Fake grooms and brides for hire: Chinese Lunar New Year sees boom for businesses serving Chinese too afraid to go home alone
Many Chinese and businesses help desperate unmarried people – many the only child of the family – under pressure from parents wanting to see their bloodline continue
Charming, funny and diligent, Chen Gang, 31, is the ideal Chinese son-in-law – the kind of man every mainland parent would dream of their daughter marrying. The perfect marrying man.
He chats with ease to guests at wedding ceremonies, providing witty remarks to help people warm to him, and is always eager to lend a hand with household chores in front of his in-laws. But he has had practice: he has already been married – and divorced – three times as part of his job.
Chen (not his real name), from the western Chinese city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province – home to the nation’s giant pandas – is one of an increasing number of young mainlanders, both men and women, who earn their living renting themselves out to meet demand for fake grooms or brides, particularly around Chinese Lunar New Year.
Now is the time when single people aged in their late 20s or older can expect a grilling from parents and relatives if they return home alone.
The increase in Chinese turning to marriage rental businesses to solve such a problem underscores the enormous pressure facing most single people that have grown up in modern-day China during the decades of the one-child policy; without brothers and sisters to share their family’s expectations, China’s more highly educated and liberal younger generation are now challenging old traditions – or, through fake marriages – at least delaying their problem.
Most Chinese parents today still expect their children to get married before they reach their 30s, but those same children are becoming increasingly careful about choosing their significant other.
Chen started out renting his services as a boyfriend in 2010. Spotting the huge opportunities – and profits – through fake marriages, he first got married in 2014 after a young Shandong woman approached him.
“I charge 1,500 yuan (HK$1,700) a day for wedding ceremonies and made more than 15,000 yuan from the wedding I had in Shandong,” Chen said.
Since then he has been married – and divorced – twice more and has kept his divorce certificates like souvenirs.
Each one of Chen’s three marriages was meticulously prepared by him and his clients – so much so that none of the clients’ parents suspected the marriages were anything but genuine.
Chen said he and others employed in the groom-and-bride “rental” industry catered mostly to desperate single people who were being forced to get married by their parents. Some of them were homosexuals who wanted to use a fake marriage to appease their family.
“Most children are the only child of the family,”Chen said. “Parents are generally part of the older generation, and are very traditional, and they want to have grandchildren to carry on their family’s bloodline,” Chen said.
That pressure is especially acute during Lunar New Year when everyone, including millions of migrant workers, return home to their families.
Unlike in the West, marriages in China involve the families and parents of both the bride and groom taking an active role in the selection of their child’s prospective partners, said Lu Zheng of the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, who has carried out research into youth marriage attitudes in Guangdong.
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Renting a groom or bride for wedding ceremonies is an offshoot of the lucrative business or hiring boyfriends and girlfriends, which also peaks around the annual new year holiday festival.
It is possible to rent a partner by phone, or from the comfort of your home, using the online retail giant Alibaba’s Taobao.com and a number of websites that offer such services.
The popular Chinese social media messaging tool, WeChat, is host to many public accounts that offer girlfriends and boyfriends for rent.
Qiu Haibo, who lives in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province, in the southeast of the country, is the chief executive of a start-up company that is developing an app for offering rental services.
His app, called Zuyouwang, which means “Friend rental site”, became officially available on Friday three days before the start of the Year of the Monkey.
Demand for such services means Qiu’s company has received financing of two million yuan by angel investors. Qiu predicts a rosy future for his business.
“People are busy and don’t have time to socialise,” he said. “But young Chinese today are relatively better off than those in the past and they can afford to pay for things like renting a partner.”
Requests for girlfriends far exceeds those for men and Qiu said his business has seen demand peaking as the Lunar New Year approaches.
Although most people that want to use Qiu’s platform are looking simply for a temporary solution, some people – particularly men – often hope they can find their true love by renting a partner.
The price for renting a girlfriend of boyfriend varies, but the cost of renting someone you can bring home to your parents during Lunar New Year generally costs more than 1,000 yuan a day. Charges for a fake marriage are even more expensive.
In China today, single people, particularly women in their late 20s. are described as “leftover”, reflecting the society’s general attitude towards unmarried people.
Well-educated women find it hard to date eligible bachelors when most Chinese men still prefer women that are less educated or capable than they are.
Thousands of men living in China’s countryside remain single. Their poor economic status, compounded by gender imbalance in the country make these “bare branches” – as bachelors are known in Chinese – ever more unmarriable. According to China’s 2010 census, the ratio of newborn girls and boys was 100 to 117.9.
With no suitable candidate for marriage in sight, young Chinese singletons that feel pressured and frequently nagged by their families have increasingly resorted to fake marriage to ease the tension between them and their parents.
However, experts say that faking a marriage or renting partners is unlikely to solve the problem of the ever-growing chasm that exists between mainland parents and their children.
“Fake marriages are totally at odds with the seriousness of marriage and are also immoral,” Lu said.
The difference in the perceptions of children and their parents with regard to marriage highlighted the lack of communication between the two generations, Lu said.
“Children hire brides and grooms to ease tensions, but actually that can achieve the exact opposite to the planned purpose,” Lu said.
Apart from the possibility of upsetting parents, safety is also a big concern for most of the women who rent themselves out as girlfriends and brides at this time of year.
While most would stay away from any sexual relationship as part of the business deal, there have been cases where the fake couple have ended up sleeping together.
Chen, who now runs a website that specialises in the partner rental business, said requests for partners had rocketed in the days before the start of Lunar New Year.
He said he regarded himself simply an actor in real life. Although he admitted that occasionally he had been overwhelmed with pity for his duped in-laws, he said he was doing vastly more good than evil through his actions.
Indeed, last year Chen even rented a girlfriend himself over the Lunar New Year holiday to take home to please his ageing parents, who have long been nagging him about getting married.
”My father didn’t even want to talk to me when I arrived,” Chen said. “But then, when he saw I had brought a girl home, his grumpy face broke into a smile and he actually started speaking to me.”