leaving alone.
The young man insisted, and was given 30 seconds for a last-ditch pursuit. "Do you know my situation?" Liu Huan asked. "Yes I do," the young man answered. Liu Huan (who apparently had turned down many pursuers) said she had joined the program to help her mother, and would not leave before her mother found a good match. Her voice began to tremble; her mother covered her face as tears running down. Applause and sobs could be heard from the audience. "Today I'm surprised to see my mother kept her light on for me to the last minute. I’ve decided to be a good daughter," Liu Huan said. The young couple held hands; cheers and applause followed for a long time. The mother and daughter left together for good.
The show is a kaleidoscope of contemporary Chinese views of love, marriage, and life style. I was especially amazed by the candid, openness of the young women, and their bravery to bear public scrutiny. The relentless internet spreads numerous comments on the looks, personality, and value system of the women, sometimes positive and more often negative. A righteous-sounding man even took his opportunity on the stage to scold a girl to tears, because she once said that to sit in a BMW would be more cool than riding a bike. It is not easy to be oneself under such pressure. I recall my twenties in the 1980s, even to place an anonymous personal ad in newspaper was a disgrace. Times have changed.
"If You Are Not Sincere" is not the only matchmaking show in China, however the others are not nearly as popular. Its success largely depends on host Meng Fei’s wit, sensibility, and broad-knowledge. In researching his background, I was surprised to learn he was from my hometown Chongqing. Between high school graduation and success as a TV program host, he had been a low-paid temp doing odd jobs for many years. His story is that rare one of success for a self-learned man.
As of last week, 160-170 thousand applications to participate in the show had queued up from all over China. Meng Fei announced recently that, in response to keen overseas demand, this "fast matchmaking" program is going to be launched in London and other foreign cities as well.
I have seen several overseas Chinese men appear in the program (none with success), but not a single non-Chinese. To those Americans who live in China and are single, would you like to give it a try?