The Shanghai marriage market is something I’d heard mentioned a few times during my time in the city but, for some reason, I’d never had any real interest in knowing when or where it was.
That apathy continued until the day I stumbled across it by accident, by wandering into People’s Park one weekend afternoon after shooting at the nearby Jing’an Sculpture Park.
Having never seen any photographs of it anywhere, I didn’t know what it was at first. I just remember thinking how busy the place was.
After a little reading of the notes attached to the umbrellas though, it clicked. Reading of numbers mainly, of course, and realising they were someone’s weight, height, date of birth, and phone number.
What goes on at the Shanghai marriage market
Every weekend, from around lunchtime onwards, hundreds (at a guess) of parents and grandparents head to People’s Park to try to find a spouse for their unmarried offspring.
They do this by writing out all their most important information on a piece of paper and sticking it to an umbrella, a shopping bag, a makeshift noticeboard, or just on the floor.
This important information is stuff like date and place of birth, height and weight, education, current job and income, and zodiac sign. Things like personality, ambitions, and outlook on life are often not included.
People wander around, browsing the notices and talking to their prospective future in-laws. However, I’ve heard the success rates of the whole endeavour aren’t high.
Photography at the marriage market
One thing about doing street photography in China is the people don’t tend to mind you taking photographs of them.
That wasn’t really the case at this wedding market, however. If I held up my camera too close to the umbrellas, the people sitting behind them would hide their face, or sometimes cover the signs with their hands.
I can understand that. If I was spending my weekend doing what they’re doing, I probably wouldn’t want some foreigner coming up to me with a camera. Especially when personal details are there for all to see.
There is a balance to be struck though, I think, and there’s the line of thought that if it’s in public, it’s public. There’s also a matter of intent. I’m not trying to shame anyone here. I didn’t even set out to go to the marriage market.
This is just a bunch of photographs shot on Oriental Seagull 100 at a place I found myself at, presented without judgement from me. I did also erase any visible telephone numbers when I processed the images, as I wouldn’t like mine to be published online either.
Just bear this in mind if you go to the marriage market one day. People behind the signs will likely get agitated if you get your camera in their face. The people walking around didn’t seem to care so much about being in photographs though.
How much you want to push it, shoot and publish is something you’ll need to decide for yourself.
How long will the market last?
The Shanghai marriage market started in 2004, which means it’s been going for 15 years at the time of writing. Whether it’ll last for another 15, I wouldn’t like to say.
There’s the not-very-nice concept in Chinese culture of leftover women (and to a lesser degree men), whereby if someone isn’t married by a certain age, they’ll only find it more and more difficult to find a partner. And when they do, all the ‘good matches’ have already been taken anyway.
The situation exists through a combination of the old one-child policy, a family’s traditional desire to continue the lineage, and the belief that once you’re nearing 30 years old, you really should have settled down and had children by now.
However, attitudes are changing among the educated young. More women than ever are prioritising a career over marriage, which means the need to find a spouse so early is less important.
As most of the young people having their details shared at the marriage market don’t actually want their parents or grandparents to be doing it, it seems unlikely they’ll go do it for their future children.
That’s why I wouldn’t like to say whether this Shanghai institution will still be there in 15 year’s time. I think it’s possible they may, as a culture, grow out of it.
Regardless, it’s still there in 2019, and I’m pleased with the photographs I got from my walk around it.
I wasn’t looking for a wife that day. I just wanted to #shootfilmmakesomething, and I like what the Oriental Seagull 100 gave me. I hadn’t shot it before but I found it very clean, and with plenty of contrast.
I probably won’t return to the marriage market now I’ve seen it, but I’d be very happy to shoot this film again. 🙂
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