Make me a match: Can love be arranged?
Kang was offended by the gossip.
“My heart is torn apart by the ridiculous rumor,” she said, denying that she introduced entertainment stars to leading political and financial people in return for large sums of money.
Kang’s angry response is no surprise. In Korea the term Madame Ttu carries a negative connotation, sometimes referring to a procuress or a panderer.
“It was illegal for Madame Ttus to match couples,” said Cha Il-ho, head of the Bangbae Matrimonial Agency in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul. Professional but unlicensed Madame Ttus were arrested by local police officers.
A typical 1970s Madame Ttu was in her late 70s to early 80s. To establish relations with young professional gentlemen or top graduates of prestigious universities, Madame Ttus contrived to be hospitalized to meet doctors or wandered around law firm canteens to meet lawyers. To get their hands on eligible ladies’ personal profile books, Madame Ttus secretly waited in front of women’s universities or beauty salons.
Park Yun-jung, 39, now married with kids, recalled how she received secret phone calls from several Madame Ttus with matchmaking intentions.
“They probably saw my picture and got my phone number from the school’s graduation album,” Park said. Though she was looking for someone to marry, she didn’t respond to the phone calls because the matchmaking lady asked for too much money.
Not only Madame Ttus are involved in matchmaking. In the past in Korea, most young people were brought together by matchmakers, usually old women in their villages. According to Cha, families and relatives also introduced friends and colleagues to their sons and daughters.
Even if a man and a woman had no love for each other, they sometimes agreed to marry since it was a sign of good education in Confucian moral standards.
“Fortune-tellers gave their stamp of approval to proposed marriages,” said Cha.
Using the year, month, day and hour of birth, fortune-tellers foretold future happiness and whether a couple was compatible.
Though times have changed with modernization and Western influence, traditional matchmaking culture in Korea still persists, though in different, legal forms. Unlike Madame Ttus who tied upper-class knots using their own intuition, modern-day matchmaking agencies pursue a more systematic and well-organized approach.
Kim Soo-jeong, a manager at Duo, the largest Korean dating agency, said Madame Ttus sometimes were deceptive when it came to personal information.
“Madame Ttus are an outdated form of matchmaking culture,” Kim said. “In a fast-paced and information-oriented society, singles prefer a professional agency with reliable data.”
A lawyer who asked not to be identified said: “A Madame Ttu introduced me to a marriage-aged girl whom I thought was a single. But during the course of dating, I found out that she had been divorced.”
Said Kim: “We [Duo] confirm members’ personal data beforehand by obtaining a copy of their family register, educational and work certificates.” That way, trust is built.
Cha’s Bangbae Matrimonial Agency also makes sure that members’ profiles are trustworthy.
There are two types of matchmaking agencies in Korea: a traditional matrimonial agency and a dating agency aiming to strike a successful match, leading to marriage. Matrimonial agencies receive fees if the match leads to marriage. Dating agencies, on the other hand, receive a certain amount of money based on the number of blind dates provided.
According to the Fair Trade Commission, there are 1,400 matchmaking agencies in Korea, including 300 members of the Matrimonial Counselor Association.
The matchmaking industry has grown into a 50 billion- won ($54,495,913) business as of last year, with a growth of 20 percent since the 1990s.
Cha, however, is cynical about the booming matchmaking industry.
“Service by many independent traditional matchmaking agencies [non-members of the matrimonial association] is inconsistent ― they create a bad reputation for the whole industry.”
When Cha first opened his matrimonial agency in 1983, only those with proper credentials ― such as ministers, retired school principals or public officials - were allowed to manage an agency. But starting in 1999, the law was relaxed.
“Now, even an ex-convict or an illegal Madame Ttu can run their own matchmaking business,” Cha said. Due to unreliable agencies, some arranged marriages end up in divorce, says Cha. In order to weed out corrupt agencies, Cha hopes the law is repealed.
Recently, dating agencies have been caught violating public regulations. The Fair Trade Commission announced early this month that four corporate agencies ― Daks Club, Piery, HBCB and With You failed to protect customer rights.
A 26-year-old female client paid 3 million won to an agency with the understanding that she would receive seven arranged meetings within a year. At the first meeting, however, she found the partner didn’t meet any of the conditions she asked for, and she decided to cancel her membership. But she was refunded only 1 million won.
“Matrimonial and dating agencies must be more conscientious,” Cha said.
Although Cha is skeptical whether he is arranging love, he has matched 3,500 couples during his 23-year career. Only 10 couples sought divorce.
“Marriage means creating a family, not by money, but by character,” Cha said. “Both the agency and the members must be sincere.”
Though some people are doubtful about the true success rate of matchmaking, singles who are occupied with work say it does save time.
Until a few years ago, Suh Suk-hyun, a 28-year-old company man, was critical of arranged meetings.
“Matchmaking services emphasize social background too much,” Suh said. “It’s artificial to give and take information beforehand.”
Now, however, he says there is no right or wrong way to meet a potential soul mate, and Suh feels modern-day matchmaking can work as long as personal data is kept confidential. “There is a reason why singles are willing to pay such high registration costs ― they do benefit,” Suh said.
Suh isn’t registered in an agency yet but is willing to do so in the long run.
Park So-yeon, another salaried worker who registered with a Christian matchmaking agency in January, was discouraged after several arranged meetings.
“I found myself looking for better partner conditions,” she said, emphasizing that conditional marriages often end in a divorce.
“Marriage is a combination of love and character,” she said.
Though Suh still longs for a love-at-first-sight kind of relationship, he remains open to matchmaking.
“How you live the rest of your life is much more important than how you meet a person,” Suh said.
Kim from Duo agrees.
“The right conditions are the groundwork of a happy marriage,” she said.
According to the National Statistical Office, 21.2 percent of the Seoul population in 2002 said that marriage is a must. Last year, the number grew to 25.7 percent. In 2002, a total of 306,573 couples married while 332,752 couples tied the knot in 2006.
By Lee Eun-joo Contributing Writer