Inspired by a trend in Japan, Hong Kong men Fio* and Sky Lip make themselves available to anyone who needs company to go anywhere, do anything, or even do nothing at all.
There is no hanky-panky involved in being a man for rent, they insist.
The Japanese men who provide the service charge a fee to provide strangers a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a companion at a karaoke session, or just a quiet presence during a difficult time.
Fio, 27, who works as a food and beverage consultant, set up a Facebook page early this year, making himself available for hire.
Three people responded. An office worker asked him to accompany her to work after a break-up. A sports student wanted him to observe his training session at university. A housewife needed feedback on the new dishes she was planning to cook for her wedding anniversary celebration.
“I really enjoy listening to stories people tell about themselves,” he said, recalling his previous stints as a bartender in Japan and Hong Kong. “I want to get in touch with different kinds of people and know what they’re thinking about.”
Twice-married freelance photographer Lip, 45, began his man-for-rent service around the same time, calling himself “Hong Kong Ossan Rental” on Facebook, using the Japanese term for a middle-aged man or uncle.
“During low points in my life I realised that people need mutual encouragement to grow and make their lives smoother,” he said.
The father of four is open about his struggle to save his second marriage, which hit a rocky patch recently over financial difficulties and his grief over his mother’s death.
Three women facing trouble with their husbands or boyfriends turned to him to pour their hearts out and seek his advice.
“I told them I’m not a professional [counsellor], let’s just have a meal together and chat,” he said.
He believed he had a powerful personal story to share, about how he mended his broken relationship with his second wife, adding that their children were key to the reconciliation.
“I really don’t want to see couples separate, especially when they have kids,” he said.
The Japanese phenomenon of men for rent has been around for several years and has been the subject of television dramas and newspaper articles. They include men in their 30s to 50s, who charge around US$90 (S$120) per session, or U$10 an hour.
One Japanese man told the Post he had about 4,000 male and female clients since 2018 and had received more than 10,000 requests.
The trend has caught on in Taiwan and mainland China too.
While Fio and Lip are believed to be among the first to offer the service in Hong Kong, local start-up entrepreneurs Ryszard Yeung, Joseph Lui and Olivia Arakawa, all in their 20s, believe there is potential to grow a business in the city.
They set up an online portal to connect men for rent with clients in the city. They called it Puddy, a play on the Cantonese word 'pui bun' which means 'to accompany'.
“We found that in Hong Kong there are actually a lot of people who need company and a listening ear and are happy to pay for that,” said Yeung, 24. “There is a market and suppliers, why don’t we connect them?”
He said physical interactions were being neglected these days, even in close relationships, as people communicated mainly via smartphones.
“Being with a real person is not something social media can provide, and it is something essential in human interactions,” he said.
The portal, which had a soft launch last month, lists the profiles and contact details of people available for rent. As of this week, about 30 people registered offering their services, mostly men in their 20s and 30s. Only a handful of women stepped forward.
“We want to make Puddy a respected profession,” said Yeung, stressing that this was not a dating platform. “I really appreciate people who know how to listen and cheer others up, it’s a professional skill.”
He hoped to have about 300 men for rent registered by the middle of next year. Those who sign up will be encouraged to charge at least HK$30 per session, and they will be asked to pay the platform 15 per cent for middlemen fees.
Among those who signed up was health coach and amateur stand-up comedian Kinder Lam, 39, who said he hoped to share his jokes and “distribute happiness”.
“Sometimes you want to talk to someone about something but worry that they may tell others, so it might be safer to vent to someone from the platform,” he said.
Steven*, 27, a salesman, said he might consider renting a stranger to go with him on a hike or be with him on a karaoke outing if he could afford the rent and there were quality choices.
Although he had close friends, he said, they were not always available and there were some issues he preferred not to share with them.
“At least a rental man will not spread your story,” he said.
Man-for-rent Fio did not receive more inquiries after his first three clients but was not surprised as he believed that Hongkongers were cautious about letting strangers get too close.
He did not charge his first three clients, whom he met only once for less than three hours each. He planned to charge HK$200 an hour beyond the first three hours.
“I’m not looking at the money. I really regard this as something I’m doing out of pure interest,” he said.
Fio said that he considered himself a lonely man, and offering himself for rent benefited him too.
“During my interactions with each of those three clients, we were mutually giving and taking, and both our hearts were comforted,” he said.
Associate professor Katrien Jacobs, of Chinese University’s department of cultural and religious studies, said she was not surprised that the rent-a-man phenomenon had arrived in Hong Kong.
“I think it means people are lonely and in need of friendship, that they are living through hard times emotionally, but have the means to order specialised services,” she said.
*Names have been changed or do not appear in full at the interviewees’ request.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.