Make me a match

The ancient art of matchmaking is being revived in Korea, where more and more couples are finding that love just doesn't cut it; so they are returning to the old professionals for arranged marriages

By Ron Gluckman /Seoul, Pusan and Cheju Island, Korea

BONG-YONG KIM IS NERVOUS AS A NEWLYWED during our interview over dinner. I have come from Hong Kong to visit her hotel, and she is supposed to be focused on the new suites at the Hyatt Regency Seoul. Kim can neither concentrate on the hotel nor even the meal before her.

"Can you excuse me for a minute?" she queries, then vanishes in an elevator. The rooftop suites are not yet finished, and that worries Kim, director of hotel marketing communications. However, even more pressing concerns are lodged on the second floor.

Kim's oldest son and future bride are seated upstairs. Mama Kim only had a few minutes to meet her daughter-in-law before the interview began, so she leaves between courses to visit the couple. She wants to make sure relations are perfect. Not just between in-laws, but between the lovebirds themselves. This is their first meeting, too.

They are known in Korea as an arranged marriage. Or will be, if everything works out right.

"My son is so fussy," Kim confides, smoothing her napkin upon her return. "He is 28, at the age to be married. He doesn't want to go to the bars looking. That can lead to disaster, there's such a danger of finding the wrong woman."

So, Kim and her son have engaged the service of a matchmaker. This old-fashioned solution to the matrimonial blues is becoming a common modern reality in industrialized Korea. So common, in fact, that it is hard to visit a hotel that doesn't have at least a few honeymoon hobbyists among the staff in the arcade jewelry stores, boutiques or restaurants.

One part-time practitioner of the partnering trade estimates that more than half of all Korean marriages are arranged through matchmakers. He claims a dozen matches himself during his tenure in the military.

Nor is the arrangement limited to old-fashioned families. From the countryside to the cities, 20th century couples are increasingly inclined against leaving romance to chance. Even highly-educated ladies like a hotel executive at another luxury Seoul hotel is in the process of being paraded through third-party introductions.

The 25-year-old lady would seem to have more difficulty sorting through than soliciting proposals. She is a graduate of the best Korean university, multi-lingual and a professional with a high-paying job. She is also slim and athletic, an unusual beauty in a nation noted for it. Yet, she admits paying fees of 30,000 won just for introductions to marriage-minded men. Even when things progress no further than that first nervous shake of the hands, she can expect no refund.

The sums can be significant. Her current prospect is what is known as a choice candidate for coupling. If the meetings go well, her family will pay as much as two million won (US$2,700) just for initial introduction.

"I'm meeting him tonight," she says softly, admitting jitters, even though this is the 10th time she has had a blind date where so much lays in the balance. "This one is a doctor. His character is very similar to mine. He likes sports. I like sports, especially swimming. And we have many of the same hobbies, such as travel and love of music.

"He has money. That's important, but not too much to me. The way of thinking is the most important," she says. "I'm looking for a husband, not a friend."

However, desperate would be an inappropriate appraisal of her situation. "I'm old enough to marry," she says matter-of-factly, "but I'm in no rush." She has spent six months scrutinizing some candidates, only to spurn them in the end. It's time-consuming, she admits, yet still praises the process of arranged marriages.

"I meet good people, well educated, from nice families," she says. "This arrangement is very much accepted among young people. Yes, it's old-fashioned, but it doesn't matter if it's old-fashioned. The important thing is whether you approve and I do."

Mama Kim, who met her own husband at college and lived for years in the United States, concedes many some associates consider the arrangement highly archaic. "Some of my friends are so surprised when I tell them what I'm doing. They think I'm so westernized. But everyone is doing this, especially the young people.

"Before, Korea was becoming more western, more modern. But more and more young people these days are going back to the old ways," she says. "It's much better this way. You know beforehand about the family. Backgrounds are checked."

The vast majority of arranged marriages in Korea involve matches made by friends of the family. However, professionals abound and report a booming business in the matrimonial trade. The Seoul phone directory lists more than 50 such firms under the heading, "kyol honsangdam-so," or "marriage asking office."

Among the most famous of all the wedding brokers in Korea is Cha Il-ho, who runs Bangbae Marriage Counseling Center in Seoul. A career military man, Cha began matching fellow serviceman and found he had a knack for playing Cupid. Now he profits each time his arrows hit the heart.

Women can pay over one million won to start the wedding bells ringing. Men generally pay considerably less, sometimes nothing at all, except when matched to the VIP candidates, such as the former Miss Korea that Cha says he helped reel in. "The man paid that time," Cha chuckles, "and he paid a lot."

