There are just days to go before Chinese New Year, the biggest celebration on China’s calendar, when the entire country shuts down for a few days of food, fireworks … and family.
Many enjoy the holiday, but millions of unmarried people merely endure it.
In the basement of an office tower in downtown Beijing, a cloud of gloom hovers over the canteen at lunch time. Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles look depressed when asked about the February’s impending Chinese New Year holiday.
“I’m pretty old – I’m almost 30 – but I’m still single,” explains Ding Na, a woman hailing from China’s northeast.
“I’m under lots of pressure. My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I’m not married. When they call me, I’m scared to pick up the phone.”
Twenty-somethings in China – young women especially – face a strict societal deadline to find a husband before they turn 30.
According to Zhou Xiaopeng, a consultant with Baihe.com, one of China’s biggest dating agencies, the pressure for singles to settle down crescendos around Chinese New Year.
“Picture a scene where people sit around a table,” Ms Zhou says.
“Chinese people love to get together for dinner. On New Year’s Eve, everybody is sitting in pairs, your brother with your sister-in-law, your sister with your brother-in-law, and so on. If you’re the only one left behind, you can imagine the pressure and frustration.”
Kiss for $8
Luckily for some, China’s most popular online marketplace, Taobao, offers a band-aid solution: the rental of fake boyfriends.
For as little as $50 (£32) a day, dozens of classified adverts promise to provide a male companion for the holidays, pretending to be a single woman’s plus-one.
Some postings list a full menu of possibilities – charging $5 an hour to accompany a girl to dinner and $8 for a kiss on the cheek. If the fake boyfriend stays overnight with his client’s family for Chinese New Year, he charges $80 a night to sleep in his own bed, and $95 to sleep on the couch.
Sex is not even an option on the list.
Li Le, an agricultural products salesman from Tianjin, has put himself up for hire on Chinese New Year. Sounding a little embarrassed, Mr Li admits this is the first year he has attempted to work as a fake boyfriend instead of travelling home to see his own family in China’s central Hebei province.
He insists he is not doing it for the money. Instead, he has more noble pursuits.
“It’s an exciting thing to do,” he says. “I might find someone who shares my interests and it would make both of us happy.”
Thirty women have contacted Li so far, but he says its tough to find someone who trusts him enough to invite him home for Chinese New Year.
Ironically, Li says he is still waiting for that special someone to answer his advert, admitting, “the best result would be for me to find someone to marry through this”.
A crazy idea? Maybe, but even Chinese pop culture has cottoned on to the possibility that a fake boyfriend could morph into a real one.
The hit Chinese TV series “Renting a Girlfriend for Home Reunion” stages the Hollywood romance between a single Chinese man and his fake girlfriend.
Yes, Chinese men hire stand-ins too – often gay men who haven’t come out to their families. But Zhou Xiaopeng, the dating consultant, says women are really under the gun to find husbands. Though, eventually, even that might change.
“When people born in 80s or 90s become parents, they won’t want to apply the same pressure they endured when they were young,” she predicts. “It’ll probably take 20 to 30 years.”
That means that China’s entrepreneurial escorts still have decades to perfect their craft. In Li Le’s case, he still has time for the fake girlfriend of his dreams to hire him for the holidays.