By Coco Ma
If you are the one (Feicheng wurao)
In China an intelligent single woman over 30 years old (or maybe 28 sometimes) is automatically tagged by society as a ‘leftover’. If this woman has the title Doctor placed before her family name she is literally speaking ‘smelly in the marriage market’ in the majority of people’s minds. Well, that woman is me.
I spent almost 7 years living in Australia finishing my masters plus doctoral degree in film and TV so that I could really have a better position to work in this industry. I didn’t feel too bothered being single and I occasionally enjoyed some casual dates. But when I took up a job offer back in Beijing things started becoming a bit bizarre. Almost every person I knew, not just my relatives, but office colleagues, company clients and even total strangers in airplanes are suddenly enthusiastic to set someone up for me. I’m not exaggerating: everyone says to me ‘Coco, you should go on Feicheng wurao.’
If you haven’t heard of this show you’ve probably been living on an island somewhere, either that or you are really uncool. It’s a television dating show on Jiangsu Satellite Television Channel, which is one of China’s most popular TV networks. Although it carries an English name If You Are the One, the show’s Chinese title means ‘If you’re not sincere, then don’t bother me.’ You kind of get the idea!
The show debuted in early 2010.
Single men appear one by one on stage before a group of 24 women, each standing behind a podium with a light on it. More or less immediately, the man picks one of them in secret that appeals to him. Then, through conversation with the show’s host and a series of videos including interviews with his friends, family, and coworkers, he reveals more about himself, his life, and what he’s looking for in a mate. At any point, if a woman decides she’s not interested in him, she can turn off the light on her podium and trigger a heart-sinking electronic pulse sound to communicate her rejection. Once the bachelor has finished being introduced, if there are more than two lights on, he must walk up to the podiums and turn lights off for the women he isn’t interested in until only two are left. Then, he gets to ask those two questions, after which he can choose to date one of them or make an offer to date whatever girl he chose at the beginning, even if she turned her light off (though this is risky as she may still reject his offer).
Don’t get me wrong, I am flattered when people ask me to join this show. It has to be considered a big compliment for any girl. Every weekend the crew goes to five major cities in China to interview potential participants. Hundreds of girls line up to get a chance. Sometimes the crew travels around the world to hunt for singles, including to Australia.
You must be either ‘special’ or ‘abnormal’ to be on stage in a group of 24 single women. Which of these was I?
Episode Two: How can I get on to Feicheng wurao?
I decide to try for the show under pressure from an irresistible force, a very persuasive fan of Feicheng wurao—my mother! It seems like it is her dream to see her only daughter on the stage fighting with another 23 females for a dating chance with some stranger. Anyway it is a quite simple procedure to fill in the application form. I only have to click a SUBMIT button on the popular Chinese dating website jiayuan.com which I have signed on for previously. My profile has all my personal details including my photo, my height, my age, my education level, my profession, my horoscope, my blood type.
Then someone calls me two days later and congratulates me that I am pre-selected as the candidate and asks me to attend a face-to-face interview the following Saturday.
On Saturday I go to the interview point, which is the office of the dating website. The reception is crowded with ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ fashionably dressed. Many are complaining that they have waited for hours. When the receptionist finds my name and ID on her list I enjoy the privilege of jumping the queue and going straight to the director’s room.
The director is around my age. He says ‘you are a beautiful intelligent woman.’ But that’s not good enough for him; he pushes me to think I can be a very special woman, a female icon different than the others. He says they already have had several female PhD students in the past. My doctoral degree in creative writing with full scholarship in my second language comes in handy. So to make myself more outstanding I conjure a magic math trick. My five scholarships add up to approximate AU$200,000 during my study and that amount of money is equal to more than 1 million RMB in China. There and then my new label as a Feicheng wurao candidate is set as a ‘female PhD with more than a million RMB in scholarships.’
That’s it! Thanks to my long-term study in Film and TV I know audiences love such nonsensical eye-catching phrases! Then the director is suddenly very interested in my personal life, such as how many boyfriends I had in the past, and then he pops up the same question that I have been asked millions of time— ‘Why you are single? You are a smart lovely woman and you have a respectful job. How come you are still not married?’ Well, I come up with the old standard answer: ‘I was too focused on my career’ rather than saying ‘my ex was a jerk’, although I had a gut feeling that he would love to hear the dramatic answer.
