'Mr. Right' for rent in China
BEIJING, China - Selling a kiss online, accompanying a stranger overnight for a fee -- none of the "rent a boyfriend" services popping up on some Chinese websites sound at all family-friendly.
Yet the budding market aims to help young singles address the most traditional of values: respecting their elders, meeting their demand to find a mate and bringing him home for the country's biggest holiday, the Lunar New Year.
The extreme measure reflects the extraordinary pressure that some young Chinese -- especially women -- feel, burdened by family expectations and battered by the vicissitudes of modern love.
"Not getting any younger and still dreading facing the nagging parents?" read one advertisement. "Need a boyfriend to face the family?"
"Your parents worked so hard to raise you, bringing a boyfriend home is the best way to repay them," promised another.
More than 300 results appeared on the popular shopping website Taobao.com to rent a pretend partner ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, known as the world's largest annual human migration, which falls on February 10 this year.
"Young people both want to go home yet are afraid to go home," said Meng Guangyong, 29, who is from Guizhou province in the far south-west but lives in Beijing, where he operates a boyfriend-broker business online and is also renting himself out.
"If they haven't found a partner yet, when they go home parents will nag them or send them on blind dates or find someone to introduce them to people," he said.
"Then even though all you wanted was to enjoy a happy new year, in the end nobody in the family is happy."
Yet for young people like Meng, fending off the parents once a year is the easy part, as finding a spouse in China has grown notoriously difficult.
Monumental urbanisation has seen more people moving around, living among strangers and working long hours, fracturing the social networks of smaller, more stable hometowns.
And as the economy has boomed over the past few decades so too have material expectations, not least in marriage, said Hu Xingdou, an economist and social commentator at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
Men increasingly find themselves priced out of the marriage market by the sky-high cost of the most desirable asset they are expected to bring to the table, a house, not to mention a car and good job.
Meanwhile women's marriage stock plummets after the relatively young age of 27 -- when they become known as shengnu, or "leftover women", a social stigma that is now mainstream parlance.
Parents still expect children to settle down at a reasonable age, Hu said, so that sons can produce grandsons who continue the family line and daughters can avoid becoming old -- 28-year-old -- maids.
"It's not like in the West where the individual is very independent, and their love life has nothing to do with their parents," he said. "China cares more about the family point of view. Parents must be made happy."
At the same time, he added, in recent decades "marriage in China has really begun to look like a business transaction".
Hu cautiously endorsed the rental boyfriends solution as "it makes the parents feel better".
But as with other business deals, terms and conditions apply -- so many that finding a fake Mr Right can seem nearly as complicated as settling on a real one.
The menu one fake boyfriend offered online was exhaustive. Chatting: 30 yuan ($5) an hour. Eating a meal, bill paid by renter: 50 yuan an hour. Chatting with elders: free. The package for a whole day: 1,000 yuan.
Holding hands, hugs and kisses are also common options, which one advertiser priced at 10, 20 and 500 yuan per display of affection.
Some ruled out anything more intimate while others left the door open -- although demanded the right to see health records on request.
Then came the guarantees for safety and payment. "I want money but I also want to stay alive," one rent-a-girlfriend exclaimed on her ad. She charged 15 yuan an hour to attend parties but insisted on "no unsafe places".
Meng said that brokering fake couples required a fair amount of back and forth -- with one female inquirer demanding a stand-in who would be tall, handsome and charming enough to make her ex-boyfriend back home jealous.
Once they have hashed out an agreement, Meng said he encourages pairs to meet and try to develop a rapport.
Perhaps the play-actors could not only hearten parents over Lunar New Year but also bring each other a little joy, he said, especially with Valentine's Day following four days later.
"If you rent yourself out or rent someone else to spend the holiday together and resolve that lonely feeling... you might not have that special someone but at least you have a pretend Valentine."
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