It’s a scene straight out of a Judd Apatow script: four college misfits, tired of being awkward and dateless, start an anti-Valentine's tradition on campus that turns into a goofy, yet comically extravagant national holiday for single people.
A true story, almost. Only instead of sunny LA, this happened in China’s Nanjing University in the mid-1990s. Since then, scores of unattached Chinese —200 million to be exact — have been celebrating Singles’ Day on 11 November every year.
Known locally as guanggun jie, or “bare branches holiday”, the date was chosen because of its resemblance to solitary stick figures when written as 11/11. On this day, singles would wryly mark the occasion by snacking on twig-shaped youtiao (deep-fried breadsticks), give four chopsticks to each other as gifts, vouch to lunch at 11.11am and go to bed at 11.11pm.
“Singles’ Day is an anti-festival that celebrates a so-called problem status."
In a country where the family unit has long been seen as the “building block of society”, there is a certain irreverence in taking pride in solitude.
“Singles’ Day is an anti-festival that celebrates a so-called problem status,” says Simon Kaiyu Li, cultural anthropologist and Founder of Cross Cultural Partner, a brand strategy consultancy. “Most if not all Chinese holidays centre around family relationships. Singles’ Day is the opposite of this tradition. It’s a demonstration of self-expression of the younger generation.”
“Typically, this time of the year is about two months prior to the Chinese New Year when young people return home to see their family, when they’ll be pestered by loved ones about their relationship status. So Singles’ Day give them a breather of freedom,” Li tells SBS.
Interestingly, what started as an ironic stand against coupledom has since snowballed into the world’s biggest online shopping festival today. Launched in 2009 by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, the annual Singles Day sales are now bigger than the combined value of Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two of the biggest online retail events in the United States.
In 2016, Alibaba made a staggering $17.8 billion in 24 hours, with more than $1 billion worth of orders places within the first five minutes of the sale. The sales messaging? Don’t wait to meet that elusive someone to spoil you. In other words - treat yourself.
“The shopping festival started off as a big sales day, and was a celebration of [taking advantage of] savings rather than affluence. As such, it shared the same [subversive sentiment] as Singles’ Day. They both invited people to take joy in their current status,” says Li.
Nowadays, a lot of women in their late 20s or 30s are caught up in a situation where they are independent, cosmopolitan, and have their own professional life. But at the same time, they face a lot of pressure from their much more conservative parents, who grew up in a different time.”
To understand why Singles’ Day hit a nerve, first, it helps to get a sense of the mathematics of love in China. Thanks to almost three decades of One Child Policy, and the prevalence of sex-selective abortion driven by a preference for male offspring, there is a huge imbalance of gender ratio in today’s Chinese population. It’s estimated that there will be a surplus of 30 million single men over the next three decades - that is, more than the entire population of Australia.
“[For heterosexual singles], there are simply not enough members of the opposite sex to date or to marry,” says Peter Cai, Non-Resident Fellow at The Lowy Institute. “Another major social trend is the increasing level of education among the female population in China. Nowadays, a lot of women in their late 20s or 30s are caught up in a situation where they are independent, cosmopolitan, and have their own professional life. But at the same time, they face a lot of pressure from their much more conservative parents, who grew up in a different time.”
All this strikes at the emotional core of a holiday that turns singledom into a desirable, if necessary, status quo. Add to this the alchemy of an emerging middle class and the simultaneous boom of online shopping - and it’s easy to see why Singles Days sales have grown more than 700-fold in the last decade alone.
Last year, the e-commerce festival was accompanied by a 24-hour live broadcast, guest appearances by Scarlett Johansson, NBA star Kobe Bryant and a boyband singing a catchy pop number featuring the refrain, “I’ll teach you to buy.” For all its excess, there is a sense of humour about the day. No company, after all, can boast of selling enough American toilet seats, chandeliers and “bras that could be “stacked up to more than three times the height of Mount Everest” without seeing the farcical side of it.
And while online bargains may not be a panacea for loneliness – neither, it seems, is a stubborn pursuit of coupledom. In this sense, the rise of Single Day seems to signal a new generation’s willingness to take charge of the pursuit of pleasure and material fulfillment.
As The Observer points out, “this is a holiday for a new China: for young urban consumers happy to celebrate themselves by auto-gifting - the commerce equivalent of a selfie.” In a society that rewards marriage, it’s also a joyful abandonment of the notion that we deserve nice things only when we are deemed worthy of romantic love.
Love this author? Follow Candice Chung on Twitter.