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    How an Elderly Actress Became China’s Biggest Matchmaker

    Zhao Mei was a performer at a tourist spot in central China. Then her matchmaking act went viral.

    Two to three times a day, hundreds of tourists descend on a small theme park stage in the historic central city of Kaifeng. They come not to see a “little fresh meat” idol or an up-and-coming young singer but for a glimpse of a 61-year-old woman who might just introduce them to the love of their lives.

    Meet Zhao Mei, the star of China’s hottest dating show. Better known by her stage name, Wang Po — a reference to the classic novel “Water Margin” — Zhao has been catapulted from obscure tourism worker to nationwide star over the past month. On short video platform Douyin, the version of TikTok accessible on the Chinese mainland, Wang has gained more than 5 million followers in just 16 days; her most popular stream has been viewed more than 3.5 million times.

    While the Wang Po of “Water Margin” fame was the epitome of the meddling, matchmaking auntie archetype, Zhao’s take on the character has won over young fans by promising a more inclusive, less pressurized approach to love and dating. “In a society in which young individuals are often pressured into marriage, Zhao’s show allows them to express their wishes freely and seek recognition from others,” Cao Yixia, a cultural and creative industries researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, tells Sixth Tone.

    Instead of traditional matchmaking practices like checking for astrological compatibility, Zhao allows participants to announce what they’re looking for in a partner and encourages them to engage in a back-and-forth with the crowd. When either Zhao or the participant spots a potential match, Zhao invites them on stage and engages the pair in an impromptu conversation to see if they’re a fit.

    The resulting shows are as raucous as they are camera friendly, and they’ve made Zhao the unlikely star of “Great Song Martial Arts City,” a large theme park in Kaifeng centered around the city’s history as the onetime capital of the Song dynasty (970-1270).

    Zhao’s act now attracts huge crowds each day, many of them streamers looking to capitalize on her popularity. But her largest following is online. Social media users have dubbed her “The Love Magician of Kaifeng,” and singles use her streams to scout for new crushes.

    In interviews with domestic media, Zhao has said that she views her show as a relaxed environment for young people to meet friends, rather than a traditional matchmaking corner. But she also touts her success rate, claiming to have introduced about 50 couples in the past year.

    But there are also signs that Zhao’s unexpected popularity may be too much, too fast. A number of imposter Wang Po accounts have sprung up online in recent weeks, promising to introduce social media users to a perfect match in exchange for a fee. And one of her recent matches involved a man from the nearby city of Zhengzhou who turned out to already have a wife.

    Zhao responded to that controversy in a livestream Sunday, calling on fans to respect the show’s premise and not create unnecessary drama.

    “Don’t join in the fun if you come with your own script,” she said. “Leave the opportunity to those who really want to find a date.”

    (Header image: People livestream Zhao Mei’s dating show at Wansui Mountain in Kaifeng, Henan province, March 30, 2024. VCG)