Illustration picture shows a page of a date hiring app "Hire Me Plz", which says "rent now for 999 yuan an hour", in Beijing
By Muyu Xu and Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) - As millions in China head home to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday with their families, 24-year-old Luoluo is busy answering messages on a mobile app from desperate men looking to hire an instant girlfriend whom they can present to mom and dad.
On visits home during the holiday, which kicks off on Friday, single people are often subjected to tough lectures from relatives keen on reinforcing the importance of marriage and securing the family blood line.
Some singles resort to hiring fake girlfriends and boyfriends to appease their parents. But an explosion in smartphone use in recent years means one can now pay for such a date through a handful of mobile apps, with just a few clicks.
"Over 1,000 users on our platform have signed up as dates for hire for the New Year break," Cao Tiantian, founder of date-for-hire app Hire Me Plz, told Reuters.
Subscribers to the app pay from as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) to 1,999 yuan an hour for a dinner date, a chat, a game of mah-jong or even a foot massage.
Prices surge around the time of Lunar New Year, with thousands of attractive twenty-somethings like Luoluo commanding fees of 3,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan a day.
"I'm still seeking people to fill my time slots," said the woman from the southwestern province of Sichuan, who has just two half-day slots left to fill over the next seven days.
"But only those who stay in the same province as me. I don't have time to waste on travel," she added.
Apart from Hire Me Plz, there are five major date-hiring apps in China, which make their money by taking a cut from hires, and also from subscription fees.
"Our business model is still new, though an increasing number of young people have accepted the idea of selling their time as commodity," said Beijing-based Cao, who expects date-rental to become a multi-billion dollar market in five years.
Since its launch in 2015, Hire Me Plz has garnered a user base of 700,000 and 1.7 million followers on Tencent's <0700.HK> WeChat, China's biggest mobile social media network.
Date rentals - offline or online - have drawn criticism in recent years, with some netizens on social media and legal experts questioning the morality and legality of the business.
"There are no clear prohibitions in Chinese laws regarding date rentals. But risks exist among such deals, which may also violate the law to some extent," state-run China News Services this month cited Li Hongzhao, an official of the Beijing Lawyers Association Criminal Law Committee, as saying.
Li said it is sometimes hard to define the boundaries of appropriate intimacy and when an act of intimacy becomes sexual assault.
Sex is not part of the services offered on any of the mobile apps. Prostitution is illegal in China.
Dating services are also offered by individuals on Baidu's Tieba classifieds and Tencent's QQ messaging service. But buyers beware - those services provide no identity authentication, unlike the mobile apps.
Hire Me Plz's Cao said the initial aim of her app was to help overcome the problem of loneliness experienced by young people leaving home to work alone in big cities.
"I was seeking a more effective way to ask someone out. Who wants to chat for months via social networks and end up with nothing?"
Elsewhere in Asia, online date-for-hire services are mostly found on website-only platforms, such as Soulmate in South Korea and Pally Asia in Singapore.
Pally Asia, which calls itself a "rent-a-friend" platform, plans to push out an app in the first half of this year.
($1=6.8758 Chinese yuan)
(Additional reporting by Fathin Ungku in SINGAPORE and Nataly Pak in SEOUL; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)