A Celebration for the Single & Married Alike

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Singles Day

Super skeptics label it as a form of commercialism on steroids that has lost all hint of its true roots in contemporary Chinese culture. Inescapable for the month leading up to the celebration itself, the airwaves and Internet saturated with advertising, for many this is a hypocritical time as unbearable as Christmas to Groucho. We hereby welcome the annual festival formerly known as Singles Day, now the Double 11 Shopping Festival.

Now, everyone loves a bargain; Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Boxing Day etc., but China’s Singles Day is something else, and it comes down to the cost of living.

While the Chinese have witnessed an extraordinary leap in commodity price and living cost, the growth of personal income is hardly palpable. Online data released by Zhaopin, a leading recruitment website, shows that the average salary per month among 32 major cities in China stands at ¥6,070; whereas a family dinner at a nondescript restaurant can top ¥2,000 with ease. Such an imbalanced ratio between spending and earning drives a throng of Chinese shoppers online for this hysteric, nationwide shopping spree.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it is worth remembering that this annual mega event is all Nanjing’s fault. Starting as a sort of “anti-Valentines Day” in the 1990s, students at Nanjing University threw a party to celebrate their single status and called it “Bachelors’ Day.” The idea spread across the country and gained popularity, with its name later changed to “Guanggunjie”, referring to “bare branches” or bachelors. It may sound odd, but in the years to follow, the almost exclusively male singletons would celebrate with exchanges of small gifts while taking each other to dinner, perhaps to make up for the pain caused by yet another traumatic Valentine’s Day.

Then the entrepreneurs took notice. Seeing many looking to use Single Day as a platform to escape their state of singledom, they were quick to turn the holiday’s connotations to their advantage, by organising “blind dates” and “single parties”, en masse.

More recently, in 2014, before the savvy e-commerce marketeers really sunk their teeth in, some Nanjingers celebrated Singles’ Day in quite an unusual fashion. A group of young people took to the streets in summer wear, holding placards that read, “Only you can decide your life”, and, “Pay tribute to singles”; a spectacle that attracted large crowds on a chilly autumn day.

All well and good, but time heals all wounds. Respondents to The Nanjinger office poll of 2018 were pretty much united in their response; “I don’t see what there is to celebrate about being single”.

So why not simply spend our way through it?

About the same time this magazine hits the shelves, we will also be seeing the headlines announcing the Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) for Singles’ Day 2018 to perhaps as much as US$50 plus billion.

Yes, Singles Day is a celebration of our love of shopping, retail and the economy, but the biggest, brightest spark in all the fireworks is our smartphones. More than 90 percent of Singles’ Day transactions are now done on the go. After all, by the time it takes a computer to boot up, our own frugality could well have have had a chance to kick in.

Whatever its GMV, the figure is largely irrelevant. With Alibaba, for example, only 20 percent of its income is derived from commissions. On the other hand, fully half of its revenue comes from luring would-be shoppers to click on an advertisement. 

Given this data, Singles’ Day may as well be renamed Advertising Day. A good clue is to be found in a comment by Alex Cheng, Baidu’s Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Baidu Search, speaking to Global Newswire after last year’s spendathon; “The active participation of merchants from a larger variety of industries such as beauty, food and beverage, education and housekeeping services during Singles’ Day was a win-win situation for Baidu, the merchants, consumers and e-commerce platforms”.

With the consumer almost an after thought, the true nature of Singles Day is mere marketing hype, designed to convince e-commerce vendors to invest in advertising, at the peril of being left behind, simply because everyone else is doing it. The herd mentality of the Chinese, in both consumer and merchant, is that which drives those national-GDP-like numbers preceded by a dollar sign.

It is at this point that we need spare a thought for our “kuaidi”, couriers or delivery guys, whichever term you prefer. Worked to death at this time of year, many a kuaidi resignation is submitted before the wave of deliveries hit, but those who stay know what they signed up for, after all. Indeed, the e-commerce craze has been a major boost to employment; many a young man would be out of work were it not for that e-bike and a ream of waybills. In addition, the industry itself has also wised up. As well as being a lot slicker these days, so too have the major courier firms invested heavily; for Singles’ Day this year, a fleet of almost 200 additional charted aircraft will be in use, delivering purchases across the land.

Increasingly, the rest of the world is joining the party. Last year, 40 percent of sellers during Double 11 were from outside of China. In the USA, for example, Yamibuy is a California-based, online retailer of Asian products that spends months preparing for their own 5-day-long Double 11 offer of great shopping deals, available from their website that is shockingly similar to Taobao, no doubt making those shoppers feel right at home.

A year ago, Taobao realised ¥1 billion in sales within the first 11 seconds of the day, while those for Alibaba reached the US$1 billion mark within an astounding 2 minutes, milestones which put money in a lot of pockets. Surely that in itself defines Singles’ Day as a celebration.

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Frank Hossack
Editor-in-chief and Music Critic, Frank Hossack, has been a radio host and producer for the past 34 years, the past 25 of which working in media in China, in the process winning four New York Festivals awards for his work, in the categories Best Top 40 Format, Best Editing, Best Director and Best Culture & The Arts. 贺福是我们杂志的编辑和音乐评论员,在过去的34年里一直从事电台主持和电台制片的工作。在中国有近25年的媒体工作经验。工作期间他曾经四次获得过纽约传媒艺术节大奖,分别是世界前40强节目奖,最佳编辑奖,最佳导演奖以及最佳文化艺术奖。