You're 22 years old, newly graduated from university, and ready to start a new chapter in your life. But you've just had surgery, and you are stuck at home alone feeling bored. Why not call up a "virtual" girlfriend to help you feel better? That is just what Shenzhen native Sun Liang did. The graduate, who had his thyroid removed this summer, discovered a hot new service on the mainland shopping site Taobao - businesses offering conversation with "virtual" girlfriends or boyfriends. And it wasn't long before the curious Sun signed up for a session. It cost him 20 yuan (about HK$25) to hire a virtual girlfriend, who responded to live text chats for a 24-hour period. "I wanted to relieve the boredom," Sun says. So far he has paid for four sessions; he had no idea what to expect, but feels a little disappointed with the service. "I always felt there was something missing and it didn't feel like chatting with a real girlfriend. The exchanges were very restrained," he says. "It's hard to treat a girl I know nothing about as girlfriend ... to find a girlfriend for only 20 yuan - that's a fantasy." It is only since last month that these virtual girlfriend/boyfriend services started surfacing on Taobao, a retail site for small businesses. For 20 yuan, you can hire a sympathetic listener for a day - someone who will listen to your gripes and offer consolation via text or voice messages using the instant messaging app, Wechat, or chat platforms such as QQ. So far the business seems to be booming: a search on Taobao shows more than 2,200 operators are offering such services - among them Qiqijia. The owner of Qiqijia - who identifies herself only using her surname, Cui, says she receives between 30 and 40 orders for virtual friends every day, but demand is rising. Cui has hired 30 people, mostly young women studying at university or working in offices, who moonlight as virtual friends. She will not reveal how much they earn, but says her workers offer customers friendly conversation - usually in the roles of girlfriend or boyfriend - and spend most of their time listening to complaints. Cui started out as an accessories retailer, but fashionable knick-knacks were a tough sell compared with the new niche of offering virtual friends. "People have busy working lives and don't have time to communicate with others," Cui says. "Or they may have something they can't tell people they know, so they feel they can confide in us." She says one man contacted Qiqijia because he wanted someone to talk to about his messy love life. "He and his mistress were having some problems, but obviously he couldn't tell his friends or family about these troubles. So he came to us," Cui says. All conversations with Qiqijia's virtual partners are confidential, she says. Neither customers nor their virtual partners know the identities of the other person, nor what they look like; Qiqijia does not provide photos of staff or video calls. "We won't give them our true identities and won't ask customers about theirs unless they tell us," Cui says. More than half Cui's customers sign up out of curiosity, but many are people seeking companionship. Most are male, university educated, aged between 20 and 27, and have yet to find a girlfriend. However, there are one or two female clients, too, such as Zhang Tiantian, 20, who sees the chats as a way to spice up her life after breaking up with her boyfriend. "I've chatted with someone I really liked and felt I'd like to know more," she says. "I think it's also a platform for me to know more people. Yet I wouldn't date people I can't see or touch." While men, such as Sun, find relief complaining to a virtual girlfriend when they are in a bad mood, Zhang talks to her virtual partner mostly about love and relationships. Real dates can cost a lot for people fresh out of uni ... virtual girlfriends are inexpensive and help fill that emotional gap Wang Weimin, psychological consultant, Beijing Normal University "The topic is about love most of the time," she says. "I'd tell him what kind of boys I like and he would tell me his type of girl." People using virtual partners have different expectations, says a Guangdong student - identified as "Lu Cha" - who has worked as a virtual girlfriend for the past two months. "Some customers are very shy in real life and want advice about how to deal with girls," says Lu, who is in her fourth year at university. "Some have just broken up and want some comfort; some customers have girlfriends, but have quarrelled and find me to talk about their troubles." She first contacted Taobao to book a chat with a virtual partner for herself, but after talking to the owner, decided she could work as a virtual girlfriend. "I can get a little income and, at the same time, really get to know this job," she says. One young man, who already had a girlfriend, called her because he wanted a woman's perspective so he might better understand her needs and become a better boyfriend. "I was deeply touched and shared my experiences with him," Lu says. "I got really good comments from him afterwards; he was very grateful. It makes me feel my job is very meaningful." Lu says she tries to make her clients feel they are loved. Apparently, she is so good at her job that a number of customers have asked for her again. "One guy wanted a whole month's service, which we don't encourage," Lu says. "It's virtual after all and can only be a temporary experience, so they can't be too dependent." At Qiqijia, customers can specify the type of personality, or voice for a virtual friend. Some men want a woman who is sweet and chatty, others seek someone with a charming voice. "That's easy to explain," Cui says. "It's not a face-to-face encounter; they only chat using voice [calls] and messages." Yet elsewhere things are not always above board. Some customers ask operators if they offer sexual services on the side, she says. "Occasionally, some customers ask whether we provide 'special services' and I tell them 'no'. Some operators, which do have special services, have asked whether I'm interested in collaborating, but I have declined." Most of her clients are people who feel dejected, who want someone with whom they can air their frustrations, or will offer some useful advice about life. Cui says: "I think we also play a psychological counselling role ... I once talked to customer that I could tell had very low self-esteem; he said he'd been fired from work many times, so I tried to cheer him up. He was really grateful by the end of the call." Comments from clients at several other operators show a similar need for stress relief. Wang Weimin, a psychological consultant at Beijing Normal University, says this trend reflects pressures facing young people in China. "Real dates can cost a lot for people fresh out of university. Moreover, some girls are very materialistic and only seek boyfriends who have houses and cars." But virtual girlfriends are inexpensive and help fill that emotional gap, Wang says. Still, he believes it is not a healthy solution and says the government must take action to address the issue. "Jobs are harder to find, which is directly related to the slowing down of the country's economy. I suggest that young people seek real psychological counselling," Wang says. That direction - offering counselling from professional psychologists - is something Cui is considering too, as her business continues to grow. "Many customers need comforting and want someone to listen to their problems." For many students such as Zhang, however, the chats are simply something to do until the novelty wears off. "I will call again. It's fun and 20 yuan is nothing," she says.