Dowries remain common in Korea, but have evolved considerably from the time when the groom merely presented the bride's mother with a wild goose, signifying a lifetime of future fidelity. Nowadays, debutantes doing the aisle shuffle usually jingle three keys: to a car, a house and the family business. Cha has had clients with dowries of 1.2 billion won (US$1.6 million), so few complain about his fees. Just to list with the service costs 70,000 won. The quality of the catch determines not only the dowry, but also the fees due Cha for facilitating the nuptials.

Cha began his marriage service by adding a clever catch to every contract. When Bangbae-matched couples tied the knot, they had to give the names of three friends in need of similar service. The referral system provided him with bulging files of single men and women, which are the vital tools of his trade.

Nowadays, everything is high tech, with Cupid's candidates all neatly compiled on computer discs. The forlorn with marriage on the mind can visit the office and browse through albums displaying photographs of prospective partners, along with vital statistics.

Cha keeps current files of 2,000 men and 2,000 women and claims that he can make matches within two weeks. He says he has brought over 1,000 couples together in his five years in business. He claims an astounding success rate of 80 percent, with nearly a third of the marriages following the first meeting.

His success, he says, stems from his skillful ranking of candidates in five categories: VIP, A, B, C and D. For men to qualify as VIPs, they must be graduates of one of the top three Korean universities, and employed as a lawyer, doctor or prosecutor. In addition, the family background of each must be impeccable and impressive.

Female VIPs must also come from important families and good colleges, but appearance is most crucial. Charges of chauvinism to the contrary, Cha readily admits: "The first thing a man sees in a woman is her physical appearance. Men prefer a pretty girl who is poor than an ugly one with a fortune."

As a result, women are rated most highly upon facial features. Cha employs a scoring system with the following percentages: face - 30; family - 25; age - 20; education - 15; and job -10.

For men, the percentages are almost reversed: job - 30; education - 25; height and looks -20; family - 15; age - 10.

Cha says the ideal age for prospective grooms is 28-30, while for brides its 24 or 25. Measuring the material for marriage is an exact science. For instance, he won't accept listings for men under 170 cm or women under 158 cm. The one exception is handicapped people, whom Cha says are matched free of charge.

Cha's service is unquestionably at the high end of the marriage market. At the other end are the joong-shin-ae-me, matchmakers more fitting the image found in "Fiddler on the Roof," old men or women who meet in smoke-filled cafes, promising ravishing beauties who, in reality, often have buck teeth, smell like fish, and are as old as the matchmakers themselves.

Perhaps that is why marriage-minded mothers like Kim prefer the discreet assistance of trusted friends. "Anyone can make matches," Kim says. "I have made 10 myself. You can go to the cafes and see women with big books. But they are only after your money. With friends, there is more trust."

Friends tend to be more sensitive to family concerns, such as background and compatibility. Plus, Kim says, the primary motivation of these neighborhood matchmakers isn't a fee, but a fairytale ending, as in, happily ever after.

However, parental considerations are far more pragmatic. For instance, Kim knows exactly the dream-like daughter-in-law she desires.

"She must come from a good family, of course. That's important to me," she says. "My son wants a pretty face, but all men do. The most important thing is she should be able to make her living in the United States.

"My son works in overseas sales for a large computer company," she explains, "and he is in Los Angeles most of the time, so his wife must be willing to live and work there." Discounting the possibility of an overseas seduction, she quickly adds: "My son is westernized. He was raised with us in Hawaii, but he doesn't want an American wife. He says that he's looking for the mother for his child. She must be Korean."

She excuses herself once again to check on her son's progress. Minutes later, she returns, smiling. "It seems to be going well. She's a cellist and wants to study in the States. So that makes good sense. And she's pretty. My son likes that."

A few days later, Kim gives a progress report. The prognosis isn't a marriage proposal, not yet anyway. However, the couple have agreed to meet again, and that is encouraging to Kim. "We'll see how it goes from there."

In the marriage business, patience is as much a virtue as the ability to swoop down on the superb candidate.

And Kim speaks from experience. Her daughter went through the same matchmaker. Ten days later she was engaged. A year later, the couple delivered Kim's first grandchild.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, roaming around Asia in search of good yarns. Different versions of this story appeared in Morning Calm, Discovery and the Toronto Globe and Mail. 

As a companion piece he visited Cheju, the honeymoon destination that has become Korea's Island of Love

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