Monica Siu has never been in a relationship.
The 23-year-old is not unattractive. In fact she is quite beautiful — quick to laugh, with long black hair that falls past her shoulders, and cheeks that flush pink easily.
But in high school, while “everyone else was dating and getting all those feelings,” Siu, the oldest of her siblings, was saddled with adult responsibilities because of problems at home.
So she didn’t flinch when her friend, Sandy Yu, invited her to take part in a matchmaking event at the New York Hall of Science in Queens on Wednesday. It was speed dating with a twist: The participants would meet their prospective partners with paper bags covering their faces.
“I was attracted to the pictures,” Yu says of the announcement for the event, which she saw on Elite Daily. The ad had pictures from a gathering in London: men and women chatting with decorated brown bags covering their heads. Her curiosity was piqued and she brought along her able wingwoman, Siu. “She’s one of my more adventurous and spontaneous friends,” Yu says. “When in doubt, invite Monica!”
Upon arrival, the two were given their paper bags and ushered into a room with the rest of the female participants. Men were sequestered in another room at the opposite end of the large hall.
Inside, Siu and Yu joined their peers in fiddling with markers, ribbons, tape, and scissors as they decorated their bags to reflect their personalities — leaving openings for their eyes and mouths.
Siu opted for a clownish motif, with a red “buggy” nose and orange curly hair. “I’m just making it along as I go,” she said. Soon she had added a stick man bungee-jumping off the side of the bag, a tiny red airplane trailing a green globe, a taco, a bowl of pot-noodle soup and “You Can Do It” scribbled in Chinese letters.
“You’ve got quite a lot going on there,” Yu said.
“I’m nervous,” Siu revealed as the ladies continued to wait. While there’s no pressure to keep up appearances at the eccentric affair, which doubles as a literal blind date, “there is pressure to keep the conversation going,” Siu said, wondering what she would say if one of her “dates” turns out to be interested in things she knows nothing about. “If it’s a finance person? I don’t know anything about finance. How do you keep the conversation going with a person like that since you don’t know the topic?”
The 30 women, who each paid $25 to attend, work hard at personalizing their bags under the glare of flashing cameras and questioning television reporters who have turned up at the event. When asked if they expect to walk away from it all with the one, they scoff. “If nothing else,” Yu said, “I want to meet new people.” Some ladies have made ambitious pieces out their bags, like the thirtysomething-year-old who included flaps that unveil fun facts such as visiting all 113 museums in NYC.
Nearly an hour into the event, the lights in the room are turned off for a brief presentation. Siu and the others watch a promo video of the event from its organizers, the developers of Loveflutter, a new app that showcases quirky facts about potential dates rather than their pictures. Words encapsulating the group’s ethos flash on the screen, “#SayNoToShallow,” “could you get a date with just your personality?” “Wit is sexier than looks.”
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychologist who has been consulting on the Loveflutter project for a year, masterminded those words. A business psychology professor at the University College of London and a visiting professor at Columbia University Teachers College, Chamorro-Premuzic has been doing extensive research on relationships and dating sites. His findings show that sites like Tinder are basic; they “gamify” dating. “They try to replicate encounters that come close to representing two drunken people in a bar,” he told the roomful of women after the clip.
“We try to leverage the science of compatibility,” he added. He acknowledged that dating in New York is unique, especially considering that there are more women in the city than men. “You have to compete for the guys.”
Loveflutter co-founders Daigo Smith and David Standen are hoping their new app will help women like Siu find what they want. They are hosting about 30 versions of the social experiment in different countries next year. The paper-bag speed dating mirrors their app and serves as an effective means of launching their product.
“For women who are struggling with dating,” says Standen, Loveflutter will “filter out all the shallow males and get you straight into [real] conversations.”
See also: Dear Single Women of NYC: It’s Not Them, It’s You.
After the presentation, Siu wrote excitedly on her bag. Her quirky fact had finally come to her: “Can’t drive, but I can ride an ostrich.”
Slipping on her paper bag Siu joined the other women being led into the big hall. They were seated at different tables according to the number they had been given — one to 30. The men — about 26 of them — would stroll in later from the other end of the hall.
A hostess screamed, “Start!” And the dating began.
Continue reading and view photos from the event on the following page.
Siu’s first date had “Compost Toilets, I like that shit” scrawled on his bag, with white ribbons sticking out from its maw. They seemed to hit it off. Their “date” was marked by a high-five and a lot of laughter. He played with her illustrations with his pen.
Two minutes passed and the hostess called out again, “Switch!”
Siu and Compost Toilets shook hands before he moved on.
Her next date wore glasses that could be seen through the wide eye holes in the bag. He had doodled a clever Garfield illustration below his quip, “love at first spikes.” He touched Siu’s bag during their conversation.
The call to “switch!” echoed throughout the room after another two minutes passed. Siu and the man with the glasses shook hands. Siu jotted down notes on her dating scorecard.
This process continued for an hour. The New York men outshone their London counterparts, Loveflutter co-founder Smith revealed. They were “more outlandish in their designs,” he said. The guys were certainly more creative. Some brought along props ranging from Brooklyn Lager to small terrier-like dogs. One even performed Spider-Man stunts for Yu.
Once the women had met each of the men, it was time for the big reveal — or “de-bagging.”
Yu and Siu compared notes. Yu said she had about seven likes. Siu had three. “It was interesting, but short,” said Siu. Yu said there wasn’t enough time to get to know her dates, most of whom were preoccupied with the quirky fact she wrote on her bag: “Bought my first smartphone two months ago.” She said she did connect with one guy, a native New Yorker from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
All the scorecards — the organizers called them “tick sheets” — were returned to the hosts. In 48 hours, the Loveflutter team would connect participants with mutual likes. Yu hoped to be reunited with the man from Bensonhurst, whom she knew only by the slogan he wrote on his bag: “I don’t always drink beer but when I do I wear a bag on my face.”
Siu, on the other hand, had a lot of passes. “I just want a funny, smart guy that I can do random activities with,” she said. “I get to know people through talking. That’s what I find attractive.”