Chinese Lunar New Year and Valentine's Day are only days apart this year, giving a boost to a new and booming business in China -- boyfriend rentals.
Taobao, China's popular shopping website, says that online searches for the term "rental boyfriend" have soared by 884 percent over the same period last year. A search for the Chinese characters of "rent-a-boyfriend" on Taobao.com produces more than 2,000 results, at a range of prices.
Those prices depend on what the customer wants. For instance, just going to a movie can cost 50 RMB (about $8) an hour, but that price doubles if it's a horror movie. Different rates apply for simple conversation, a dinner party, going out for drinks or meeting the parents.
One of those new rental services was created last fall by an entrepreneur who asked to be identified only as Mr. Gao. He got his inspiration from a newspaper ad that read, "Seeking to rent boyfriend/girlfriend, monthly salary 10,000 RMB and up." A quick flash went through his mind, inspiring him to expand his online flower business.
Renting out boyfriends and girlfriends is a new business in China. With the Chinese New Year approaching, the whole country has begun its massive annual migration, with millions of people struggling to get home. For the many young Chinese who work away from their hometowns, this is the one time of year when they can spend a week or two at home with their families. Besides visiting relatives and friends, it's also the perfect time to show what you have achieved in the past year. For many young people, that means bringing home a potential mate or spouse to introduce to your family.
Gao told ABC News that the market for rental boyfriends is much bigger than rental girlfriends. The pressure to get married weighs heavy on the shoulders of many Chinese women. Even state media refers to single women above age 27 as "leftover women." The 26th birthday of a daughter rings like an alarm bell for many anxious Chinese parents.
Gao owns two online stores selling flowers through Taobao.com. He has recruited nine young men between the ages of 26 and 32 who he considers suitably masculine to rent out as boyfriends.
Gao chose his candidates carefully based on several criteria. They must be reasonably good looking, at least 5-feet-6, well-behaved and willing to wear glasses, which some parents consider a sign of erudition. They had to have decent social skills and be able to get along with all sorts of could-be in-laws and relatives.
Gao says the proximity of Valentine's Day to Chinese Lunar New Year this year has given his business an added boost.
"There are many reasons why women pay for this service," Gao said. "Some are trying to make their boyfriends jealous. Some want to bring a boyfriend to attend their company's annual dinner party to show their bosses that they are settled and stable. The women who rent a boyfriend to bring home for the Lunar New Year are wealthy women around the age of 25. Their parents fear losing face and worry that no one wants to marry their old single daughters."
Gao's website lists the prices for a range of various services: a wakeup call goes for 9 RMB ($1.45) a day (cell phone charges extra). You can rent a boyfriend or girlfriend to accompany you shopping for 40 RMB ($6.42) an hour; going to parties, dinners or just chatting (pay by the day, or by the hour). The cost of renting a drinking partner depends on what you drink, with different rates for wine, beer and liquor. An all-inclusive package goes for 800 RMB ($128) a day. Handshakes, hugs and goodbye kisses on the cheeks or forehead are free of charge.
Gao's rental contracts even include a "no sex clause" for female customers. If the rental boyfriend makes unwelcome advances, the customer is eligible for a refund, and she can call the police if she likes. But if the customer makes an unwanted advance, Gao will not return the money.
And if love blossoms?
"If they both like each other and become real boyfriend and girlfriend," Gao said, "they need to give me a big red envelope full of cash for being their matchmaker."