It's 10am on Sunday morning, and Ling Lu has just begun the day with a load of laundry and a cigarette. Bedhead still plastered around her delicate face, she apologizes, "I look better in person than on camera...at least let me wash my face."
Apart from the chain-smoking, her apartment is immaculate. Stuffed animals and perfume bottles are tidily arranged on glass shelves. Every surface appears free of dust. The kitchen is well-stocked with gleaming pots and pans. The walls are bare except a row of empty picture frames hung above her desk, and a large framed photo of her in a wedding dress propped up against the floor.
"Oh yeah, that was me. I was almost married. It didn't work out."
The photo is of a classic bride in white, staring demurely into a bouquet of yellow roses, alone. A black skull tattoo peeks around her upper arm, only slightly visible. The photo was taken last year. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke she said, "Actually, this was the person I loved the most. But we can't marry."
When the picture was taken, she had been dating him for almost two years. They wanted to marry. He was fifteen years her senior and divorced, with a teenage son. Somber and plain, he didn't make much of an impression on her when they first met. From her cosmetics industry background, Lu Ling was used to flashier men. He persisted stubbornly, watching cartoons with her at night even though he was bored to death, and enduring her chain-smoking even though he hated it.
"I'm a very simple person, and in my heart I haven't let go of the young girl's way of thinking. I can't handle complicated family life," she explained.
Her ordinary family background meant that although native to Beijing, she rents her own apartment and pays her own rent, a third of her 9000RMB/month salary. Neither of their families supported the relationship. Her family thought it he was too old. His mother pressed him, "why would this girl, fifteen years younger, with a good job and good looks, want you? You have a son, you're divorced, you're not very attractive. It must be for your money. She'll be with you for a year, then she'll take your money and leave."
She often pressured the man to make a choice between his family and her. His mother wouldn't look at her when she spoke, and the teenage son would flip over the bowl when she tried to serve him food. "I'm a passive person, I would never pursue a man", she said, explaining how this man became invited into her life, "I wouldn't pursue him even if he was well off, which I didn't think he was." They fought often, and she vowed to never kowtow to his mother.
Eventually he stopped coming by. They fell out of touch.
As a young child, Ling Lu was vain and loved fussing over her own clothes. At the same time she loved fighting and was fascinated by guns. She longed to be a soldier when she grew up. Now 32, she loves toys, cartoons, and animals, yet spends hours sterilizing her apartment every week. "Age is an attitude. I still think I'm really young, like a child, but other people don't think so." Her mother calls often to pressure her to go on blind dates.
"Most of my girlfriends are attracted to men for one reason, for example, either they are very attractive, or they have a lot of money, or they treat them very well. I want a more balanced person. My old boss told me I'm the hardest kind of woman to satisfy. He said, you don't know what you want. Either you pick someone who is rich, or you pick someone who loves you, but you want it all."
"So I think, I'm 32, I've been waiting for a long time, I'm going to hold out until the one I want arrives."
Hao Lu Lu's office is tucked in a corner wing of Evercare's plastic surgery hospital in Beijing. It's a standard office with dark carpets and modular furniture. Lu Lu arrives early at work, bouncing in her chair with excitement about "having her first real job". She takes fifteen minutes before everyone arrives to apply mascara and check her makeup.
A native Beijinger, Lu Lu became famous in China in 2003 for undergoing extensive plastic surgery, sponsored by the Evercare cosmetic surgery clinic. At the time, it was an extravagant cost of $36,000 USD. Her transformation was known as "The Beauty Dreamwork Project" 治造美人. At the time, she had surgery to her eyes, nose, chin, breasts, buttocks, abdomen, legs, and skin. She would have a new appearance for three to five years.
As a well-publicized transformation, Lu Lu and Evercare received a great deal of criticism.
"When I first got surgery it was the biggest deal ever. But it was my decision, it's not like I hurt anyone else. Now as society is opening up, it's more accepted. Everyone thinks it's normal. After my surgery, a lot of my friends really thought I was brave. but I think I'm brave in that respect but in others, like if there's a mugging on the street, maybe I'm not."
In 2003 Lu Lu was dating a Chinese-American man who supported her through the surgery. "My boyfriend thought it was great...I don't have to spend money and my girlfriend will be more attractive. How can there be such opportunities in the world? Every man would want it."
