What it's like to rent a boyfriend in China1

Single women in China are under such intense pressure to find a mate that some are resorting to renting “boyfriends” online to accompany them on dates and trips to see their families.

On Taobao, China’s biggest online marketplace, women can choose from hundreds of temporary companions and reserve them for hours or days at a time by paying a deposit.

Melanie Lee, a news blogger for Alibaba — which owns Taobao — recently decided to give the service a try, and she shared her experience via email with Business Insider.

After scanning her options online, Lee said she paid 1,500 yuan ($264) for her day-long date. During the outing, her hired boyfriend told her all about his odd clients — who have apparently included “gangsters” looking for someone “harmless” to entertain their mistresses.

His price, “which is more than the average monthly income for a Chinese family, would buy his undivided attention for a day,” she said. “Kissing, hand-holding, and other dodgy physical contact not included.”

They decided to meet at the Hangzhou East Railway Station, and Lee said she initially feared he might be a serial killer.

Here’s a photo of the first meeting. Lee has covered his face to protect his privacy:

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“He said he was tall, university-educated and good with parents, but I couldn’t help but wonder how presentable he would be,” Lee said. “I was nervous. After I spotted him and we chatted for a minute, I could see how parents might like him. He was unassuming and average-looking. To me he looked like he could be the world’s nicest guy, or canniest serial killer.”

Lee had arranged for a daylong tour of the city of Hangzhou. Inside a taxi, “we sat as far apart as possible as I hadn’t quite let go of the serial-killer thought,” she said.

Here they are in the car:

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Then her date revealed a bit about his life as a hired boyfriend. She didn’t tell us his name to protect his privacy.

“My date (we’ll call him Zhang) is nearly 30,” she said. “He tells me he is usually hired by older single women to ward off the merciless harangues of family. Sometimes, he stands in for actual boyfriends, married guys or gangsters in need of someone harmless to look after their mistresses in their absence.”

Zhang said he’s usually briefed by clients a few days before a date on what kind of companion he should be.

“He could be a rich businessman from a coal mining town or a food delivery boy from Shanghai,” Lee said. “Either way, Zhang said the most important thing was to make the character believable.”

Here they are on a boat tour:

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Lee said she expected Zhang to be charming, but described him as “diffident” and “detached.”

“He told me he entered China’s lifestyle services industry because the job pays the bills, requires little skill and allows him to travel on someone else’s dime — an explanation little different from that of the average drug mule.”

After the boat ride, Zhang displayed some brief intimacy by putting his arm around Lee for this photo:

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After lunch, the “couple” headed to Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist temple located in the tea fields of Longjin Village.

There, he explained some of the disadvantages of being a bachelor in a country with a predominantly male population.

“Men are expected to have a lot of money before they start the search for a wife and women face a lot of pressure to get married young,” Zhang said, according to Lee. “If you are like me, nearly 30 with not a lot of money, your chances to marry soon are low.”

“I began to wonder if he was expecting a big tip,” remarked Lee.

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About four hours into the excursion, Lee said conversation stalled and they began texting friends, “just like a real date.”

But he eventually opened up about his dating history over an ice cream chocolate fondue, Lee said.

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He said his only serious relationship ended after he lost his savings in the Shanghai stock market and he’s not expecting to find anyone to date in his current job. None of his clients would take him seriously because of his social status, he said.

Shortly thereafter, the date ended on Heng Feng Street in Hangzhou.

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“It’s here that I paid Zhang for his time and we parted,” Lee said. “He counted the money methodically and wished me a good life in a businesslike manner. Zhang wasn’t too charming or chatty on this date but he has provided me insight into the broad pressures facing young Chinese people as they search for love whilst juggling immense familial and societal pressure. I wished him all the best and told him I hoped he found love soon.”

Here they are parting ways:

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