No request too small for Hong Kong's 'personal service providers'

From a trainee hairstylist seeking someone to practice on, to a young woman's request for a male companion for a trek up a mountain to watch dawn break

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 10:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 11:04am

Everyone deals with break-ups differently. Some hide away to lick their wounds in private, others go on drinking binges or find solace with new friends on getaways.

As a way to fill lonely evenings after splitting with his girlfriend, Zombie Tam Yik-hin set up a platform offering all manner of quirky personal services.

No assignment is too strange or difficult. From a trainee hairstylist seeking someone to practice on, to a young woman's request for a male companion for a trek up a mountain to watch the break of dawn, Tam fulfils them all. In return, he just asks for a meal with his "patron", the price and elements of which is mutually agreed on.

I see the venture as a chance to take a break from corporate life
Zombie Tam, Cat every matter

A former marketing executive, Tam started his Cat Every Matter venture about a year ago.

"I had more time at night and I needed companions to share dinner with," he says. "But as I [completed assignments], I found it interesting and enjoyed meeting and making friends with strangers from all walks of life."

From a one-man operation, Cat Every Matter (an abbreviated translation of the group's Chinese name that refers to felines that deal with all manner of things) has since grown into a club of about 200 members who can bid to undertake requests posted on their Facebook page.

Tam didn't set out to establish a group. His first members were simply friends who found out about his adventures and decided they wanted to join the fun. As word spread, more people signed up. To join, you simply have to inform Tam about your strengths or expertise. When a new request comes in, Tam will match the assignment with the most suitable person after a discussion with members.

The degree of difficulty of each assignment can vary greatly, Tam says.

"Some are very easy - like the time I was asked to go out to a country park to secure a barbecue spit for a group of people. But it took a lot of time. I waited at the site from 2pm and the barbecue didn't start till 9pm. So when we all finished eating, it was already midnight," he recalls.

Other requests require painstaking work, which may lead him on wild goose chases or even get him into trouble with the law.

"One man wanted to track down his long-lost grandfather who used to work as a bonesetter in Sham Shui Po. I went to all the clinics in the district and talked to Chinese medicine practitioners there, but none had ever heard of the guy."

Another person asked Tam to recover some money that he loaned to a business associate. "I couldn't locate the debtor but found his parents. They called the police when I tried to talk to them."

But even when he fails, clients are expected to buy him a meal because of the effort put into the assignments, Tam says. They also bear all costs incurred in the course of fulfilling the requests.

While the group adopts an open mind, it will not entertain requests that hint at sleaze or violence. Recalling a man with two free Disneyland passes who wanted a female escort, Tam says: "We won't send female members into such situations."

The members won't undertake any requests that are contrary to their principles - or against the law, he adds. They also take care not to put members at risk, so meetings with clients are always conducted in public spaces.

Being the athletic sort, fifth form student Wilson Law Chun-wang is often despatched on assignments that play to his sporting prowess. But his strength as a swimmer wasn't enough when he answered one woman's request for lessons.

"Once she was in the water, she clung to me and refused to let go because she was too scared. I didn't know what to do," he recalls.

Wilson's first job - handing out fliers - wasn't a cakewalk either. Spending an entire day trying to distribute the material on busy streets not only tested his endurance but also his people skills. The fliers came from an anti-Beijing organisation and carried the crude call "Fxxx You China". Fortunately, mainland visitors didn't take the fliers seriously. "Tourists took pictures of me and posted them on mainland forums."

And though a civil engineering student, Jason Kan Pok-chuen styles himself as a guru on romance and fashion: "I take people on shopping trips and give them makeover advice. Guys also ask for tips on how to court women."

His most unusual request was from a girl who wanted him to take photographs of her at the places she used to frequent with her boyfriend. She planned to break up with him, and said she wanted to send the pictures to the boyfriend as a parting gift, Kan says.

The group also gets a number of requests for help with schoolwork. One primary student was too lazy to even copy out his friend's answers for a class exercise and wanted someone else to do it for him. Then there were three groups of students from the same media class at City University who sought help on a project to produce a magazine.

But of more than 200 requests received so far, Kan says the group has turned down only one.

"The client wanted to exploit [our service]. He wanted a team to help out with his wedding. [He wanted us to] do everything - be the driver, photographer, make-up artist and even bridesmaids and groomsmen," he says. "But except for this case, most of the people we meet are nice and reasonable. We once helped an elderly centre set up plastic partitions to keep strangers out. They later treated us to a feast at a Western restaurant."

For the past year, Tam has devoted most of his time to Cat Every Matter. But he has been living on his savings since it isn't an income-generating venture. "I see the venture as a chance to take a break from corporate life."

However, at similar platform the founders hope to make a commercial success of their venture providing one-off services that range from taking dogs for walks or recovering deleted files from computers to introducing people to the best red wines available.

"There is much untapped manpower in Hong Kong. The platform can give opportunities to university students and housewives who are good at knitting, tailoring or even conducting fung shui rituals for a new home," says IT infrastructure specialist Ray Cheng Chun-yan.

He recently became a partner in the platform set up by Circle Lo Kai-kui and Karen Cheung Kai-wan, who quit her marketing job to run the site.

The pair were inspired by Fiverr, a US site set up in 2010 which charges a minimum of US$5 for services provided. At charges start at HK$50, but the cost of each assignment is negotiated, with the site taking 5 per cent of the transaction value as an administrative charge.

About 60 people have signed up since its launch in November.

Lo, who runs his own IT company, says there is demand for even trifling matters, citing his experience as a seller of services on Fiverr. "I offered to mail postcards featuring Hong Kong nightscapes to anywhere in the world, and I got buyers for such a service."

Like shopping platform Taobao, rates its sellers to weed out people who provide substandard services.

"Buyers can rate the sellers after the transaction," Cheng says. "And if a seller stands up the buyer for a meeting, he will be blacklisted."

They hope to introduce a section for services that do not require payment soon.

"Hairstylists with a charitable bent might want to give free haircuts to the elderly in poor neighbourhoods," Cheng says.

They also plan to launch a mobile app to enable individuals to fulfil quick requests. "For example, if you find yourself in Mong Kok with hours to kill before your friend shows up for dinner, you can log onto the app to see whether anyone is seeking people to run errands in the area. But we need a large user base in order to do that," Cheng says.