Dressed neatly in his preppy shorts and T-shirt and sporting a school-style backpack, it’s hard to believe James Wong started his career as a “massage boy” in some of Hong Kong’s sketchiest parlours.

Wong plied his trade in old hotels and residential buildings dotted around Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui. But he didn’t get paid for the massages. Those he gave for free, instead making between HK$300 and HK$600 for having sex with (usually far older) men.

“Old guys and fat men tried to force sex while I massaged them,” recalls Wong, 20, now a university student majoring in engineering, who was just 18 when he started working in the parlours – though many of his coworkers were under 17.

It seemed like good money at the time, but the dangers it involved – most of the parlours were run by illegal gambling rings – and the inflexible working hours made him rethink his choice of employment. Instead, he decided to sell his services as a part-time boyfriend – in so doing becoming one of the growing number of young Hongkongers who have turned towards selling themselves on compensated dating websites – a trend that police criminologists say increases over the Christmas period.

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Wong, who is gay, reasoned that the move would give him greater choice over his clients and enable him to make a more “emotional connection” with them.

This career is really special. I don’t have to pay for meals and entertainment

He was soon to discover an even greater incentive for the switch: now he earns up to HK$10,000 a month – similar to what a summer engineering internship would pay.

He’s open to both male and female clients, whom he finds on dating apps like Tinder. He prefers boys because girls pay less for hanging out and watching a movie. Ideally, he likes clients aged between 15 and 30.

“This career is really special. I don’t have to pay for meals and entertainment,” he says.

“But I saw the dark side of being a part-time boyfriend, too. I lost my innocence. No one taught me about the dangers.”

He says many part-time boyfriends and girlfriends fear being caught by undercover police if they discuss what they charge for sex and there is a group on Instagram called “Moonlight Blue” that offers legal support and a hotline for people in this position.

However, he hasn’t heard of any part-time boyfriends being arrested because he thinks police don’t know how to handle investigating boys. “It could be homophobia,” he speculates.

On the other side of the trade is unemployed Jason, 23, who has hired the services of four different part-time girlfriends over the past four weeks. Jason finds his dates through Instagram and prefers teenage girls, paying between HK$300 and HK$500 for a few hours.

“I haven’t had a girlfriend before. I want to know what dating feels like,” he says. “Secondly, I want to find younger girls, aged around 16 to 18. Hiring a part-time girlfriend gives me a bigger chance to find girls in this age range.”

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He says the dates aren’t awkward, but casual, and the girls don’t even ask for his real name. They call him “older brother”.

“I feel so good when I have a girl to hold hands with. We normally chit chat, have meals together, talk about our own background, for instance the things happening at work or school,” he said. “If I can get along with a particular girl well, I will hire her a few more times.”

While Jason dates girls as young as 16, he doesn’t think it is illegal, because he won’t buy sex from them and doesn’t consider it prostitution. Still, while he’s happy to tell his friends that he pays for dates, he’s too ashamed to tell his parents.

“It is just a trade. One who sells, one who buys. In this materialistic society, many girls just use this way to earn quick money. They don’t necessarily need to sell their bodies, it can just be holding hands and hugging.”