Unlucky in love…or just left out of the market?

The number of never-married women has increased in both Shanghai and Hong Kong over the last decade. But while these so-called leftover women are largely derided on the mainland, attitudes are different here, according to a recent study.

The Chinese government defines sheng nu – leftover women – as unmarried females over the age of 27. The Ministry of Education says the unmarried status of these women is down to their “overly high expectations for marriage partners”. By contrast, in Hong Kong such women are commonly described by the much more neutral term, xing nu, meaning blooming women.

But sociologist Sandy To Sin-chi revealed in a University of Hong Kong study,Understanding Sheng Nu, released last week, that Shanghai professional women have trouble finding marriage partners not because they are “too picky”, but because men have rejected them for being “too successful”. “Many of them want to get married, but because of gender constraints where women are expected to be less successful than their husbands, they get left out of the marriage market,” said To. “It’s common to see these women trying to marry Westerners, because they think men from countries such as Canada and Australia are less traditional than local Chinese men.”

To’s study draws on her interviews with 50 women in Shanghai from 2008 to 2011, including eight women from Hong Kong who were living in Shanghai.

The study also found even very successful women on the mainland tend to want to marry men with higher economic status than theirs. “In Hong Kong, while traditional ideas about gender roles are still common, there are more women who are open to marrying someone with a lower economic status.

“This might be because there is less pressure on them to get married from family members and because traditional values are not as strong here,” said To.

Vivian Cho, 32, a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post that she is engaged to a local man who earns a much lower wage than she does. “I find successful men to be too egotistical. For me, it makes a good balance to be with someone more laid back than I am … My fiancé would be fine with staying at home to take care of the kids while I work.”

Tanna Wong, chief executive of a media company, who recently married an American, said: “I have never encountered men who are intimidated by me and I have never concealed my accomplishments.”

Valerie Chin, 34, an unmarried chief executive of a fashion firm, agreed there is less pressure on women to get married in Hong Kong, but thinks the city is worse than the mainland when it comes to men rejecting older women. “Some women here are just trying to make themselves feel better by saying they can’t get married because they’re too successful. Men in Hong Kong are superficial. They think, ‘Why should I marry a 30-something when I can have a 25-year-old?’

“More and more of my single friends and colleagues are getting plastic surgery because they think that if they don’t look young, they’ll have no chance.”

But critics say there are flaws in recent studies.

Lucetta Kam Yip-lo, a Chinese gender and sexuality researcher at Baptist University, said: “In addition to deliberately ignoring [lesbian and bisexual] women’s existence, the Hong Kong government and some researchers also neglect the experiences of straight women who live outside the life path of marriage and reproduction.”


‘Leftover Women’

Shanghai: Proportion of unmarried women almost doubled from 2000 to 2010. Those aged 30 to 34 accounted for 1.8 per cent of women in 2000; 4.5 per cent in 2010. Those aged 35 to 39 accounted for 0.8 per cent in 2000; 1.5 per cent in 2010.

Hong Kong: There were 98,700 unmarried women aged 30 to 34 in 2011; and 115,900 in 2010. There were 65,400 unmarried women aged 35 to 39 in 2001; and 71,500 in 2010.

Sources: Shanghai Municipal Statistics Bureau, 2011; Hong Kong Population Census, 2011.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Unlucky in love … or just left out of the market?

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