After three long months of waiting I am told to prepare to join a two-day shoot (Saturday and Sunday) located in a Beijing suburb. I’m very lucky that I don’t need to travel to another city. Most of the candidates travel from all over the country, sometime even from the other side of the earth. My neighbor candidate No. 6, who is a fashion designer from Giorgio Armani, flew 12 hours from Milan to Beijing just for the shoot.
Episode Three: Orientation
On the morning of the first day of shooting, all the new candidates gather with the producer for an orientation. There are 24 women on stage every episode and the faces are always changing. In order to help the audience remember the girls the producer literally encourages us to find our own ‘label’. I meet a real African princess who speaks perfect Chinese and whose grandpa is the Chief of a tribe in Bissau; then there is a creepy 25 year old online business owner who looks exactly like a child under 12; and a young beautiful model with 1000 degrees myopia whose Chinese name sounds Japanese! As well as these ‘freshmen’ the stage includes China’s first female racing driver. She comes from an extremely wealthy family—to be honest car racing is a damn expensive hobby in China. Maybe she’s too fast to catch or just too intimidating for a Chinese guy. And then there is ‘Sister of Explosion’, a woman who explodes her love at first sight light for every single guy. The audience remembers her well. Also there is the divorced Hong Kong airline stewardess who gets revenge by recounting her ex-husband’s infidelity so that he too is well known to the Chinese and international audience via the show.
I am getting the feeling it’s more like a sitcom than a dating show. I wouldn’t say I enjoy the shoot. Before I performed on this show I was in the entertainment industry for several years and I worked as a crew member in three feature films. It is the very first time I have to be made-up and do my own performance in front of a camera. The make-up artists and dressers are very snobbish. In our group, there are several ‘stars’ who have already been on the show for several months. They have the privilege of choosing the sponsored dresses, jewelry, and having their hair done first. As ‘freshmen’, what we get are the leftovers. Each girl has a number representing her position and the stage is tactfully arranged. I am No. 5 candidate on the stage. It seems No.5 is always reserved for a PhD in the middle of the left section of the stage; this makes it easier for the audience to follow. Spot No.1 or No.24 is left for tomboys or narcissists. They get to stand near the edge of the stage but the audience loves watching them. No.11 and No.12 are in the middle of the stage; these are the sexy goddesses.
It’s not exactly like Andy Warhol said, the famous line: ‘in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.’ Before the game starts the seniors who have been on this show for more than 30 times tell us the most important rule: ‘don’t forget to turn off the light’, otherwise, you can be accidentally matched and will have to leave the stage. Well, let’s face it you are not here to find a Mr. Right: you are standing here so that more and more people will know your face. It is so hard for girls to get on the most popular reality show in China. We are already winners from the thousands of applicants, survivors from the hardest interview ever.
The bachelors who come on stage are not the main target. The millions watching in front of TV or on their internet are the real market. Fame follows the game. It is a free national advertisement for not only in the marriage market but also in a person’s professional world, especially if you own a business. Some of the female candidates stay on the show for more than 6 months, sometimes even up to a year. Many get roles in new commercials; some maybe will get a chance to become an actress. Of course it’s not all fun and games. The candidates have to bear with the massive cyber hunting of internet users. You’d better have strong nerve, believe me. The seniors’ speech is certainly very inspiring and scaring.
As for the male candidates, there is a hidden rhyme and reason. In each episode there will be five or six bachelors fronting the stage. Normally the first one’s role is to create the atmosphere so he will be funny or outraged; the second person may be an average or below average guy; the third and fourth are more a lady’s man. The fifth will be back to average or normal so that the show can end smoothly.
The shooting normally starts from 1 p.m. till 10 p.m. with two episodes and one hour break. Wearing high heels and standing 8 hours under the very hot spot lamps is torture. I secretly pay my highest respect to those who has have the determination and strength to fly in for a shoot every second week.
Episode Four: Reality Show
Just right before the ladies go on stage with music the producer hands each of the new girls a small bottle of Erguotou—a famous Chinese vodka with more than 50% alcohol and encourages us to ‘ganbei’ which means ‘bottoms up’.
