Graham is over six feet tall. He has a beaming smile, and the kind of charisma and confidence that is hard to ignore. He is an economist who recently moved to Hong Kong. Unwilling to relocate to Asia, his long-term girlfriend ended the relationship, which frustrated but also liberated Graham. He is now free to pursue a single life in Hong Kong as an expat.
In the dating scene of Hong Kong, heterosexual expat men like Graham enjoy a certain privilege but also a certain prey: Asian women. Graham’s thoughtfully crafted Bumble profile shows his acute awareness of this. It caters to those who might be intrigued by his knowledge of tea and Japanese and Chinese languages and calligraphies, or by his non-aggressive photos, such as one of him reading in a coffee shop—rather than photos of him working out in a gym, which is what most male users put in their profile.
We started chatting and arranged to meet for drinks. “Meeting for drinks” is synonym for “you know what happens after a few drinks.” But when I told my friend about this economist who shared my enthusiasm for teas, she immediately asked whether his name was Graham.
“Well, I know very few Western academics in Hong Kong who are single and knowledgeable about tea,” she said. It turns out that Graham is a colleague of hers, and they had just “met for drinks” recently, and it had indeed led to physical intimacy. I was both surprised and sorry. “I am so sorry. I had no idea.” My friend smiled. “Don’t worry about it. This is Hong Kong.”
A Point in Between
Hong Kong has long been known for its transience. People who come don’t come to stay. As a financial center without political autonomy, it is a capitalist utopia for the global super-elite, full of opportunities for those who have no intention of settling. This quality of Hong Kong once prompted the literary scholar Ackbar Abbas to assert that the city has always been, and will perhaps always be, a port in the most literal sense—a doorway, a point in between. Hence it makes little sense for transients to invest anything major and permanent, emotions included.
Against this backdrop, romance has always been strange. This strangeness is further amplified by factors such as a falling marriage rate due to high housing prices and long working hours, and a sense of uncertainty about the city’s future. Since the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under the “one country, two systems” principle enshrined by Article 5 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. While this arrangement isn’t set to expire until 2047, growing pressure from Beijing in recent years has constrained the city’s autonomy. In 2014, a set of reforms that gave Beijing greater control over local elections sparked the Umbrella Revolution, a massive street protest that shut down core parts of the city for more than a month.
Beijing’s influence has also shrunk the space for women’s self-determination. This space was never enormous: the patriarchal traditions of southern China, with their emphasis on family piety and male dominance, have long dominated Hong Kong. In the colonial era, these traditions were often embraced by Hongkongers as a form of opposition to British rule, and their power continued uninterrupted in the twentieth century. By contrast, in mainland China a wave of unrest during the 1910s and 1920s—the New Culture Movement, the May Fourth Movement—culminating in the Communist revolution of 1949 weakened the grip of old Confucian customs. The result is that traditional patriarchy is much better preserved in Hong Kong than in major mainland cities like Shanghai.
But the patriarchal turn under Chinese president Xi Jinping has introduced a new element. As Chinese state policy increasingly promotes traditional gender roles, Hong Kong is feeling the effects. This is particularly evident in the growing focus on “sheng nv” 剩女, or “leftover women,” in Hong Kong. The term refers to unmarried women who are over twenty-five. Although the phrase originated in mainland China, it gained popularity in Hong Kong very quickly. In 2011, Bride Wannabes, a reality show featuring single women trying to find suitors with help from matchmaking companies, beauty salons, and dating gurus, became an overnight sensation. Its mission was to “solve the worsening situation of leftover women in Hong Kong.” In an attempt to make the show sound more cheerful, however, the producers changed the character that stands for “leftover” (剩) to “prosperity” (盛), with the same pronunciation.
The show stigmatizes singlehood and puts pressure on women to get married. It also feeds the growth of a lucrative matchmaking industry that capitalizes on women’s fears of becoming “leftover.” Matchmakers charge as much as HK $2,000 (US $255) for a first consultation, and women are sometimes charged much more than men—which is justified by the unbalanced female-to-male ratio, but which further strengthens the patriarchal power structure. Some matchmakers will even bluntly tell their female clients that once they reach the age of thirty, they will be charged more and put on a different list.
For women who are striving to lead a meaningful professional life, it is often difficult to find a partner. In such a gendered and capitalistic market, Hong Kong men value looks above other criteria, while women tend to pay attention to education, profession, and whether potential matches appear serious about wanting to commit—a dynamic that once again reproduces family-focused, male-dominant arrangements.
Yet people in Hong Kong look for love as avidly as anyone—perhaps more avidly. “Hong Kong’s lonely hearts are among the world’s most desperate to find love,” says the South China Morning Post, citing data from the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel that shows Hong Kong users use it the most frequently of anyone. 66 percent of Hongkongers who have downloaded the app log on every day—the highest rate in the world.
For those who log into those apps regularly, the feeling of knowing there are a few good ones out there, if only in the form of glorified profiles, gives them some sense of comfort. Dating apps don’t just offer the opportunity to explore a pool of potentially interesting people, however. They also create a comfortable and safe distance between the user and their object of affection, and between such affections and oneself.
Products and Commodities
John is a barrister originally from England. He seemed interested in my research, and we talked about dating and living in Hong Kong. I told him that I was surprised to see that many of the app users were looking for potential clients for their own business, be it personal fitness or organic food.
I had recently discovered this firsthand. On Bumble, I started to get tired of the question, “So what’re you looking for here?” So one day I abruptly answered, “I’m looking for love. And what are you looking for?” He replied, “I’m a yoga instructor. I’m looking for potential clients.”
John laughed when I told him this. “Well, Bumble itself is a business. We are the products as well as the commodities.”
The first night we spent together, something unusual happened, at least for Hong Kong, where personal space and personal time are priceless: he stayed. In the week that followed we kept in touch. One day I received a WhatsApp message from him: “I miss you.” But just as I was about to answer, the message appeared as “deleted.” It disappeared, literally, before it even appeared.
And I never heard back from John again.