A friend in need

By Ni Dandan Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-24 17:58:01

Shanghai’s booming rent-a-companion business

Many people rent themselves out as companions for running or social activities like shopping and dining. Photo: IC

When the public first heard about how young people could rent themselves out as boyfriends or girlfriends a few years ago, it was quickly accepted and understood that this unconventional service was driven by the extreme pressures of Chinese family traditions. But the rent-a-person service has taken an even more unconventional twist in the past year.

Some young people are now leaving well-paid stable jobs to rent themselves out - and making a lot of money in the process. Huihui is a 26-year-old Shanghai woman who left her job as a dance teacher a month or so ago and now rents herself out as a companion for anyone wanting to go sightseeing, shopping, dining or visiting karaoke clubs.

"The city is filled with lonely people and that's the big market potential for this," she said. As a companion Huihui charges 120 yuan ($18.78) an hour with a four-hour minimum payment. She also pockets some small change by making warm and affectionate wake-up calls for which she charges 5 yuan.

In his late 20s, Xu Shaoyang also rents himself out from his online site - but he only offers services as a runner or trainer. If someone wants someone to run with or seeks running advise, Xu, a fitness coach, is the man to ask. He charges just 18 yuan per hour for his services. "It's nice to make some pocket money, but my original idea was to meet more running enthusiasts," he said.

Now flourishing

While this sort of rental service can be found on online shopping platforms, they are now flourishing on mobile phone social networking apps. Take WeChat for example - if you search "friend rental," you will find a long list of people "available" for rental in major cities across China alongside pictures and detailed personal information.

Compared with the other rates the prices the Shanghai woman Huihui charges seem to be fair. On most WeChat platforms, girls for rental in the city charge at least 288 yuan per hour while some expat models ask for up to 1,800 yuan an hour.

The rapid development of social networking applications in China has fundamentally changed the lives of many and provided people with new options. But renting people can involve risks.

After paying 10 yuan to a WeChat platform, the Global Times was put in touch with a Shanghai college student who advertises herself as being able to behave like an elegant lady or as a cute teenage girl. The student, Xinrui, said she's available any time for dining, going to the cinema, shopping or for parties.

When asked if she had any prerequisites for her clients she said politeness was the only thing that concerned her. "You have to remember there's never any physical contact involved," said Xinrui, who charges 300 yuan per hour.

"Some of my close friends are also doing this. We can pass the time and make money. Meeting strangers is also fun sometimes though I've also encountered some pretty disgusting clients," she said. Xinrui insists that she's fully aware of the potential dangers but said she knows how to look after herself.

"If it's someone I don't feel comfortable with I take the money and delete the contact. But if it's a nice happy experience, I can make a discount or even charge nothing if it's really fun," she said. Business for her has been "quite okay" since she started this work.

Expat models

Xinrui is one of many students available for rent and many others who do this are freelance models. On one WeChat account there is a special section featuring expat models in Shanghai. From different countries and cultures these elegant and varied beauties charge at least 1,000 yuan an hour. But it is not easy to contact them directly unless you first pay a good-sized fee to the platform.

Huihui might be one of the few who have left employment to take this up full-time. Over the past 40 days, she said she'd dealt with more than 20 clients - which would mean she has earned at least 10,000 yuan for that period.

"I'm a Gemini and I want every day of my life to be different," Huihui said (she was a kindergarten teacher before she was a dance teacher). "Sometimes I have several bookings in a day and sometimes nothing at all for days on end."

As an independent renter, Huihui contacts potential clients directly before going out with them. "If I find the way a man speaks is impolite or makes me feel uncomfortable, I cancel the deal." Most of the time she doesn't ask for proof of identity or background information but relies on her own gut feeling.

Her big rules are that she has to be sent home before 10 pm and she doesn't travel outside Shanghai. "Mostly it's safe and interesting work," she said.

Curiously, in contrast, men who offer this sort of service don't get anything like the money the women earn. The most expensive rate the Global Times found on different male platforms was 99 yuan per hour.

And the business is not actually booming for them. A 29-year-old man surnamed Zhong said he still hadn't received a single order weeks after he put his information on a WeChat platform.

"Fortunately I'm not trying to make a fortune out of this," said the young man, who is a full-time employee in an IT company.

He said he went online like this to try to find a girlfriend. "The blind dates arranged by my parents were all very boring. I heard about this friend renting business and decided to give it a try." Zhong charges 28 yuan per hour for conversation, accompanying a woman on a shopping expedition, going to a party or posing as a boyfriend.

Having not had even an inquiry for several weeks Zhong now feels the photo he has posted is the problem and he is going to try some new angles to attract customers.

Some of the rent-a-person services posted on online shopping platforms and mobile phone networking apps

Sharing the passion

The runner Xu Shaoyang has both male and female clients and many have become good friends after running together. "It's a brand-new way of making friends. For me meeting running enthusiasts is great fun and we can share our passion for this."

He said the men who rent themselves out are certainly not as popular as women but they also had fewer risks. "So why not give it a try? Many of us have been over confined by our circles of friends. This is a new way of expanding them."

While the independent online rental establishments take responsibility for their businesses, this is not the situation with people registering on WeChat. The Global Times looked into the security issue for clients and renters and found there were few safeguards for either.

If you want to register with these platforms you do not have to provide any personal information or identification. An e-mail address and an online payment account are sometimes the only things necessary to get registered.

But this means that the information provided for clients - the personal details of the renters - can be completely falsified. No one has to verify the information and the platforms and agents don't ask for this.

On the other hand, client information is loosely supervised. Usually potential clients have to provide some basic personal information and sign a guarantee that they will not use the platform to engage in any criminal, illegal or immoral activities. After that they pay the platform a fee to gain access to the person they want to rent.

There are a few platforms that offer more security and demand both renters and clients provide their ID cards for verification when they register. They ask people to hold their ID cards for a photo and they also want contact information and contact details of their close family members.

While these platforms have shown a responsible attitude toward security it is also evident that this type of platforms has driven away many potential renters and customers, who worry about the safety of their personal information being held by a small Internet business that might employ just two or three people. The concern is that personal details could be sold elsewhere.

Lax management

Pei Zhiyong is a fraud expert with a leading Internet company and said that small Internet companies could be at risk because of lax information management and there could be loopholes in their systems, which could be easily hacked.

More importantly, Pei said there were people looking for quick profits in this growing market. "Many of the speculators who used to try to lure people to expensive bars, cafes or restaurants are now very active on these friend rental service platforms. An innocent customer could find himself paying a lot more than he thought he would have to."

A sociologist from Fudan University, Professor Gu Xiaoming, said that the popularity of people renting had a lot to do with the conventional Chinese concepts that defined a man with a girlfriend as being immoral if he went out with other females.

"The emergence of this service has made it possible for a lot of men to have some time together with a woman, who is not a familiar friend from his regular life, and they don't need to feel guilty."

But the professor suggested that online friend services like this needed to be treated carefully.

"Friend renting means this type of 'friendship' is extremely unstable. If one frequently uses these services, a person could experience a strong sense of anxiety and loneliness once he stops. It would be better to keep expanding their real-life friend circles which are more reliable."

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, City Panorama

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