BEIJING (REUTERS) - In China's online hostessing world, men find virtual company and the women can find riches.
Student Xiao Yue, 21, spends four hours most days chatting online with fans who shower her with virtual roses and other presents.
She is one of more than 10,000 hostesses on the Internet site bobo.com, a live broadcasting web platform where anyone can record themselves singing, playing piano, dancing or just chatting.
The hostesses are predominantly singers, playing to an audience that is 90 per cent male, and mostly between the ages of 20 and 35. Acting cute is okay. Anything explicitly sexual is not.
Xiao Yue's speciality is to sajiao - a very Chinese type of flirting characterized by the woman acting in a cutesy childlike manner and speaking in a whiny voice. She puts on little dance mime routines one minute, seductively eats strawberries the next.
In return, users show their appreciation by sending her virtual gifts, which can be worth as much as thousands of yuan.
She admits many who have not used the service may find it hard to understand.
"We don't know each other but as time goes on, there's this indescribable feeling. They really support you, and their support improves your self-esteem... Perhaps people who don't normally use this service won't be able to understand the feeling."
For Zhu Peihua, who says he doesn't have enough money to get a girlfriend, it's all about companionship. "After finishing work, except for watching TV, films or just lying in bed, playing computer games and so on, there isn't a real person talking to you. But with this... this is a real person. You can interact with them. I have some one who will talk to me."
Xiao Yue makes anything between a few thousand and more than $10,000 yuan (S$2,200) a month getting users like Zhu to send the gifts. That pales in comparison with the more than a million yuan given to one hostess on the platform - a record so far.
Xiao Yue says most of her friends don't know about her work, as in the eyes of many the sites are still dominated by borderline erotic content. But following a series of anti-pornography crackdowns over the past few years, many hostess services have cleaned up their acts.
One hostess, Xianggong, relaxed with her mother after a live broadcast in her Beijing bedroom. "We have very strict rules for the users. We have very clear rules about what you can do and what you cannot do," said Zuo Ming, head of operations at bobo.com.
In total there are about 50 Internet companies in China running video chat services. The platforms typically take between 50 and 70 per cent of the money donated by users.
For some fans, what can start as a diversion can turn into an obsession.
Wang Dong, 32, began watching the broadcasts when he started working for bobo as a graphic designer. He said the content left him cold at first, but he soon found himself infatuated with one hostess.
"She had such a sweet smile... Every now and again she had this kind of feeling of sincerity, so I began watching her broadcasts every day."
Wang became so obsessed, he began using his spare time to design personalised virtual gifts for her. He even helped her make a professional music video and got to meet her in real life, but a non-virtual relationship never blossomed.
"We're in contact occasionally... But I'm not as obsessed. Perhaps it's because I feel reality is better after all."