Pity the single women of China at lunar new year: they have a better education and more money and Fendi handbags than ever before. But what many really need is a boyfriend to take home for the holidays.
Sui Wei, 29, makes a living fulfilling those needs: he rents himself out as a boyfriend to help women reassure worried parents that their only child is on the path to matrimony (when often, she is not). And if that doesn’t work, he is even happy to act as a husband-for-hire: he once served as groom in a bogus wedding ceremony, which netted him Rmb40,000 ($6,600). It’s a good life, servicing the needs of Chinese spinsterhood.
These shengnv, or leftover women, are often an only child and bear the full weight of their parents’ desire for progeny. Parents, who retire early, expect their later years to be filled with raising the only grandchild before they are too old to do so.
Even the government is keen for the shengnv to wed, because sex-selective abortions in response to the one child policy have left China with 20m more men than women under the age of 30. But there’s a mismatch: men tend to marry below their social status and education, leaving a surplus of urban professional women faced with choosing a partner from a pool of less educated, less well-off men.
Mr Sui feels a certain sympathy for those who provide his livelihood. “I charge between Rmb1,000 and Rmb10,000 a day, to girls who are under pressure from their parents to bring a boyfriend home for family gatherings,” he says.
That pressure often peaks at lunar new year, the most important family holiday in the calendar. Worried parents do not drive his whole business though, says the tall, handsome and disarmingly boyish Mr Sui: some girls hire him as a date for Valentine’s day, others are just bored – and some even want sex (though that costs extra, between Rmb3,000 and Rmb20,000).
Fittingly for this ostensibly Communist country, payment rates vary according to the client’s ability to pay. “I charge a modest fee for ordinary office workers, and more for really rich women,” he explains.
There are regional variances in his line of work too. Shanghai girls drive the hardest bargain, and always insist on a discount. Beijing ladies know they are paying above the market average – and they demand above average services too. Clients from remote areas are the most generous.
Mr Sui advertises his services in the same marketplace where his dates buy all those handbags – Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay – as well as on matchmaking websites. In China, shoppers often quip that it is hard to think of anything that cannot be bought on Taobao – and at certain times of year, that includes hundreds of listings for boyfriend services to rent, be it joint internet surfing (Rmb10 an hour); hand-holding (Rmb5); or cuddles (Rmb10).
There are no official figures for the rent-a-beau industry, but demand has certainly risen, along with the age at which Chinese women marry. There are no consistent national statistics for that either, but Shanghai announced last year that the average age of brides had topped 30 for the first time.
This is all good news for Sui Wei: his official job as an actor earns him Rmb20,000 a month; his boyfriend rental business brings in Rmb70,000. But it does not quite erase the fleeting pangs of guilt.
Once he took a big wad of cash stuffed in a traditional red wedding envelope, from the mother of his fake bride. “I knew she and the father were expecting us to live happily ever after, but I knew we would be together for only one day,” he said.
But recently, Mr Sui fell in love – and that has put a real damper on his business, which he has put on hold temporarily while he figures out whether this one’s for real. “I’m terrified she will find out and think I’m a prostitute,” he says.
But he’s hedging his bets even so: “I hope you can publish my mobile phone number,” he says, adding “in case my relationship with her doesn’t work out”.
– By Patti Waldmeir in Beijing, ft.com