Dating is fairly new to China, where people historically have looked to matchmakers to find appropriate partners. Social life in the 1960s was more about Little Red Books than dinner and a movie, and romance was put on hold in favor of political involvement. But over the past 20 years, urban Chinese have co-opted Western-style dating and made it their own.
Today, high-school students meet each other in chat rooms, linked at first only by location and perhaps a shared hobby. They nurture their relationships through online chats, especially via the popular instant-messaging service QQ. Friendships evolve into romances, but school pressure leaves little time for dates, and relationships revolve around e-mails, phone calls and, of course, a nonstop flurry of text messages.
Holiday gift-giving is a big part of couples' relations as well. Chinese youth observe an array of holidays, including Valentine's Day, Chinese Lovers' Day (which, thanks to a quirk in the lunar calendar, came twice this year) and trendy holidays like Christmas. Young men give Swarovski jewelry, Swatches and even mobile phones. Young ladies reciprocate with Zippo lighters and sports body sprays. If a boy wants to marry his girl, he faces some daunting criteria that start with home ownership and quickly spiral upward.
But marriage comes later-probably after numerous trips to Pizza Hut. As one girl in Shanghai told me: "I'm in no rush to get married. My parents don't want to meet any of my boyfriends anyway. They only want to meet the last one-my husband."
Who would have thought that having two-person tables and allowing customers to linger would make Pizza Hut such a scene? Meanwhile, Haagen-Dazs' luxuriously appointed shops are synonymous with dating for wealthy Chinese, and Starbucks is the choice for sophisticates. Dating is just gaining momentum in China, and will be a huge opportunity.