A lonely-hearts club where love is studiously avoided


December 30, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Destiny did not strike the other night at the Weekend Club -- once again.

Oh, it's not as though there weren't some pleasant possibilities in the air when Kong Yi first bumped into Wen Tiemin.

After all, Ms. Kong, a 30-year-old computer programmer, and Mr. Wen, a 40-year-old engineer, discovered right away that both had graduated from Qinghua University, China's premier science school.

And they immediately felt comfortable enough with each other to exchange phone numbers, a step that ordinarily here might lead in the near future to a cautious get-together in a much smaller group of friends.

But then things seemed to fizzle.

The first problem might have arisen when Mr. Wen -- his plaid jacket casually draped over his shoulder -- lied about his age, telling Ms. Kong that he only was 38 years old.

A few minutes later, Ms. Kong -- quite unaware of his small fabrication -- confided that she really is looking for someone at least 10 years older than him, "a kind of father figure."

Then he started talking politics. Ms. Kong hates that.

So it went this Saturday night at the Beijing singles club that, according to its members, has the lowest marriage rate in town.

The Weekend Club, sponsored for the last few years by a women's research institute, is one of dozens of such lonely hearts groups in China's capital. A hundred or so members gather for a few hours on Saturday nights in a school's poorly lighted basement. They dance to a tinny boom box beneath tinsel streamers and exchange small talk on chairs lining the edges of the otherwise barren room.

Chinese social life is changing as rapidly as everything else these days, with the possibilities for diversions and liaisons spiraling. There even are sex-device shops now. But this isn't the fast-lane crowd.

The Weekend Club's members are mostly in their late 30s and highly educated. They're teachers, managers, doctors. About half are divorced, though that condition isn't revealed with the same ease as in Western social circles.

Just friendship -- not necessarily marriage -- is supposed to be the club's purpose.

But a retired woman circulates among the members, offering her services as a matchmaker. And one way or another, marriage seems not so far back in everyone's minds.

Obstacles to meeting eligible people can be great, members say.

The strong influence of traditional Chinese culture doesn't make for easy one-to-one communication. Single Chinese often must live with roommates in dorms. "We don't have the private space to get to know someone," says club member Sun Danping, an editor.

Even the club itself has had its problems. Cliques divide it, and there is a sense of ennui among some longtime members. "We've become like brothers and sisters," says Yu Lan, a university teacher.

To liven things up, a sub-group for the business-minded was formed, prompting another member to quip: "Here we talk about anything but love."

"If we are destined to marry, a thousand-mile distance cannot prevent us from meeting; if we are not, it'll be difficult to reach for each other even at arm's length," says an old Chinese fable, the "Legend of Lady White Snake." Many young Chinese still believe it.

So the Weekend Club's members come together and wait for their destiny to walk in the door.

"We are all like merry-go-rounds, whirling and turning without a destination," Mr. Yu says in a song about the club that he wrote to the music of an old Communist guerrilla-fighter tune.

"We are all playing on a see-saw. To balance, no one must sit together with the other. . . . Without a house and privacy, we have nothing to do but gather to talk."

Tonight, the talk only lasts two hours before the music is over, the lights are turned out and club members hustle down Beijing's dark lanes.

Some will regroup for more conversation over beer and a few dishes at local dives. But Ms. Kong and Mr. Wen go their separate ways.

"She's nice, uh, actually just so-so," Mr. Wen says later.

He's nothing special either, Ms. Kong says. "I think he could be just an ordinary friend -- not a special friend."

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