Shanghai Dating Culture

I had a friend who spent some months in Shanghai in 2006 and he always talked about Shanghai girls. He had stories about girls at clubs, how desperate they seemed to “try a white guy,” how even, when he was at a bar minding his own business, a Chinese man asked him to have sex with the man’s girlfriend, because she was curious. I asked him why he never went back since 2006.

“I’m too paranoid. What if one of those girls gave birth to a kid? She could probably sue me or something.”

His story seemed fantastic, mythical, Mad Men-like. Now that I am in Shanghai, it makes sense. I feel like I died and went to white man’s heaven.

At the pharmacies, often the only medicine they bother translating into English is “Viagra”

Dating was actually illegal in China up until the 1990s, since citizens and especially young people could be punished for any premarital sexual relations by being expelled from school or losing their job. As movies like Feng Xiaogang’s If You Are The One shows us, much of dating culture grew at the same time as internet culture, and dating now would seem almost impossible without it.

As dating culture is still relatively new in China, there are tons of television programs on how to do it, and how to spot a bad boy. Most dating shows seem inherently sexist, though what dating show isn’t?

Almost every show that I see introduces a man, his job qualifications and background, and then tries to find a match among twenty or so different women, who stand and look really pretty. So the assumption seems to be that the man’s job, personality and education are all necessary information, while the women only need a rad body to apply. It’s a strange reversal from the Red Guard women, who were instructed by Mao to dress exactly the same as men to offset gender discrimination.

Some Chinese folks told me that there are shows where the gender roles are reversed, but I never see one.

An example, Take Me Out:


Dating may be especially attractive to middle or lower-class foreigners, since, according to some, the poorest white guy is often valued higher than a rich Chinese guy. Women who prefer foreigners (let’s just say white guys, because I don’t see many girls hand-in-hand with western people of color) do so for many reasons, often to get away from the tyranny of their own families, the one-party national politics, or the Asian standards of beauty, which values very light skin, round eyes, small faces, and under 27-year-old bodies. Westerners don’t seem to care as much about these beauty standards, and even actresses that seem incredibly beautiful to western men, like Gong Li or Tang Wei, are actually seen in China as kind of ugly.

“I mean, who would be attracted to her?! Her cheeks are too fat!”

Growing up as a mixed Filipino/white male, the constant hypervisualization of white men with Asian woman can get a bit aggravating. As in almost any “global” city in Asia, the ‘white guy holding hands with the Asian woman’ is so eye-rollingly typical that you could sit at any downtown walkway and make a drinking game out of it. In America, when a white guy and an Asian/American woman get together, it is often seen as a symbol of progress. In China, it is a symbol of globalization.

There are a lot of biases against white male/Asian female relationships, and as a product of one myself, I often wonder if there is some default feeling I should fall back on. Should I look on with confusion and then hatred for the imperialism that brought about my own upbringing, like some Asian American men? Or should I cheer on for those mixed couples, and join in ending biases against White male/Asian female relationships? I have to admit, I’m kind of lost on that one.

I get some unsolicited advice from a friend:

“You’re only angry because, at the bottom of it, your darker skin-tone does not give you the same privileges. You should dye your hair blonde or brown, it would make your skin look lighter.”

So I make an appointment to get my hair dyed.

“It’s not that I have yellow fever, I just really like your culture.”

Despite the impression it makes, this white male/Asian female stuff is rare, and probably would not be even noticeable, if it wasn’t for the hand-holding part. Couples in China rarely hold each other’s hands as they walk around, and even couples in the U.S. don’t seem to hold hands all the time. But these white male/Chinese female couples always, always seem to be holding hands.

Is it to announce that you possess another person, like a reward or a trophy? Then who is possessing whom? Or is it like wearing the other person as a decoration, an exotic artifact that you’ve got hooked around you, making you “one of the natives” like that douchebag in Avatar? Then who is decorating whom? Or is it to help the other person in a strange land, or make them feel like there is no shame, no hiding in this mixed relationship? Then who is helping whom?

And to put more weight on the issue, Shanghai men are stereotyped in China as kind but servile, who always “listen to their women.” Sound familiar?

But all this is a bit exaggerated. Most women of Shanghai don’t seem to have a man around with them at all. Instead, they have very little dogs. They keep them on leashes and marvel at their cuteness. They have so many of these pets, that that the City of Shanghai had to declare a “one-dog policy” to keep the population under control.

Not exactly an atypical hairstyle.

When I go to dye my hair, the hairdresser gives me color options, and says “whatever you do, don’t choose red. It’s the only color that might actually make your skin look darker, not lighter. Chinese girls will not like that.”

“Screw that,” I think, and choose red.

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