“Madam Lee,” or “Mom Lee” as people in Flushing, Queens know Yingchen Lee, has been a full-time Chinese matchmaker for 36 years, but she’s been setting people up for even longer. Born in Taiwan in 1955, Lee became a lab assistant at the National Defense Medical Center when she was 21. Lee began connecting her colleagues together when she thought there was a good match. Later, she gave up her job to emigrate to the United States and live with her mother and her mother’s brother, who had moved here in the 1960s. As a newcomer with limited proficiency in English, Lee had difficulties finding a well-paying job when she first arrived. So she decided to take her matchmaking hobby to the next level and turn it into a paid service within the Chinese community in Flushing. In 1980, when there were only a few players in the business, she began working full-time as a matchmaker.
Even today, when most matchmaking agents use back-end computer systems to record information, and one fourth of young people have online dating apps installed on their phones, Lee sticks to the traditional way, keeping handwritten forms and printed pictures of her clients in folders categorized by gender and age. Relying on her memory and intuition instead of data or analysis generated by computer programs, Lee has served more than ten thousand people, among which about two thousand pairs have gotten married.
Although her youngest son works in computer maintenance and they have many idle computers at home, she has never thought of using one to run her business. She doesn’t have to, thanks in part to her excellent memory. Lee remembers the license plate numbers of the Q14 bus she takes to and from work. Yesterday morning, she rode the 5906 and returned home on the 5922. Every day, she memorizes the license plate numbers to entertain herself before and after working a nine-hour day.
“I’m good at memorizing numbers, stories, and people’s background — things that are alive,” Lee says. Her words are short and rapid, with a mixed Hokkien and Taiwanese accent. She can recall personal information, such as age, job, hometown, and educational background by just looking at a client’s photo, or trying to come up with a good match for another. When going to a meeting, Lee takes no computer or folder with her, only photos on her phone.
“The younger brother is forty,” Lee says, pointing at different columns in her calendar notebook. She uses the notebook to record every phone call that comes in, noting age, job, and phone number. “This boy is from Tianjing. He’s raised here. American citizen. Height five feet, seven inches. And this one is also raised here. Born in 1989. His parents are accountants.” She says this as if the people on the forms are the children of her sister or brother.
“Online dating sites have fake information. Mine is real stuff. You walk in, get to read all the materials, and look at the pictures,” Lee says. “Shi Zai” is Lee’s word for her service; it means “honest.”
“You don’t want other people to wait for you to run a search and find a match,” Lee says. “If you use the computer, you won’t remember a single detail. Just like calculators, which made us forget what equals one plus one.”
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In addition to her impressive memory, Lee knows how to sweet talk in order to win her clients’ hearts, and their money. No matter how her clients look, Lee warmly greets them as “handsome” or “beautiful” every time they come in.
“Handsome, here you come again,” Lee greets Fei Long, a burly young man who’s hoping Lee will find him a wife. “Have you been working out? You look slimmer. Even more good-looking than last time I saw you,” Lee adds as she pulls out a chair.
Lee wears red every single day, a nod to the Chinese word for matchmakers, “Hong Niang.” “Hong” means red, which is the color that represents marriage and good luck. Simply by wearing red, Lee conveys a feeling of profession and warmth.
Lee’s service includes making recommendations, passing on messages, sharing contacts and tracking status until her clients get engaged or married. She receives extra cash, gift-wrapped in a red envelope from her clients on their wedding ceremony – an old Chinese custom. The cash gift can range from $500 to $2,000 or more depending on how rich and thankful the couple is.
Lee now charges $500 – up from the $100 she charged in 2002 – for setting young people up. With more Chinese immigrants flooding into the city, new matchmaking agents are opening up shop in central Chinatown. Some nearby agents charge thousands of dollars.
Competing agents frequently “trash talk” Lee’s cheaper service, she says, claiming most of her clients are truck drivers and deliverymen who barely graduated from high school.
