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Where Is the Love: Modern Matchmaking

From apps to astrology, we investigate the modern ins and outs of matchmaking, a centuries-old practice that’s still as prevalent as ever in our search for that crazy little thing called love.

February 9, 2022

"How often do you actually meet someone at a coffee shop or at a bar who’s legit?” Swirling a glass of red wine, a single girlfriend of mine posits this question at a recent dinner. “Is it even a thing? I think I can count on one hand the couples I know who met this way.” She then lets out a sigh. “Where do you meet new people these days?”  

If there were two truths universally acknowledged, they’d be that first, finding a great partner is hard and that second, it only seems to be getting harder. In Hong Kong, the male-female ratio continues to topple, with only 84 men to every 100 women as of 2020. While many modern daters have shed the idea of having only one true love, the desire for a life companion continues to beckon to many of us, which explains why relationship books reign at the top of the bestseller lists, why shows like Love is Blind and Indian Matchmaking go viral, and why “love gurus” like Matthew Hussey rack up millions of views on YouTube.  

Such discussions among today’s single set are a dime a dozen and a cursory census in my head reveals the same harsh reality; that meet-cute story many of us have heard about our grandparents or have been conditioned to desire – like striking up a conversation while waiting in line at your neighbourhood shop or catching someone’s gaze over the bar – might be more fiction than fact today. As our world becomes dominated by virtual conversations, (seemingly) limitless opportunities and fast-paced schedules, what’s closer to reality – at least in this bustling metropolis – might be chancing upon an algorithm-approved match on a dating app or a like-minded potential partner through well-intentioned mutual friends.  

“Many people hold onto the idea that they’ll meet their partner through the traditional channels, but we aren’t all characters in a romantic comedy – unfortunately for us,” says Lucille McCart, the APAC communications director of Bumble, the women-empowering dating app founded by ex-Tinder vice president Whitney Wolfe Herd in 2014 that’s currently valued at an astronomical US$13 billion. “With such busy lives, the enormous benefit of dating apps is that you can make connections on your own time.” 

Photo: Shutterstock 

THE RETURN OF THE MATCHMAKER 

It’s no surprise that many of today’s singles, particularly in their late 20s and early 30s, have turned once again to the helping hand of matchmakers, both virtual and physical. While they’ve certainly put on shinier, cooler outfits over the last decade – there’s the upsurge of popular dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, Raya and Coffee Meets Bagel that cater to various demographics and boast the most cutting-edge of algorithms, and a rising crop of modern matchmaking agencies that now focus on highly bespoke services that include dating and image coaching – the practice of outsourcing your search for a compatible match has, of course, existed in history for eons. From Imperial China to British tribal groups, arranged marriages were commonplace to ensure the continual ownership of land, wealth and power. In the Bible, there’s Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who observes women by a well and handpicks Rebekah for Abraham’s son Isaac. And Jane Austen’s beloved matchmakers – think Emma Woodhouse and Mrs Bennet – need no introduction. 

In some cultures, arranged marriages (with the help of family astrologers) are still the preferred method parents use to couple up their children, in part to ensure that they marry within the same religion or caste. Specifically, Bumble users in Asia have been observed to adopt the “religion badge” at a higher rate, indicating its greater importance when accessing compatibility. That is why Jason (not his real name), a Singapore-based Muslim-Chinese professional in his mid-30s, sought out the help of a matchmaking agency. “I specifically needed and wanted to find a Chinese-Muslim girl, and they’re generally very hard to find,” he says. “The agency made it a lot easier.” 

For others, today’s rapidly changing modern world has posed many challenges that are ushering young professionals to try something new. One of these factors is an increasingly overwhelming work life, according to Violet Lim, who founded matchmaking agency Lunch Actually (which also offers date and image coaching to “increase clients’ success rate”) in 2004 alongside her husband, Jamie. “The majority of our clients are in their late 20s to 30s,” says Lim. “They’re eligible, successful professionals who are seriously looking for that special someone but, due to their hectic lives, are unable to find them.” She adds that the biggest challenges of working long hours are a lack of time to look for a potential partner, a shrunken social circle due to the job or industry, and not being able to meet singles of the opposite sex.  