Giddy femininity comes to mind when meeting Lu Lu. She's flattering and chatty at once, offering warm advice to anyone she encounters. She only wears dresses, and loves shoes and bags. Upon finding out she had 300+ pairs of shoes, her boyfriend at the time asked a mutual friend to find out how much Prada shoes cost, to see if he could support her.
He was 19 years older and very well-off. He told Lu Lu that she didn't have to go to work, she could just do whatever she wanted. Soon after her transformation, they parted ways. "The most important thing is fate. I used to have a boyfriend but we weren't able to get married, I think, because it wasn't meant to be. I think I'm still unmarried because my fate might not have found me yet."
Lu Lu now works for the Evercare company as a sponsored personality. She spends most of her time on Weibo, giving advice to anyone interested in plastic surgery. She goes through company-sponsored regimens to diet and lose weight, and injections to make her facial muscles smaller. To maintain her current status, she takes Chinese medicine and specially prepared herbal teas to slim down and cure her pimples. The tea makes her intestines gurgle while the doctors give her a stomach massage.
"I'm the kind of person who is very self protective. I'm slow to warm up to someone. By the time I'm warm they'll be cold. I don't meet strangers. I use these dating websites sometimes. I usually try to chat with them first. Some people are eager to meet face to face, but it's waste of time if you can't talk together."
"I don't have many pressures, but I would like to marry. You can't buy true love, contentment, friendship, family, but with money you can buy more experience, more world views. I have no parental pressure to marry. My dad says two people together being miserable is not better than one happy person alone. "
A friend exclaimed, "She has the body of a twenty year old!" That much was evident from the vacation albums Lily had posted on her website. Here she was...bikini-bared on a beach in Vietnam, petting a dog in Turkey, and plucking fresh fruit from a tree in California.
Earlier this year, Lily had quit her career as a manager in the import/export industry to devote herself to full-time husband hunting. "My two biggest pressures are marriage - having my own family, and my aging parents' health. It's not housing, money, or a job."
Citing her strong work ethic and open personality, she was a natural leader in her company. Her younger years passed quickly as she completely devoted herself to her work, located in Shenzhen. Her job put her in contact with lots of foreigners. Although her English was poor, she found herself having much more relaxed conversations with them than with Chinese men.
Passing quickly into her 30s, she started thinking about finding a boyfriend. A native Beijinger, she returned home at age 34 to settle down. She was introduced to a professor who taught at Renmin University. "He was an impressive man, very well known in China," she said. She asked her parents for approval of their relationship. They balked at the age difference: he was 15 years older.
"We didn't see each other very often because he was busy teaching but we had a special relationship nonetheless. At the time he was lecturing about intellectual property, a very new idea in China then. He would talk to me about these things and I was like a sponge, soaking up all of his knowledge. Every time I spoke to him it was extraordinary. But at the time I didn't think it was love."
The subject of marriage came up when his mother started pressuring for marriage. Almost 50 years old, he was still very much his mother's son. His mother wanted to see her son get married and not waste any more time. "At the time I reacted, how could this be? He wasn't my dream prince on a white stallion, handsome and great in every way. I initiated the break-up."
Lily spent a month mulling over her decision and realized that, compared with all the men she's encountered, no one else could measure up to him. She tried to go back to him, but he refused to see her again.
"From 1999 to 2009, I couldn't face anyone else. During these ten years I spent every weekend writing poems and letters to him. I drew out all of my dreams. My entire existence at that time was grey. I spent the whole time writing him, designing every envelope, every letter. He never responded once, the entire ten years. In my heart I thought, he can't not respond, at least he can tell me. I held onto this belief for ten years. Those were the best years of my womanhood. "
"I like smart men. There were other men that people tried to introduce to me but I felt that no one could understand me. They don't know what I want. I don't want to be taken out to dinner, or to go to a movie. Chinese men don't know what you want. All they know is to take you out to a good restaurant, thinking that is a big deal. Actually women don't care about that. Even just having a nice chat, having someone listen to you. Even though my English is poor, my interaction with foreign men seems different because they seem to know what I want. "
"I haven't thought about finding a boyfriend. The only thing I think about is trying to switch jobs. The most important thing, what am I going to do in the future? But I don't know. "
Yang Li Wei works in an IT firm in northern Beijing, outside of the fifth ring road. It's an area choked with office buildings and young people trudging to and from work with laptop bags and headphones. The company she works for is prestigious and foreign-owned. The men in the company are coveted by women, who sometimes send flattering messages that get tossed into the pile of pamphlets offering takeaway services.
