Mo, a diminutive 20 year-old dressed in a mildly ludicrous flowery jacket, boy band hat and shiny white boots with faux-gold straps, fixes his a stare on his quarry. She steps onto the shopping mall escalator and taps her phone as he silently follows her, 16 stairs behind. They disappear from view just after he makes contact near the top of the steps.
Three minutes later he’s back, a touch deflated but laughing. “I just said, ‘Hi, I’m Mo, I’d like to meet you, you’re lovely’,” he says. “But she just wasn’t interested: ‘Bye!’.” Then he sees another pretty girl browsing Prada sunglasses in a shop window, and he’s gone again.
Mo is a student of Kong Feng, the 32 year-old Beijing-based professional pick-up artist (Feng he says he’s also happy with “dating expert” or “attracting artist”) who founded the PUA Space school two years ago. He was inspired by noticing a growing demand on internet forums for advice about how to meet and interact with girls in China, the 1.3 billion population of which has a 108:100 man to woman ratio and a much-written about ‘singles crisis’. He usually has five or six other full-time pick-up artists on the company’s books.
Hiring a guru such as Feng is far from the only way young men in China have moved to address the killer combo of a gender imbalance and a culture that tends to look unkindly on casual dating. Enormous ‘singles conventions’ take place regularly across the country. These feature thousands of 20-somethings, often accompanied by parents concerned their offspring will end up left on the shelf in their dreaded late-20s, being ferried around exhibition centres in the hope of a match.
Imagine the boozy shag-fest these conventions would turn into if they were held in the UK. I reported from one in Shanghai last year and it was far from that; it was full of meek, socially awkward guys getting tips from on-site psychologists about how to treat women. Normal guys who needed help, perhaps in the form of a fun, young guy like Feng rather than an older professional psychologist.
Today Feng meets me at Beijing’s enormous high-end Joy City shopping mall along with four of his students to show off the skills they’ve learned. He offers seven, 15 and 30-day day courses priced at the equivalent of £830, £1,050 and £1,470 respectively as well as online courses for £130.
Courses involve both classroom lessons and field trips to malls such as the one we’re in today and nightclubs. The box fresh designer clothes the students wear underline that they are aimed firmly at China’s moneyed middle classes, and also that style is the first step in Feng’s process.
“On the first day of the courses we change and enhance the boy’s appearance and style,” Feng says. “People who major in technical and engineering courses are my target audience. These are people who stay indoors and don’t care about haircuts or appearances. Then after the style is sorted, we can teach them how to take great pictures for dating websites.”
Today Feng and his disciples resemble The X Factor contestants, with their slick black trousers, designer bomber jackets and gaudy metallic boots. “My style has changed a lot since I did the course,” says student William, decked out in an American Football-style sweater and brown Nike trainers. “Now, I’m a fashionable guy!”
Western pick-up classes tend to feature manipulative tricks (such as ‘negging’: making small insults to undermine a woman’s confidence and make her vulnerable) but the advice on offer here is far less complex. Although China is increasingly embracing western-style commercialism, society is, on the whole, still more conservative. Breezy US-style dating culture hasn’t been imported alongside the Burger Kings and Starbucks.
Feng’s courses are about building general confidence rather than memorising tricks to fool girls into having sex. “Many boys I teach have absolutely no experience in dating,” he says. “I simply teach them how to talk to them, from the first sentence to the second and so on.”
Feng does admit that he bases some of his classes on The Mystery Method: How To Get Beautiful Women Into Bed, an anonymously written 2007 pick-up manual. “It tells about the procedure from being strangers to acquaintances then even to close lovers,” he says.
But in the main his advice seems painfully obvious and more about making students more generally sociable than getting laid. “I teach about body language,” he says, moving himself around one of his students assertively to demonstrate. “Which angles to stand at, how to invite girls into your personal space to share a drink. I tell them to see something like a girl’s hat and use it as a start point for communication.”