“People believe that a higher price reflects better service,” Lee said. “It’s like luxury bags – the price reflects the level.”
Amid all the competition, Lee finds it hard to attract new clients. To get exposure, in 2014, she bought a half-page ad in the Sing Tao Daily USA newspaper for $240. The price has doubled in the past years, and she now finds it unaffordable. As a result, Lee’s business depends even more on references from her acquaintances and old clients.
“My friends help me promote my service to people they know,” Lee said. She is thinking about raising her rates, but she’s afraid to lose customers. Some of her clients are Chinese students and tourists who expect to settle down in the U.S. They might not be able to afford it.
Last December, Lee only had one new client, a 25-year-old woman looking for a rich man to support her and help her run a clothing store on the second floor of the New World Mall in Flushing. Two other returning clients paid her $100 and $200. Sometimes Lee isn’t paid at all.
But business is better during the holiday season. This past Chinese Spring Festival, Lee received a lot of inquiries from clients and helped arrange meet-ups and dinner for them. This month she’s been even busier, leading up to Valentine’s Day.
“Hello? When are you coming?” she says, answering the phone in her office. “Now? Yeah, of course we’re not closed! Third floor. Come up, come up. No problem.” It’s a potential new client. As she’s speaking, Lee quickly pulls out a candy jar and puts it on the desk, ready to serve another worried mom.
Young adults on Lee’s list are relatively dependent compared to their American counterparts — most live with their parents, who serve as gatekeepers of their kids’ marriages. Born into traditional Chinese families, these millennials are mostly obedient and accept their parents’ standard of an ideal spouse.
Many Chinese families insist their children marry another Chinese person. Since different parts of China can be vastly diverse in culture and dialects as well, some families are against marriage even to Chinese people from other parts of the country. Hong Kong Chinese with Hong Kong Chinese. Shanghainese with Shanghainese. Cantonese with Cantonese. Foochowese with Foochowese. That’s how Lee selects pairs.
Last summer, Rong Ren, a 27-year-old Foochowese research analyst for Debtwire, met a Cantonese woman through a Foochowese matchmaker who was a friend of his mother’s. Ren was satisfied with their first date, and decided to pursue it further, but his mother turned her nose up at his date’s background because she expected someone who can speak Foochowese. Ren said if it was not for his mom, he could have been with that woman, but he gave up after a few attempts to persuade his mother.
“They are too stubborn to be persuaded,” Ren says. “I don’t want to fight with them so I finally let it go.”
Many parents also expect their future child-in-law to be in the same industry as their child, for example a doctor with another doctor, a lawyer with another lawyer, and so on. And yet another high priority in a match is wealth.
When Fei Long walks in to Lee’s office, two moms and one grandma are already there, chatting and waiting to be served. One mom is from Shanghai; she came in to put some pressure on Lee to find her 29-year-old daughter a reliable man.
“I would let my daughter marry a fifty-year-old as long as he’s rich,” says Qin Shi, the Shanghainese mom with short hair and a big leather handbag in her hand. “As long as he’s rich, height doesn’t matter. My daughter can get rid of all her high heels for a rich man.”
Shi has been eagerly looking for a husband for her daughter 28-year-old daughter Xiaoyue Ma for five years, but hasn’t found the right man. Ma, who works in a pharmacy in Flushing, is unwilling to date those old rich men introduced by Lee, saying she’s hoping for romance with someone attractive.
This mother, like many others, is motivated by the fear of wan hun, meaning “late marriage,” or “delayed marriage,” describing people who aren’t married by their early twenties. To avoid wan hun, parents come to Lee, hoping that she can find someone who’s able to meet all their requirements quickly. If too much time passes, they may lower their standards for height, age, or attractiveness of a match, sometimes even settling on the last requirement they’ll give up: wealth.
“The alarm is ringing for these people,” Lee says.
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Interviews were conducted in Mandarin. All quotes were translated by the author from Mandarin.