"These kind of IT guys are known as economical men. They have a good job and stable income," she explained, while passing groups of guys all dressed in identical dark outfits. "In my research lab, I'm the only person that's in this age range. I don't know most of the people here. They are all men, most of them are married. "
Yang just turned 27. Fresh-faced and casually trendy, she looks much younger than most people at her workplace. "A lot of people here work all day, go eat dinner, then go back to their desks to work overtime. They don't get paid extra unless they work on Saturday. Most people work overtime out of habit. It's a lifestyle. " Yang spends most of her days at work too. She works from morning to late evening, then tucks into a local shop for a bowl of noodles. After dinner she comes back to her desk to read a bit, sometimes stretching or doing light exercise in her cubicle.
"I never leave work early, because the buses are too packed. After 10pm I can get reimbursement for a taxi ride home."
At noon, the company gives an hour and a half to eat lunch and relax. The network proxy is lifted and workers can surf the Internet as they please. Yang speed-eats through her lunch, takes a brisk walk and spends the rest of her lunch hour reading entertainment and political websites normally restricted outside the firewall.
"My job now is a software engineer. I make an average salary as a software engineer, but better than an average college grad. I don't really like my job. When I chose it I didn't understand what it was. I just wanted a good job with a good path. My first boyfriend chose my major for me."
Her first boyfriend was a high school sweetheart with whom she had a relationship for seven years. The first two years were in high school, when they saw each other daily. After that he moved to Zhengzhou to join the military academy, and Yang moved to Xi An to go to college. They still maintained a long-distance relationship, seeing each other three times a year.
"At the time I thought that was plenty of boyfriend. So long as I had someone who cared about me, and someone who I could say was my boyfriend, I could be free to do other things. My classmates were in relationships where they were constantly glued together. I didn't like that. He was in military school, I was in college in Xi An. At first we missed each other, but then we got used to it. "
Chinese students choose their concentrations upon entering college. Yang studied communications engineering from undergraduate to graduate school, without any interest in the subject. "I've never thought too much about these things. It seemed natural at the time. My boyfriend took it upon himself to do the research for me. He studied Computer science."
Yang's childhood was spent in Dong Bei, the northeastern region of China, cooking for her parents while they farmed. "When I was little the only thing I could think about was getting into college. " Her family slowly saved up enough money to put Yang through school. Her poor background made a significant impact on her during college. She felt the weight of her financial burden on her family constantly. Her major guaranteed her a job after graduation, and that seemed to be enough.
In college she went through bouts of intense homesickness. School holidays would come and she'd go home, not wanting to come back, while her classmates all complained about how boring their home towns were. After graduation, she moved to Beijing and the homesickness got better.
"We talk on the phone a lot. They started giving me pressure about marriage."
"I've never thought about my most ideal type of boyfriend. Probably the one you meet that changes your heart would be that one. My first boyfriend and second boyfriend were completely different. I think finding different types of people means that in your heart you have many different needs. My first boyfriend was someone that after spending time together we started to have feelings for each other. It was a dependent relationship, more like having a brother or father. That was his attitude to me. At the same time he seemed very protective. He would want me to text him when I went places. I told him this was unacceptable behavior but he said he couldn't change it. I had to consider my future and family with him. Because he was a soldier I would have to follow him and go to his town, and figure out what my job would be there. That was not what I wanted. "
Yang met her second boyfriend while traveling after college. After saving up for a long time, she was able to travel around China for two months. He was a foreigner. They traveled together the entire time, then came back to Beijing together. She didn't tell her parents.
"We weren't suited to each other. We lived together too quickly and it was a little uncomfortable. I didn't have my own time or space to do what I wanted, and later became accustomed to this kind of lifestyle. "
"I am not too interested in my single status. My friends are more worried about me than me. When I broke up with my first boyfriend, my friends said if I didn't look for another boyfriend right away, after a few years I would only be able to choose from divorcees."
"I had nightmares after that about being married to someone I didn't like."
"I think marriage is normal. If I meet the right one I might get married too. However in my everyday life the chances of meeting that person is zero. My social circle is all female, and my work colleagues are all married males."
Yang's daily commute is a one hour round trip by bus. Even at 9pm, swarms of office workers wait for the bus at the dusty and remote Shang Di station. The bus drops her off twenty minutes later.
She shares an apartment with five people near the sixth ring road. Some are couples, some are single, but they're all strangers living under the same roof. Yang heads straight into her room and locks the door. There is no common social area.