JJ Wu Chang, a Hong Kong-based certified matchmaker and dating coach, is the founder of The Love Consultant, whose clients are primarily well-heeled professionals in their 30s. He agrees with Lim, saying, “At the end of the day, time is still money. You’re relying on someone else to do the work for you.” Chang also highlights the therapeutic, self-reflective and often surprisingly emotional aspect of engaging with a matchmaker. “It can be quite a journey,” he says. “People uncover things about themselves along the way, for example, family or personal trauma they hadn’t worked through. Some clients do tear up during the consultations.”  

This has given rise to today’s unique modern dating landscape, which blends algorithm-driven apps and personalised matchmaking services. The latter, increasingly harnessing the power of data analysis of gigantic databases, offers the benefit of a comprehensive screening process. Chang has multiple in-depth consultations and only takes on clients that match his specific criteria (bilingual, financially independent, well-travelled and with a “solid head on their shoulders”), while in addition to background checks and basic information (such as age, profession, religion, height and build), Lim and her team meet each client face-to-face for profiling sessions that look into areas including family, passions, personal growth and life goals. “These are intangible things that may not be so easily seen, but in-person we can pick up more details through body language or non-verbal cues,” says Lim. Along the way, both The Love Consultant and Lunch Actually’s consultants also give advice and work with clients to get them to be the best versions of themselves. Even if a date is unsuccessful, preferences are adjusted based on feedback and there are takeaways to make the next match better. 

Photo: Shutterstock

TAKE A SWIPE 

Even for those not willing to pay the premium price just yet – trusted agencies and matchmakers generally charge HK$4,000 and up for a match or a contract – there’s no denying the behemoth business and attractiveness of dating apps. A 2021 study shows that 39 percent of new couples first meet online and experts predict that the figure is to substantially increase to 70 percent by 2040. In other words, for those who are single and ready to mingle, there’s no swiping left to giving online dating apps a try. 

The forbearer and most successful of which is Tinder. Co-founded by Sean Rad back in 2012, the app boasts more than 75 million monthly active users and collects around a billion swipes a day – a feature that Tinder is credited with popularising. The subsequent surge of competitors has also expanded the demographics and appeal for a variety of user bases, including celebrities and elites who value privacy (Raya, which only allows entry through referrals from current members), LGBTQ+ communities (including Taimi and Grindr) and those who look to the literal stars (The Pattern, a virally successful app backed in part by Channing Tatum, which only allows users to match and connect after considering astrological compatibility). 

While some have enjoyed having what can feel like thousands of options right at your fingertips, others have found the nature of online dating transient and non-conducive to serious relationships. (“You always feel like there’s someone better out there; it’s very hard to cultivate love,” shares Jason.) And of course we’ve all heard of (or experienced) the unsolicited harassment or unsavoury messages that can put many off online dating. 

Perhaps this has paved the way for Bumble, which Wolfe Herd created after experiencing sexual discrimination in her role at Tinder. The app found its success by placing the power into the woman’s hands – only they can connect and initiate the first message to their potential match – and essentially tipping the scale of the centuries-old tradition where the man makes the first move. 

“For all the advances women had been making in corridors of power, the gender dynamics of dating and romance still seemed so outdated,” says McCart of Bumble. “Whitney’s idea was to flip all that on its head and create a platform where women made the first move, with the hypothesis being that this would lead to kinder and more respectful conversations and relationships. The philosophy behind this shift is that it encourages men and women to view the dating experience from the opposite side of the traditional perspective. Women get to take control of their dating journey and men have permission to be less aggressive in their pursuit. In this current climate, there’s no need for us to stick with archaic gender roles that no longer serve us.” 

Photo: Master Cloud

This evolution in gender roles has irrevocably influenced modern dating dynamics, too. Master Cloud (also known as Yunwenzi), a renowned Hong Kong-based feng shui master who specialises in a niche discipline rooted in Taoism, has penned love and relationship columns for the likes of Cosmopolitan for ten years and has helped thousands of clients turn their love luck around. “Women have higher power and statuses these days,” she says. “Throughout history, it was considered normal for the husband to ke [克, have power over] the wife, meaning they would be the one wearing the pants and providing financially. Security played a bigger role in relationships, yet in modern times it’s more about whether you can get along well, communicate and enjoy each other’s company.” 

“I’m a huge supporter of women using and taking initiative on dating apps,” she adds. “I often say to my clients, ‘Why do women have to wait to be chosen? You choose your lipstick and your outfits, so why can’t you choose when it comes to guys?’ I think the most important and valuable thing in life is having choices.” 

