When clients first meet Dou Baojun, he offers them a cup of tea, then peppers them with questions in Mandarin: What are you looking for in a match? What are your expectations for height? Income? Education?
The 63-year-old writes the answers on a piece of paper, attaches the client's photograph, then places it inside one of two binders – one for men and another for women. His office on Spadina Avenue in Toronto's Chinatown (which also doubles as his wife's makeup studio) is where he has run his business, Ai qi dian (Love Beginning), for the past two years. There, on the second floor, next to a hair salon and a massage parlour, he helps single men and women – many of them new immigrants from China – find a husband or wife.
Most of his clients are between the ages of 40 and 60, he says, many of them having divorced after arriving in Canada. "Many couples in China live not for themselves, but for their children – it's just living together, not loving together," he said in Mandarin. But once they come to Canada, and many of them become empty nesters, he says, the relationship changes. "It's a different culture, different environment. They change their ideas."
For newcomers, obstacles such as language barriers, cultural differences or the lack of a social network can make it hard to find a match. Mainstream methods such as online dating cast too wide a net for their specific needs. As Canada becomes increasingly comprised of immigrants – this month's Statistics Canada National Household Survey showed that a fifth of Canadians are foreign-born – more and more businesses like Mr. Dou's are bound to pop up. A 2006 Statscan report showed that nearly 29 per cent of adult permanent residents are single and another 3 per cent are divorced or widowed. And since many of these newcomers come from places with vastly different ideas of marriage – where dating or choosing one's own spouse are not customary – outside intervention is often necessary.
So they come to Mr. Dou, whose low-tech, personal approach is a nod to the traditional matchmaking of his childhood in China. Working as a cook in Jilin province, Mr. Dou was surrounded by young people and would introduce ones he thought might make a good couple. "It brought me happiness," he said. So he decided to start a matchmaking business when he came to Canada. "According to Chinese culture, it's a good thing to bring together lovers. When I bring together a couple, it also brings me luck and happiness."
Queenie Choo, CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S., an agency that helps newcomers to Canada, says social isolation is a problem among new immigrants, making regular social interaction, much less dating, difficult.
"If people don't have jobs, or if they come in as retirees, their opportunity to expose themselves to a social circle is lessened," she said. "They may be shut in if they don't have the language skills – even social interaction at the mall, they may not be able to do that."
David Li, a friend of Mr. Dou's, knows first hand how difficult it can be for new immigrants to find a partner. Mr. Li moved to Canada from Beijing in 2011, five years after his wife died in a car accident. He speaks English – an advantage – but still finds it hard to adjust to Canadian dating culture.
"Chinese people are very focused on family. They want to settle down, have a house and live a peaceful life," Mr. Li said. "Here, people are much more independent" and not always as marriage-minded. These days, the 50-year-old has a girlfriend in Beijing, but her parents are against them marrying. She's 30, he says, and they consider him too old for their daughter.
Anita Ram-Sharma runs a "marriage-minded" matchmaking service in Surrey, B.C., targeted toward South Asians. Many of her clients – especially first-generation immigrants in their 20s – are given an ultimatum by their parents, she says: Either fly to India for an arranged marriage or find someone on their own – but quickly. Many South Asian children, though, are forbidden to date until they finish their schooling, she adds.
"Suddenly the parents say, 'Do you have somebody?' And the kid's like, 'What do you mean? You told me I couldn't date,' " she said. Both Ms. Ram-Sharma and Mr. Dou accept customers from all backgrounds, but their clientele comes predominantly from within their respective cultures.
Another reason clients come to her, Ms. Ram-Sharma says, is out of fear that by meeting someone "back home," they could fall victim to marriage fraud – something Mr. Dou says he's heard of, too.
In addition to arranging one-on-one meetings, Mr. Dou also holds events so clients can meet in an informal setting. On a recent evening, about 15 of them gathered for a potluck at his Toronto office. After dinner, the group sang karaoke off a big-screen TV, sitting on red folding chairs arranged around the room. And though the office, with its scuffed linoleum floors and potted plastic plants, may not seem like the most romantic of settings, by the end of the night at least one new couple – a doctor in his 30s and a University of Toronto graduate in her 20s – had formed.
If and when a couple does decide to marry, Mr. Dou's company makes all the arrangements, from planning the wedding and hiring a lawyer to doing the bride's makeup. For his services, Mr. Dou charges $400 – but only half of it is due when the client first signs up.
"The second half," he said, grinning, "is paid after the wedding."