£1,470 might seem a lot to pay to have a guy tell you that the way to a girl’s heart is to say she has a nice hat. But it is this sort of basic confidence-building that his students say they have found most useful, and that is addressing a genuine need in China. Much of the confidence comes from being part of the pick-up class friendship network, plus Feng offers services such as advice group chat on WeChat, China’s hugely popular messaging app.
Feng is keen to distance himself from unscrupulous western-style pick-up artists. The profession is currently under fire after the rise to prominence of Julien Blanc, the US-based pick-up guru who was banned from entering the UK and Singapore after video of him grabbing Japanese women on the street in Tokyo emerged. Blanc has made a fortune dispensing advice around the world to crowds thousands strong.
“I agree that pick-up artists can be bad,” says Feng, who claims that he has never heard of Blanc. “There are people doing things badly in the industry, but I am an exception. I’m teaching people to be more excellent, to expand their social circle. This might lead to them get good jobs and to be more stable, to not have to rely on people. Plus I tell all my students not to cheat on people and about the dangers of things like drugs and Aids.”
“I just want to be a more charming and attractive man,” says William, a softly-spoken, friendly guy who couldn’t be further from the western stereotype of the ape-ish PUA street groper. “Americans and English people are more willing to approach girls because they don’t have so much pressure, but due to our traditional culture we are more conservative and have pressure. For me this is all about building confidence.”
But confidence is one thing none of the students seem to be lacking as we head further into the mall from our coffee shop meeting point. Feng has clearly invited his star students along to show off today and promote him but still, their utter lack of embarrassment is impressive. They scrub up well and have immaculately-sculpted haircuts, but none of them will be doing any modeling soon.
After Mo gets shot down by the girl he follows on the escalator William struts towards a pretty girl eyeing up a designer handbag display. He returns less than a minute later with a grin and a new contact in his iPhone. “I just said, ‘I want to meet you, you look really interesting, can I have your WeChat details please?’” he says.
Louis, a bespectacled student and the quietest of the group, follows Wiliam’s lead and uses the same technique on a girl in a large white coat. He doesn’t get more than a few seconds of chat, but does get her WeChat.
Feng and the boys move up the mall on escalators. Then Mo reverses his fortunes so far by zipping off towards a lone shopper and chatting to her for a full five minutes before returning, arms aloft in celebration.
It is Feng, though, who really shows how it’s done, sidling up to a stunning woman carrying designer shopping bags and having her creased over in laughter within a minute. He doesn’t return for another 15 minutes when, aptly, ‘Celebration’ by Kool & The Gang begins blaring on the mall speakers.
Having just traded contact details with the girl Feng forms the group into a semi-circle and explains the importance of exchanging WeChat information. The app has a ‘moments’ feature similar to Twitter that allows you to post picture and message updates viewable by all your contacts.
“After she accepts your friend request you need to update your moments to show you’re interesting,” Feng says as the students nod. “Show off your funny side and your life – these WeChat moments display a man’s philosophy and attitudes – it’s you entirely. Girls will see all this!”
The group moves onwards and more WeChat contacts are garnered as their confidence levels rise further. William crashes and burns when dispatched to talk to a girl sat on a café on her own taking selfies with a huge stuffed koala bear toy, but minutes later he and Mo chat with two beautiful girls for ten minutes before details are exchanged. It all seems quite sweet and fun, rather than anything sinister.
Mo and William’s moment of teamwork success seems a suitably high point to leave the troupe on, so I say my goodbyes after asking Feng about his own relationship status. “I have a girlfriend,” he says, adding that he had picked up “maybe about 100” girls’ contact details by cold approaches before he settled down. “She had a low opinion of what I do for a living at the beginning, but I told her that I am just helping people who are seeking love.”
And with that they all head back down the escalator. All, that is, except for Mo, who has spotted another stunner and has scooted off to try to meet her. “Seeking love”, no doubt.