BEIJING - For most of the year, Mr Sui Wei makes his living as an actor. But come special occasions such as Chinese New Year or Valentine's Day, he puts his skills to use as a fake boyfriend for hire.
Since 2008, the Beijing-based thespian, 28, has been moonlighting as a temporary partner for single women tired of being alone or berated by their parents for being unmarried.
It began when he responded to an online post by a single woman who wanted her parents to stop nagging her. He didn't charge any money back then, though all his expenses were paid for.
"Then, it was out of fun. Now, I see it as a money-making venture," said Mr Sui, who told The Sunday Times that he has since had seven clients and now charges 500 yuan (S$99) daily.
Now, the phenomenon is spreading in China. More and more men like Mr Sui are offering to be fake partners for anyone willing to pay.
A search for "rental partners" on the Taobao online marketplace yielded more than 300 results though most appear to be hoaxes. Out of the 30-plus that look bona fide with photos and contact numbers, almost all are men offering to be fake boyfriends.
One posting reads: "Not getting any younger and still dreading facing the nagging parents? Need a boyfriend to face the family?"
Another fake boyfriend for rent is interior designer Wang Lei, 24, a Xian local doing it for the first time this year in the hope of making some extra money during a lull period in his work now.
"I got calls from more than 20 women, and also men, though I specified that I would take only female clients," he said.
"But no one closed the deal, saying prices were high or they were concerned about personal safety."
Mr Wang charges 300 yuan daily but those who hire him for two weeks get a discounted 200 yuan.
His rates are cheap. On Taobao, prices go as high as 2,000 yuan a day, excluding transport and lodging costs to be borne by the clients. Extras are offered too: 50 yuan for a kiss; 500 yuan for a fake boyfriend to stay overnight in a bed and 600 yuan in a couch.
Even foreigners are muscling into the action. Taobao has an advertisement by a man claiming to be a Caucasian living in China.
Calling himself Matt, the man says he is "1.9m tall, has dark blue eyes and connects well with children and the elderly".
When contacted, a man claiming to be his broker said Matt has clinched 23 clients at a 1,200-yuan rate for the week-long break.
Business is brisk this year, said a Shanghai-based broker who revealed that he now represents about 20 fake partners, up from around 10 last year.
Only four of them are women, said the broker, who gave his name as Mr Weng. He added: "Women are reluctant to do this kind of work as they are more fearful than men of being harmed."
The phenomenon mirrors the plot of a 2007 movie, Contract Lover, starring mainland actress Fan Bingbing as a rented girlfriend for Hong Kong actor Richie Ren.
Beijing-based sociologist Hu Xingdou said the trend stems from the increasing difficulty for young Chinese to fall in love and marry, due to rising costs of living and longer working hours. More are also embracing singlehood.
But many parents still view marriage as a goal for their children and pressure them to settle down, especially during Chinese New Year.
Fears of being pressured lead more to turn to fake partners, said Professor Hu, who also identified shifting social values as a reason.
"More women have no qualms getting fake boyfriends to enjoy themselves and men see no wrong spending money to show off with a pretty fake girlfriend," said Prof Hu.
Changing values also explain why more are coming forward as fake boyfriends.
Mr Sui claimed that his sideline helps him improve his acting skills though sex also appears to be a factor for him. He revealed that he has had sex with most of his clients, although he is not obliged to do so.
He drops hints to his clients to see if they are open to sex. One clear sign is when they invite him to sleep in their bedroom, as a 25-year-old executive in north-eastern Liaoning province did during the 2011 Chinese New Year break.
Aware that some would deem him a male prostitute, Mr Sui, a bachelor, said it does not bother him and does not think it will affect his chances of settling down.
"I come from a poor family and it's tough to earn money. We all have urges, and so do women," he told The Sunday Times.
"I see my ability to make women want to have sex with me as my asset. Some men can't do so even if they don't charge money."
No wonder some frown on the practice, which is also deemed to be risky for both fake partner and client. Horror tales are aplenty in cyberspace.
A man named Yang Feng, 28, from Wuhan city, claimed that his fake girlfriend demanded to use his credit card for her shopping and to dine at upmarket restaurants.
Another tells of a fake girlfriend who accused her client of rape. But her lawyer reportedly said the man could not be charged in court because of a lack of evidence.
Lawyers say clients and fake partners face risks and have to take precautionary measures as the agreements they seal have no legal basis.
Such contracts are deemed to flout the requirements of social order and custom stated under the Civil Law and thus would not be protected under the Contract Law.
The best alternative is to be honest with one's parents, believes China Daily columnist Xiao Lixin.
"Though the purpose of hiring a fiance or fiancee is to make parents happy and ease their worries, there is no denying it is deceit rather than an act to fulfil filial piety."
Agreeing, medical shop assistant Annie Wu, 31, who is single, said fake boyfriends are a no-no for her.
"I can understand why others do it but I cannot bring myself to do likewise. If I really have to, I might as well find my own friends," she said.