Chang of The Love Consultant, who acknowledges that modern society has encouraged women to spend considerably more time on their careers, agrees. “The fact is that a lot of smart women now make money for themselves,” he says. “They’re really good at it and don’t need the traditional guy who flings their money around. A lot more women are appreciating guys who recognise how much effort they’ve put into who they built themselves to be and bring their share to the table. That includes increasing emotional support and being there for them. Guys have to adapt to the changing market.” 

Photo: Shutterstock

WHAT DO YOU NEED? 

The mystical, ever-elusive notion called love has perplexed and captivated humans for eons. How does one get it right? How do you know when a pairing works? What are our wants versus our needs? We’ve all heard the adage “it shouldn’t work, but it does” uttered by many happy couples, as well as the opposite – an ideal match on paper that’s missing that je ne sais quoi. While even the best matchmakers can’t predict a perfect match 100 percent, they’ve told me this much: he or she is likely to not be who you expect, at least on the surface. And that’s a good thing. 

A survey done in November 2021 by dating app Coffee Meets Bagel found that 97 percent of Hongkongers are in happy relationships with someone different from their original dating criteria, with qualities like good looks, confidence and liking animals taking a backseat to being low-maintenance and close with family as daters get older and priorities shift. A new survey by Bumble reveals similar findings: 34 percent of users say that the pandemic has drastically changed what they’re looking for in a partner, with 61 percent now prioritising emotional availability and 23 percent now caring less about a partner’s physical appearance. 

“I think oftentimes in dating, we end up placing more importance on things that are easier to assess immediately such as looks, jobs and degrees. Qualities like honesty, loyalty and mutual respect take much longer time to reveal themselves,” says Dawoon Kang, who co-founded Coffee Meets Bagel with her two sisters in 2012. “This is the number-one tip that I hear from dating experts: to give people a chance even if they don’t fit perfectly with what you think your partner should be. Now we have the facts to back up this advice.” 

The importance of qualities like emotional support, kindness, common values, companionship and aligned life goals have never been greater, given not only the turbulence we’ve found ourselves in over the past two years, but also the skyrocketing amount of time we’re projected to spend with our partner when stripped of the luxury of distractions such as travelling. “The pandemic has certainly made people more thoughtful about dating,” adds Kang, who reveals that more than 50 percent of Hong Kong daters say that the pandemic has made them reflect more about what they’re looking for in a partner and what true fulfilment means. 

According to multiple matchmakers and experts I spoke to, that deep introspection – as uncomfortable as it can be – might hold the key to successful partnerships. It turns out that an essential component to finding a good match is by being one, and that includes the hefty self-work that needs to be done before one even considers downloading an app or booking an appointment with a matchmaker. 

“One of the simple truths I’ve realised from doing this job is that everybody wants to be swept off their feet – guys and girls. But whether that’s emotionally, financially, intellectually… it’s your own job to figure out,” says Chang of The Love Consultant. “What do you appreciate? When was the last time you lost yourself on a date and why was that? You have to break down the pie and identify what it is that makes it so good.” Lim of Lunch Actually concurs. “Our job as a dating consultant is to dig deeper and find out why they want what they want. The person’s maturity, kindness, generosity, outlook on family, career and goals are the things that really matter in the end.” 

Photo: Dawoon Kang

 

THE MODERN ROMANCE 

The stigma of seeking out a matchmaker or expert, whether online or offline, is quickly waning if not completely gone. Instead, across the board, men and women are encouraged to get out there and take their dating lives by the reins. 

“Right now, I think there’s no stigma in using these means to find someone. Sometimes practicality overtakes romance and finding someone who’s good-natured beats encountering someone through a romantic occurrence,” says Jason, who despite not finding his match through the agency, still recommends the experience. “I learned a lot about myself.” 

For the more idealistic among us, who’s to say that chatting (or typing) into the wee hours with a handsome prospect on the phone or feeling butterflies when meeting the girl of your dreams at a pre-arranged blind date can’t be just as romantic? “The desire to connect and engage with one another is a part of the universal human experience,” says McCart of Bumble. “Just like we’re used to outsourcing certain aspects of our lives to a third party, such as going to a recruitment agency to look for a job or to a tour agency to plan your travels, it’s the same thing for our modern singles these days to outsource their dating lives,” adds Lim. “A real date where you can meet each other is really where connection, attraction and chemistry begin.” 

From there, it’s down to the daters to write a beautiful love story of their own. As for those still waiting patiently for Prince or Princess Charming to knock on their door? Well, they might just be waiting a while.

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