When we are waiting to go on, a very cute guy wearing head phones calls my name. I don’t recognize him. He is a little shy but is excited to talk to me. Well, it turns out he is the executive director of the show and we had the same major at the Communication University of China in Beijing a decade ago. I was his senior. He said ‘you know what, you rocked in college! Many boys in our grade had a crush on you’. My god, how I laughed, ‘you should have told me earlier; in that case I might never need to come to this show!’ Well, since he is cute I am about to ask him if he was still single. Then the music starts, we need to walk.
This is an undercover story, so I am not going to spend too much time describing the episodes. You’ll have to look on TV and the internet. Anyway I reckon the cameras put 10 pounds on me. And there are the girls’ fights on the stage which are cut by the crew due to things getting really ugly. Someone faints due to high temperature. We are forced to eat a meat ball made by some horrible cook and pretend it tastes fantastic. Also there is a disgusting guy who claims that he can tell if a woman is having her period by literally smelling her. He literally smelt five girls like a dog—creepy.
My unsuccessful romantic moment happens when a very handsome doctor gently rejects me because of ‘age difference’. I am 6 years older than him. Later he claims he came only for his beloved candidate, a woman who has been on the show for more than 150 episodes and is 8 years older than him. He says he has been in love with her on the TV for a long time. So this is like a perfect dream-come-true fairytale. It proves again that every single girl can find her white horse prince in the show. Audiences buy that a lot.
As an experienced TV/Film maker I sense there is a bug here: the fake arrangements hurt my feelings. After the two love birds leave the stage I question the host on this perfect bachelor’s choice in front of the audience and camera. The host said ‘yeah, even I couldn’t understand his concept—he said the age was a problem but he chose a woman who is obviously older than you’.
Well, in the end I get the inside information that he was hired by the crew to go after the woman because she never leaves the show. The crew needs to eliminate some old faces to keep the program fresh and to fill in new flesh. As far as I know later these two love birds never went out.
Episode Five: My real life after Feicheng wurao
My four episodes are continuously broadcast during the three-day national Labor Day holiday. My Chinese name becomes a meme on Baidu Word Search overnight. Fans blog about me and then some of my high school classmates defame me on the Feicheng wurao official Weibo (Chinese twitter). My high school teacher then defends me from his own weibo account. Countless personal messages are sent to my Facebook account from Chinese students studying in Australia. My previous co-worker’s brother who is now living in the U.S. calls her to ask if this No.5 is the same person she had mentioned to him. One of my exes in Toronto took a photo of me from his TV and then ‘what’s-upped’ me to find out what’s up with me.
The most fascinating part of my Feicheng wurao adventure is when I receive a love letter, or at least a recommendation letter titled ‘I am the next Ang Lee’; this comes from a 38 year old high-school graduate building constructor who claims that he is the perfect mate for me. He then asks me to forward his five screen synopsis to any producers I know in order to help him realize his dream of being a screen writer/director (let’s face it everybody now knows that I am working in film industry thanks to the show).
My mother is very happy. She tells everyone she knows to watch my show. Then my aunt’s neighbor wants to set a blind date for me and her son who is living in Boston. They suggest we become internet friends first and ignore the almost 12 hours’ time differences between our two cities.
Episode Six: The End
I accidentally forget to turn off the light when I am day-dreaming during the recording. I am the only girl who saves the light for the guy and he picks me. That’s how I end up leaving the show after just 5 episodes. According to his video clip he is five years younger than me, a handsome successful interior designer / business owner driving a BMW. We win a Maldives luxury holiday by matching up. Our one and only official lunch date is after the day of the shoot. I tell him that it was a mistake then he goes back his city. We never meet each other again.
Four weeks later I get a call from a person claiming he is a police officer and he has my number from the Feicheng wurao crew. He asks me if I know the guy I was matched with in the show very well and if I know where he is. According to this person, the man is listed as wanted by police due to several fraud cases. He asks me to call back if this bachelor ever calls me again. That is very scary.
Three months later, my name drops off from Baidu search, finally.
That’s the end of my journey to If You Are the One. I didn’t find the one. Seriously, I would say, just don’t bother if you are sincere.