The ‘Old Dough Sticks’: Life Among Beijing’s Least Eligible Bachelors
It was a Saturday afternoon in September, and Wang Lei was looking for love. The 37-year-old unmarried marketing agent from a northern Chinese province was headed to one of his favorite haunts: an unassuming residential compound in southeastern Beijing that hosts a weekly matchmaking party.
The party was not the only matchmaking event on Wang’s calendar. His weekends were fully booked: Friday evenings in Dongchen District, Saturday afternoons in Chaoyang, and Sunday afternoons in Haidian. His schedule was even busier during the many relationship-related holidays celebrated in China, such as Valentine’s Day, Qixi (sometimes called “Chinese Valentine’s Day”), May 20th, and “Singles’ Day” in November. As he crisscrossed the city in search of a wife, meeting women had become, in Wang’s own words, a “weekend job” — one he had been engaged in, without success, for five years.
Wang was far from alone. At almost every event, he had his matchmaking buddies, a group of longtime bachelors ranging from their early thirties to their late forties. Around half were native Beijingers, usually with low incomes; the rest were migrants, like Wang, with middle-class jobs: IT programmers, university researchers, marketers, and book editors. Still unmarried after years of trying, they were the objects of both sympathy and scorn from matchmaking organizers, who saw them as hapless daters whom no woman could love.
The first half of that assesment contains a kernel of truth, but it also misses the ways in which Beijing’s matchmaking scene actively discourages men like Wang, feeds their resentment, and makes them hostile to the very women they’re trying to pursue. Over the course of five years of fieldwork in the city, I watched as the same group of bachelors went to event after event, growing increasingly cynical with each failed romance and perceived slight, until I could no longer say why they bothered to show up at all. In the end, they just seemed numb.
Men like Wang and his friends are what’s sometimes known in Beijing dating circles as “old fried dough sticks,” or lao youtiao. When fresh, fried dough sticks are a cheap and ubiquitous breakfast snack in Beijing; leave them out for a few hours, however, and their crispy skin turns soggy and greasy from the oil.
I first heard the term applied to Wang’s group by Yuan, the director of Wang’s regular Saturday afternoon event. He saw in their greasy hair, sweaty shirts, and poor posture a resemblance to the unwanted dough sticks left over at the end of the day.
Yuan was actually among the organizers most sympathetic to the lao youtiao. Most matchmaking professionals viewed these longtime bachelors with a mixture of pity and contempt. At a roundtable I organized with event organizers and workers, a matchmaker, surnamed Wu, dismissed the lao youtiao bachelors as being unable to make small talk and said they “had no sincere intention of finding a marital partner.”
When I asked if the men just needed one-on-one coaching, another matchmaker, Qian, rejected the idea out of hand: “One on one? We once gave a guy five-on-one coaching, but he was incurable. Some men refuse to lower their standards for a partner. They always feel good about themselves, even in their sixties.”
Li, a certified psychotherapist brought in by event organizers to help mentor the men, had a similarly dim view of the group, calling them “rural rouges” who wanted to “force women to marry them.” Yuan tried to speak up for the bachelors, saying they were “not that bad,” but Qian simply seized on his comment to pour salt in the wound. “People say that being evil is its own kind of skill,” he replied with a laugh. “These guys can’t even claim that much!”
Yuan notwithstanding, the belief that the lao youtiao bachelors were insincere, unrealistic, and asocial was widely held within Beijing’s matchmaking community. I frequently heard other event directors refer to them as “brazen and shameless” or “toads that want to eat the swans.” Organizers saw the bachelors’ unpolished behavior as something that might scare the female participants away from their events and disgrace their organizations. To prevent this from happening, directors set up registration barriers designed to exclude the lao youtiao: Instead of “first come first serve,” they gave preferential treatment to younger, more polished bachelors and those with a Beijing household registration.
The Beijing chain of contempt
If the lao youtiao bachelors lacked cultural sophistication, matchmaking events seemed to revel in reinforcing their faults. It was true that some of the bachelors dressed poorly and lacked conversation skills. Yet, for all their complaints about the men’s behavior, matchmakers frequently overlooked the structural and institutional factors behind their inability to find a spouse.
At the matchmaking events I attended, gender- and class-based tensions frequently bubbled just under the surface. Occasionally, they burst into full view. At a post-event discussion with bachelors and bachelorettes, Wang got into an argument with Beibei, a bachelorette and another frequent matchmaking participant.
