The Lucrative Market of Singles Day Celebrations

Anti-Valentine's celebrations in the UK and US are frighteningly bland, but is copying Singles Day culture in China and South Korea the answer?

Feature by Kate Pasola | 02 Feb 2018
  • Valentines Day

It used to be uncool to show enthusiasm for corporate holidays – especially Valentine’s Day. Contemporary culture has dictated an unwritten rule specifying that if you’re part of a couple, you engage passively, eye-rollingly or ironically; if you’re single, you endure the day with enlightened contempt. End of unromantic story.

But that was then. Before the world looked like the cutting floor of a Charlie Brooker writing studio – a higgledy piggledy unpredictable land where, for example, ballistic missile threats are texted to entire islands by accident. Nowadays, in a post-hygge Britain, any glimmer of normalcy, annual regularity and intimacy is our touchstone. With torn fingernails and blue knuckles we cling to greetings card days, dangling in the apocalyptic winds. Hallowe’en! Mother’s Day! National Tequila Day! And OK, if we must, Valentine’s Day!

But 14 February, where does this leave single people? After a failure (or reluctance) to cuff a boo over the winter, should singles be expected to spin both the plates of existential terror and romantic solitude? Surely not. But where it used to be enough to order in a single burrito and frozen margarita to one’s sofa while re-binging Broad City (true story – V. Day 2017), these days surviving Valentine’s Day as a single person seems to require more. It needs community. It needs a day of acknowledgement in its own right. It needs a hashtag. Apparently.

Singles Awareness Day (AKA S.A.D.)

And if the above paragraph sounds unrealistic and reactionary, you obviously haven’t heard of Singles Awareness Day. I wish I was joking. As you’d imagine, everything about Singles Awareness Day is weak. The title, which reads like a charity wristband from 2006 is weak. The acronym S.A.D, insensitively yoinked from those suffering Seasonal Affective Disorder is weak. The prehistoric-looking website, which features every possible apostrophising of the term (Singles Awareness Day? Single’s Awareness Day? Singles’ Awareness Day?) is w-e-a-k. S.A.D. is to days of recognition as couscous is to potluck parties. Half-arsed, embarrassing and kind of an afterthought.

Sure, Amy Poehler tried her darndest to come to the rescue, coining “Galentine’s Day” on Parks and Recreation. And agreed, pouring out some Vinho Verde, screaming “EVERYTHING’S FINE” and furiously launching into a session of mutual validation to Lady Gaga’s Joanne sounds great and all. But that’s kind of an average Tuesday. Being a woman who dates isn’t just trash on Valentine’s Day, it’s trash most of the year too. We have systems and regimes in place for that already.

Rather than a magenta ceremony of friendship (which, again, great!), I specifically want to wallow, but fashionably. I want to be single, but part of something. I want to ironically mourn ghosts of Tinders past, wearing all-black in a state of melodrama like Lindsay Lohan on Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Preferably eating carbs. Is that too much to ask?

Black Day in South Korea

Well, I’m glad I asked. Turns out that’s not too much to ask if you’re in South Korea. They invented the goddamn best day in the world, Black Day, observed annually on 14 April. But in order to understand the beauty of Black Day, we need to go back in time. Like all reactionary single-person celebratory days, South Korea’s Black Day also began with Valentine’s celebrations. Following Japanese custom, on Valentine’s Day in South Korea and many other neighboring countries, it’s down to the women to get the ball thoroughly rolling by giving out chocolates to their local hotties.

For the record, South Korea’s varying stratifications of chocolates for different recipients is fascinating in itself, with lower-ranking giri-choco (courtesy chocolate) being given obligatorily to friends, acquaintances and colleagues; and fancier honmei-choco (love chocolate) reserved for the real subject of their affections. Also, it goes without saying that this all sounds pretty hetero- and cis-normative, but what’s new?

One month later, on “White Day”, it is traditional for men reciprocate these offerings with chocolate and gifts – kind of like an IRL Tinder swipe, but with more toothache and fewer scrotal photoshoots. This time, however, they triple the value of the initial offering.

Then, on 14 April, singles who didn’t receive chocolate or reciprocal gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day have their time to shine. It’s Black Day, baby. They commune, donning moody garms and eating a dish called Jajangmyeon, of which the main components are noodles in an ink-black sauce. They gather specifically to commiserate, to complain about their dry DMs and to wallow, if just for a day.

It’s such a brilliant (*cough* marketable) idea that trend forecasters and economists already predict it’ll catch on in the rest of Asia, perhaps beyond, underscored by a global obsession with South Korean pop culture and food.

Singles Day in China

China’s own Singles Day, celebrated on 11 Nov (11/11 – because you’re alone, remember?), already has broken into the international market. It began in 1993 at Nanjing Uni, and the name of the holiday ‘ 光棍节’ translates directly as ‘Bachelors Day’. Yes, I side-eyed too, but these days the holiday is celebrated by singles of all genders across China. Sort of like a mix of St Patrick’s Day and Cyber Monday, single people spend the day shopping, partying, eating and generally smashing up their overdrafts.

If you’re thinking “wow, this all sounds pretty convenient for corporations whose profits rely on emotion-based impulse marketing!” you’d be right. Let’s crunch the numbs. Online marketplace Alibaba has trademarked the term ‘Double 11’, and every year broadcasts a Comic Relief-style countdown gala to drive sales. In 2017, shoppers in China spent $25.3 billion at Alibaba alone. To put that figure into perspective, Alibaba made more on Singles Day than the whole US’s 2016 Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales combined – a paltry $6.79 billion.

What’s more, thanks to the internet and globalisation, many people in Southeast Asian countries (and, strangely, Belgium) now observe the festival too. It’s shaping up to be the world’s largest and most lucrative shopping festival, meaning businesses who trade internationally are likely to expand their efforts into places like the United States and Europe.

Now, call me contrary, but this seems to be getting a little out of hand. A comforting, wholesome day for singles sounded great. A global mass-consumption drive operating under the auspices of empowerment, benefitting nobody but retailers? That’s a hard pass, lads.

We’re already far too keen to nick cultural and spiritual practices from other places for the sake of a day’s entertainment. Between the likes of Dia de los Muertos ‘Mexican piss-ups’ or Holi-inspired ‘colour battles’, brands and promoters feel entitled to mine the spiritual and cultural gold from other races and cultures without considering the consequences. And sure, you might argue that a shopping festival like Singles Day isn’t tethered to spirituality or racial history, but allowing brands and companies to set the standard of what’s fair game for ‘cultural exchange’ is surely a recipe for disaster, right? Plus – my god – the poor, poor plasticky ocean.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that neither capitalism nor cultural appropriation should be the answer to the UK’s horrifically bland Singles Day fare. Being single in a world that overstates the importance of coupledom is sometimes a total fucking bummer, but stolen culture or flash sales won't solve the problem. At best, we can hope to follow the lead of countries like South Korea who’ve tailored a day around empathy, eating and cathartic melodrama. But until we come up with a comprehensive cultural blueprint for a day of our own, we’re stuck with S.A.D. We made this basic-ass bed, and now we must lie in it.