There were no tables to be found anywhere but a friend called a restaurant in a shopping mall around the corner and they assured her that if I showed up early, something would turn up. Mealtimes are early in Beijing, with lunch from 11.30am and dinner around 6.30pm, but when I arrived shortly before 6, the manager denied everything my friend had told me.
“We didn’t say that. We couldn’t have said that,” he said, looking around at the tables strewn with rose petals, each bearing a personalised reserved sign with a couple’s names on it.
It was Valentine’s Day and most places were offering only a special set menu with numerous courses but he said the Spanish restaurant a few doors down might take me in. They did and I slid in behind a narrow table for two between a pair of couples and waited for my companion, who arrived an hour later.
Valentine’s Day has become an established part of the commercial calendar in China over the past decade and after three years of zero-Covid, everyone seemed to be in the mood to mark it this year. The problem for many was finding someone to celebrate with.
On the corner near my apartment, in front of the little park where the pensioners play ping pong and card games during the day, young men were selling bouquets of battery-powered roses. But few among my friends were lucky enough to receive one of them.
Ignoring the pitying looks from the couples next to me and the anxious faces of the staff, I messaged my friend who had called the restaurant to tell her what she had let me in for. She replied with a picture of an empty gym, telling me she was the only person there.
When we met the following day, she told me that while she was on the treadmill, one of the trainers had approached her with a gentle word.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just go home,” he said.
Back home and feeling sorry for herself, she asked a female friend if she wanted to meet, and the woman snapped up the offer. Unable to get into a restaurant, they went to an expensive cocktail bar, where they had a terrible time.
“We had one cocktail each. Mine tasted like barbecue sauce and hers was like perfume. We couldn’t drink them,” she said.
The two big romantic films released across China on Tuesday, Sadness without Tears and Can’t Leave Me, took in less at the box office than their equivalents in recent years. But the appetite for ardour is undiminished, and a survey published on Valentine’s Day found that most unmarried people still believe in love – and the younger they are, the more they believe in it.
The survey reminded me of a young friend in Beijing who has countless admirers, none of whom are good enough for him
The trouble is that the more they believe in love, the more they expect from it, and the survey suggests that Chinese singles have strict requirements and plans for their prospective partners. Fitting in with their own life plan is the most important criterion for almost 60 per cent of those surveyed, with women more likely to have clear demands than men.
The survey reminded me of a young friend in Beijing who has countless admirers, none of whom are good enough for him. At home in the northeast of the country during the Chinese New Year holidays, he was sending out plaintive WeChat messages to all his friends declaring that all he wanted was a love that would never end.
These were usually accompanied by a song of heartbreaking pathos, often sung by Jacky Cheung, a crooner from Hong Kong now in his 60s who specialises in the soulful and sad. The messages were so anguished one evening that I got in touch to ask him if he was all right.
Back in Beijing a few weeks later, he was like a man transformed, plunging into his parallel passion of making money in the small, one-man business he runs. The business buoyed by the return of consumer spending after the end of the coronavirus restrictions, his WeChat messages were now all about special offers, discounts, bundles and packages.
On Tuesday night, he posted a picture of a gift bag from some luxury goods brand next to a soft toy holding a rose.
“Happy Valentine’s to myself,” it said.