The son of a peasant family, Wang expressed frustration at the importance of wealth and a Beijing household registration on the dating scene. “People increasingly use material assets, income, housing, and family background to screen potential partners,” he said. “This is too materialistic. It prioritizes material resources over emotion!”
A native Beijinger, Beibei saw nothing wrong with taking material factors into account when selecting a partner. The self-proclaimed social media influencer and entrepreneur, whose family owned several valuable residential properties in the city, saw it as a way to save time: “I think it’s nice to stick to only those who meet your material requirements. Criteria make choosing more efficient.”
Wang wasn’t persuaded. He tried explaining that if matchmaking put more emphasis on personality, rather than participants’ “background details,” a man with a less desirable material status would have a chance to attract women by demonstrating his care for them during the dating process. At present, however, as soon as women heard his parents had a rural household registration, they would pass him over immediately.
“This is exactly what makes it efficient!” Beibei said with a smile.
“You think that’s efficient?” Wang shot back, clearly agitated by Beibei’s indifference.
At this point, Li, the same mentor who had earlier called men like Wang “rural rogues,” intervened. Turning to Wang, he admonished him for letting his temper flare, telling him to “be mindful” of his words. Wang disagreed, but switched to a milder tone. “This (matchmaking) format is only efficient for the elites,” he said. “It’s problematic when everyone pursues the top 10%.”
The “background details” Wang mentioned weren’t written down anywhere — but that didn’t make them any less real. Every participant compiled mental notes on potential partners’ appearance, manners, and lifestyles, which they used to rank them into a hierarchy of value based on residency, assets, and education. The rankings typically mirrored the “Beijing chain of contempt,” in which native-born homeowners in the capital’s downtown districts sit at the top, followed by non-native homeowners who have managed to acquire a local household registration, then homeowners in the surrounding Hebei suburbs, and finally non-homeowning migrants, almost regardless of their educational or economic status.
The “spare tires”
A byproduct of this logic is a shift in preferences away from compatibility in personality, hobbies, or professions and toward a belief that the “perfect” partner exists and can one day be theirs. This belief pits participants against each other as they compete to win the men or women they see as most valuable, regardless of personal compatibility.
The best non-elite participants could hope for, according to Wang, was to become a beitai, or “spare tire” — a backup in case someone’s top option falls through. “During an event, one may select 10 potential partners,” Wang told me. “Among them, some are attractive, some are from a good family, and some are rich. But if you are not the best among the 10, you will become a spare tire.” In conversations, lao youtiao bachelors frequently attributed women’s behavior to their own perceived spare tire status. Everything from not replying to text messages to failed dates caused them to feel like they were being taken advantage of financially or emotionally by women who were holding out for someone better.
This belief made it harder for lao youtiao bachelors to form meaningful connections with the women they met through matchmaking events. Perceiving themselves as spare tires, they responded to slights, both real and imaginary, with indignation, disappointment, and eventually apathy. Sometimes, their experiences produced a sense of suspicion, distrust, or resentment against women, as the quarrel between Wang and Beibei showed. In one case, a man required his date to pay him back for the dating expenses after she broke it off; in another, a man spread rumors about a woman who had rejected him. That many bachelors also kept spare tires was hand-waved away. After all, they believed they had invested more money and emotional labor than the women they were seeing, yet were still unable to develop sustainable relationships with them.
At other times, the bachelors’ sense of indignation seemed to sink inward, resulting in numbness and cynicism. As one bachelor who had participated in matchmaking events for three years recalled: “In the beginning, men and women came to talk with each other with great sincerity. However, now I feel numb, and just follow the procedures and do whatever they ask me to do. I’m stuck.”
Indeed, many of the bachelors I spoke to felt fried by the matchmaking process, which seemed to sap the aspiration, will, and agency of longtime participants, turning them into greasy and soggy leftovers. Eventually, that perception became self-reinforcing. Wang’s crack about treating matchmaking as a “weekend job” was revealing: For him, the process was as alienating as any other low-paid disposable work in the capital. He had become a passive employee, toiling away with little hope of promotion. Or, in his own words, “Being left-over is a choice women can make, while leftover men are really leftovers.”
To protect the identities of her research participants, the author has given them pseudonyms.
Editor: Cai Yineng; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao for Sixth Tone)