The Chinese New Year starts this weekend. It's the biggest celebration in China's calendar and a bit like Thanksgiving in the U.S., the entire country shuts down for a long weekend of food, fireworks and family time. Millions of single people have to endure endless questioning from their family as to why they're not yet hitched.
In a basement canteen of an office tower in downtown Beijing, I meet some of them. Groups of young women huddled over large bowls of noodles who look depressed when I ask them about the impending Chinese New Year holiday. Like Ding Na who is almost 30-years-old and comes from China's northeast.
"I'm under lots of pressure," she tells me. "My sisters and my relatives all ask me why I'm still single. When they call me, I'm scared to pick up the phone."
It's a common story across China where twenty-somethings, especially young women, face a strict societal deadline to marry by their early thirties. In the offices of Baihe.com, one of China's biggest dating agencies, I meet consultant Zhou Xiaopeng. She describes to me just how unbearable it can be for single women at this time of year by asking me to picture a scene where people sit around a table:
"Chinese people love to get together for dinner" she explains. "On New Years Eve, everybody is sitting in pairs, your brother with sister-in-law, your sister with brother-in-law, and so on. If you're the only one left behind, you can imagine the pressure and frustration."
But while many will face another year of uncomfortable questions, others have come up with a quick-fix solution. Singletons are going online to hire fake partners to take home for the holidays.
I did a quick search on Taobao, China's most popular online shopping website, and when I typed in 'renting a fake boyfriend for Chinese new year' dozens of ads popped up. There was one from a man offering his services for 52 RMB an hour, about $8 an hour, to spend time with a single women's relatives. For 500 RMB, he would spend the night if he gets his own bed and for 600 RMB, he would be willing to sleep on the couch. But lower down in the ad he makes it very clear that sex is not an option.
I was intrigued to find out what sorts of people were willing to hire themselves out, so I phoned one of the men offering to work as a fake boyfriend over the Chinese New Year. I spoke to Li Le, a 24 year old man businessman from China's central Hebei province. He sounded a little embarrassed and told me it was the first year he had attempted to work as a fake boyfriend. But he insists he is not doing it for the money.
"It's an exciting thing to do," he told me. "I might find people who share my interests and it would make both of us happy."
Thirty women have contacted Li so far, but he says it's tough to find someone who trusts him enough to invite him home for Chinese New Year.