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Valentine's Day frauds cheat lonely hearts

AS Qixi Festival, or Chinese Valentine's Day, falls today and thoughts turn to love, Yao Minji uncovers a romance racket in which dating agencies pay guys to pose as prospective mates for older, "left-over" single women.

Danny Liu, 29, is a regular trendy guy working in a street clothing shop. He usually wears cool T-shirts bearing strange pictures, baggy pants, signature sneakers and big sunglasses somewhat obscured by his tousled, carefully styled bangs.

But three or four times a week he is transformed into a preppy elite-type in the evenings. He slicks back his bangs, puts on one of his few good shirts and slacks, grabs a jacket and slips into shiny black shoes. The glasses stay.

He's ready for his secret job, his sideline.

It's nothing exciting, like being a spy from childhood fantasies. He's a "professional dating expert," or as he laughs, "I'm a professional playboy."

Liu is not alone, some (no one knows how many) other young men in Shanghai moonlight the same way, getting a girl's hope up (often unintentionally), and then dashing them.

Liu lays it on the line for Shanghai Daily:

"Basically, my job is to 'date' women, the so-called shengnu (left-over women, usually single women over 27 years old), and play a well-qualified and earnest marriage-minded gentleman who loses interest after the date."

He is hired by a small matchmaking company to pose as an eligible man and has been moonlighting as a stand-in prospect for two years.

The company, like many others, offers different kinds of memberships, each requiring an annual fee in exchange for a guaranteed number of get-acquainted dates with suitable young men or women.

In this company, fees range from 500 yuan (US$74) to 6,000 yuan; 40 dates are guaranteed. The VIPs pay 6,000 yuan to get an unending supply of blind dates until they are satisfied.

The company has made up a profile for Liu: He is a municipal civil servant with a stable job, an income around 6,000 yuan per month, an apartment near Jiangsu Road in the downtown area. He's interested in Western films and music, and graduated from prestigious Fudan University.

Liu, a veteran of at least 150 "dates," won't tell us how much he makes, but says it's "quite a bit considering it's just part-time." But we can guess he used to make 80 yuan per date, but now is on a retainer of around 1,200-1,800 a month.

Liu is not particularly proud of his secret job. In fact, he hides it from his family, his friends - and especially his girlfriend. Unfortunately, she recently found out, they had a blowup and now they're back together.

"I hate to think that the money he spends on our dates comes from cheating dates with other women," the girlfriend said.

Most people only know he hangs out with his colleagues or desktop game friends a few times a week.

The only one who knows about it is his friend and employer Ms Lin, as she calls herself, since she declines to give her real name.

Lin connected Liu with the part-time job two years ago. She works for the matchmaking company.

"There aren't enough qualified guys - young, not bald, never divorced, with a stable job and income, even better with a downtown apartment," says Lin.

As a young woman, Lin considers this stand-in, fake courtship job a bit distasteful, but as a business woman she considers it necessary because their matchmaking membership is overwhelmingly female: about 15 to one. And the men are usually over 35, some are divorced, some even have a child from a first marriage.

Lin rationalizes the complicated ethical situation, saying: "After all, we are not directly cheating the women of money and defrauding them financially. And we do arrange dates with real male members as well.

"Danny is not the only one we hired and we are not the only company hiring young men," she adds.

True. Liu is one among some, perhaps not too many.

The practice of hiring potential suitors was confirmed by aunty matchmaker Katherine Wang, a 72-year-old Chinese American who came back to Shanghai six years ago and has devoted herself to matchmaking.

In the aunty matchmaking circle, she has also heard about such stand-in guys. Of course, she has never hired any.

"They are not necessarily paid. Sometimes, some aunties just call on a friend's son or a nephew to do a favor when they can't find the right match and get pushed by the woman or her family," says Wang.

"I've heard of such cases, not a lot. It's quite immoral. What if the woman really gets interested in the guy?" she says.

This happened in Liu's early dating career.

"I was extremely nervous on my first date. I was worried whether she could tell that I'm fake, that I'm lying. I worried whether my girlfriend would find out somehow, and how my parents would react if they find it out. That sort of thing," Liu recalls.

He still remembers one woman, then 25 years old, a very beautiful and fashionable accountant.

"She was quick, smart, independent and outgoing - quite opposite to my girlfriend," he says.

The woman added him on instant messenger after the first date and Liu kept in contact with her for four months, with a mixed feeling of attraction, guilt, shame, worry and fear.

He deleted her from the contact list when Lin, his friend and boss, got suspicious.

"She was quite upset and told me I should keep distance from all these women. Basically, I'm playing the character who satisfies their qualifications but is not interested in them," he says. "I have learned from that experience to pull myself away from the perfect guy I'm playing."

Now, he is a real professional.

"I act like a gentleman, but keep a distance so they are not sure whether I'm interested, but they won't complain to the company."

Now he's got it down pat - 150 dates makes perfect.

He is a master at delivering a pleasant introduction to begin the conversation.

"A lot of women usually say 'I'm not here to make boyfriends, you know - it's only because my parents pushed so hard. I'm actually not that rushed.' And my best reply is simply, 'Yes, of course. I understand, my parents are like that too,'" says Liu.

He doesn't want to appear insincere by saying, "Yeah, let's start from friends, I'm not rushed either." He definitely doesn't want to come across as too eager to get married.

So they chat a bit, split the bill and say good-bye. That's the last word she hears from Mr Liu.


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