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On the industrial outskirts of Shanghai, about two hours from the famous colonial-era Bund, there is a place called Thamestown – a modern housing development marketed to China’s nouveau riche as the embodiment of all things English. While many of the mock tudor villas in the gated community appear empty, the replica huge cathedral in the centre has become a trendy place for young couples to hold Western-style weddings.
Last weekend, this auspicious location was the scene of a giant matchmaking festival, organised with the local government and aimed at bringing together some of the estimated 500,000 eligible lonely hearts in the city. Outside the cathedral thousands of participants milled around, many accompanied by anxious parents who snatched at promising looking bystanders, shoving them towards their offspring or conducting short interrogation sessions to determine suitability.
Some parents did not even bother to bring their single progeny along but spent the day perusing the short biographies plastered on walls.
Braver participants were invited to join a talent show to try to attract potential mates by singing, reciting poems or just talking about their redeeming qualities in the hope that someone would ask for their number.
In an exhibition hall bridal retailers, photographers, travel agents, property developers and even a group offering credit checks had set up stalls. One company calling itself “Shanghai Good-Looking Image Planning” offered a style, etiquette and image consulting package for a hefty Rmb19,800 although a cheaper option called “Theme of Sharon” cost a much more reasonable Rmb980.
The involvement of the local government in this matchmaking extravaganza is telling in a country where an estimated 118 boys are born for every 100 girls. By some estimates there will not be enough brides in China for up to one-fifth of today’s baby boys by the time they get to marrying age – a sobering prospect for a government obsessed by political and social stability.
Mapping the future
In China, the simple act of printing a picture of the country can be fraught with danger. Many an advertisement or publication has had to be pulped or destroyed because its designers carelessly portrayed a simple map of China that did not conform exactly with the nation’s territorial claims.
For decades, a picture of China that did not include the self-governed island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory, as part of the People’s Republic was certain to be sent to the scrapheap by censors. But more recently, the hen-shaped outline of China has grown some new protuberances to the south.
On a giant billboard advertising a state-owned bank in the arrivals hall of Shanghai’s main domestic airport, a collage of photographs make up the shape of the country. It has Taiwan, of course, but the collage also includes a smattering of small shapes that drift off into what is presumably the South China Sea.
China’s claim over virtually the entire South China Sea is not new – official maps always portray its extensive territorial assertions. But including a collection of uninhabited atolls that punctuate the oil rich ocean appears to be a new development for China’s graphic designers. This is not just a question of aesthetics. The majority of Chinese respondents to online polls believe Beijing should send in troops to defend its claims in the region.
The Chinese Communist Party has been talking a lot recently about building up its soft power overseas and even issued a po-faced document last month promising to maximise cultural output and raise cultural productivity.
But even as the country’s aging leaders issue diktats to the masses to get their groove on and make China attractive to the rest of the world, a mission from America is unwittingly proving how much of a coolness deficit China still has.
A delegation that includes Meryl Streep, one of the Coen brothers, musician Yo-Yo Ma and author Amy Tan is in Beijing this week to attend the US-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, which is supposed to celebrate “mutual exchange, shared admiration and friendship between Chinese and American artists.” Some more cynical observers might note that China has recently been more intent on locking up world-class artists like Ai Weiwei than admiring their cultural output.