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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


John Stanmeyer for TIME.
TIME Asia reporter Isabella Ng with her cyberdate, Alien Liu, in a Guangzhou photo booth.

Looking for Love Online
Like thousands of hopeful teens, our intrepid reporter goes in search of Mr. Right in cyberspace
By ISABELLA NG

At first, I wasn't sure I was the right person at TIME to investigate the growing popularity of online dating among Chinese youth. For one thing, I turned 30 earlier this year. Looking for true love on the Internet has always struck me as a pastime for people in their early 20s, and Chinese men generally don't like to date older women. Nor was I sure that concealing my identity was professionally ethical, even if it seemed necessary to get the ball rolling.

But my love quest turned out to be far more satisfying than I had imagined. Posting my vital statistics online for six weeks, I received a total of 24 responses from men interested in me. Four wanted to take me out even after I explained that I was a journalist. All were between the ages of 18 and 35. Not bad for an old maid from Hong Kong.

Here's how I got started. To disguise myself as a mainlander, I opened an e-mail account on a China site hosted by China.com, the Hong Kong-based portal. I registered with my nickname, Izzie, and reserved the account for communication with my online dates. The same day, I posted myself on www.love.myrice.com, an online meeting point for Chinese surfers looking for friendship and romance. Getting hooked up with men across China is easy. You just sign in with a nickname and provide a few details, like age, height, weight, favorite food and hobbies. If you are confident enough, you can post your photo, too. More than 3,800 candidates had already signed up before me, hoping for Cupid to strike.

I decided not to conceal much except where I live and my occupation. At Myrice, I became Sweetie, a 30-year-old, single Guangzhou woman who is "humorous, frank, honest, lovely but a little bit nosy." I even posted a cute, starry photo that I had taken at a picture booth in Hong Kong two years ago. To be honest, I'd never felt so vulnerable. What a humiliation it would be if no one responded. How could I tell my editor that I couldn't get the story because no one liked me?

But I plunged ahead, and aroused some interest. My first online friend was a 25-year-old boy from Guangzhou who called himself Unforgettable. His note was appealing enough: "You look very nice in your photo. But the picture is less than perfect. Wanna talk about it?" The fact is, despite my avowed lack of interest in cyberromance, I was thrilled to get this virgin e-mail. My fingers leapt to the keyboard, and I shot back a response: "Very nice to meet you online. Have seen your photo and it's nice. Hope to talk with you about it."

Suddenly I understood why people hook up online: the process of finding a chat mate, flirting and anticipating a possible romance are just as titillating, ego-boosting and nerve-wracking as with any Old Economy first date. Responses soon began to flood in from all across China—Shanghai, Zhejiang, Guangxi, Beijing. Apart from occasional sleazy messages asking me sexual questions and suggesting carnal adventures, most of my Net pals seemed decent enough. Some, in fact, were quite endearing. A 29-year-old from Beijing shyly asked me to look at his photo: "Hope you don't mind—I am a bit ugly." Sweet, huh?

After five weeks of exchanging e-mails, I sent a message to all of my new boy pals, admitting that I was a journalist working on a story. A day later, I heard back from five. One did not want to be interviewed. The others were thrilled and seemed eager to set a time and place to meet. After hours of deliberation, I decided on two: a guy in Guangzhou who called himself Perfect Fortune and one in Shanghai known as Kedy. I told both I would love to go on a more-than-virtual date, and they sent me their phone numbers. Since none of us had divulged full personal details, I had to continue calling them by their silly online nicknames—while they kept referring to me as Sweetie.

The rendezvous with Perfect Fortune didn't begin well. We were supposed to meet at 8 p.m. at an upscale Western restaurant in Guangzhou. He was late. I called his mobile to make sure the date was on. No one answered. My heart sank; I was convinced I had been tricked. I called a second time. Finally he picked up on the fourth ring and told me he was on his way. Sitting alone and waiting for a date is incredibly frustrating, especially when you're on assignment. As if to fit my mood, the pianist broke into L'Amour Est Bleu. Finally Mr. "Perfect" arrived. Not bad-looking: young, healthy, clad in T shirt and jeans. He was 15 minutes late, though, a bit cheeky on a first date.

It turned out that Perfect Fortune, otherwise known as Alien Liu—yes, he uses the English name Alien—was a 22-year-old Internet marketing executive. I asked why he wanted to meet me when he knew I was, ahem, eight years older. "I came out because I knew I wouldn't be interested in you," Liu said. "You're not bad for a 30-year-old, though."

We moved right along to weightier topics, such as the Internet and the role it plays in bringing people together. "These days Chinese who hook up online often want more," Liu said. "In the past, they just wanted to find someone to talk to, but now they actually want to meet that person." As for Perfect Fortune's own motives: "Sometimes you feel lonely. It's hard to find someone you can really talk to."

After we had spoken for an hour, I suggested we do something a little funkier. So off we went to a photo booth to have our pictures taken for posterity. It's was Alien's first time (I hoped I wasn't going too fast), and he seemed stiff and uncomfortable. We then went to his university and walked awkwardly through campus. Alas, no strings played, no stars shot overhead—quite anticlimactic compared with the lovers smooching on benches all around us.

That's why you need a backup. I zipped off to Shanghai almost at once for my second date, with Kedy—"a name you can't find in a dictionary," he beamed. Kedy Li, I soon learned, graduated from law school in Guangxi and then moved to Shanghai six months ago to work, not as a lawyer, but as a program supervisor for a website. "In Hong Kong, you must have integrity as a lawyer," he said. "But in China, you can't if you want to succeed." Li, 23, was very open about the difference in our ages. "I have a friend who is married to an older woman," he said. "And they are happy." It was a kind thing to say. I think.

We had a pleasant conversation in a pleasantly squalid restaurant where we ordered home-style Shanghainese dishes. I was impressed with his gentlemanly manner. Afterward, as we were waiting to catch a taxi to the Bund, he asked me to stay on the sidewalk so that I wouldn't be knocked down by a car. I have certainly never received such chivalrous treatment in Hong Kong. As we strolled along the Bund, he gushed about how magnificent Shanghai looked at night. "I fell in love with Shanghai when I saw a TV show with Chow Yun-fat called Shanghai Bund," he said. "So I told myself I would come to Shanghai when I grew up."

The date was nice, but my guess is this won't turn into anything more than friendship. For an old maid, it may be better to stick to the traditional, offline ways of finding romance. After all, that Hanks-Ryan You've Got Mail magic does not always happen in real life.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

society ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: SOCIETY
What's Hot: The fads du jour among urban youth

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Not Out: A gay musician says society is still homophobic

Overseas Assignment: One Beijing school prepares most of the thousands of students who want to enrol in the U.S.

Getting Into the Top Schools: Tips from an expert

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Love Is in the Web: Our reporter logs on to find Mr. Right

Role Models: Kids don't look up only to Bill Gates

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