Receive $80 Grab vouchers valid for use on all Grab services except GrabHitch and GrabShuttle when you subscribe to BT All-Digital at only $0.99*/month.
Find out more at btsub.sg/promo
"YOU can get anything from Taobao, Kelly," a friend declared last week, aghast at my China e-commerce virginity.
It's not that I don't enjoy sleuthing for good deals online; I've only steered clear from the site because of my half-past-six Mandarin - a fact I've never been proud of, and especially lament these days. (Perhaps teachers could try warning recalcitrant Mandarin students: "You don't study properly, later you cannot shop on Taobao you know.")
In a bid to finally get started, I had turned to a friend who's a Taobao expert; she visits the platform at least once a day, and has ordered 11 shipments in the first four months of this year alone.
As part of my crash course on the wonders of Taobao, my friend opened her app and showed me the various items up for grabs. There was the usual stuff I'd imagine an e-commerce site would have - stationery, clothing, gadgets - but there was also some truly wacky paraphernalia too. Live scorpions, for instance. A blow-up David Beckham sex doll called David Bickham. Giant soap dispensers shaped like Jackie Chan's nose (squeeze it and the snot, I mean soap, runs out).
My friend might as well have been Aladdin singing, "I can show you the world", because I sure felt like I was on a magic carpet ride.
In jest, I asked: "So, could you buy a boyfriend on Taobao?"
"Of course!," she exclaimed, and excitedly typed nan peng you, or boyfriend in Mandarin, into the search bar.
That's how we discovered what I'd wager is the strangest offering on Taobao: not boyfriends for hire - that's old news - but the fact that there is such a thing as the nan peng you zhong cheng du, or Boyfriend Loyalty Index.
It's essentially a service tailored for paranoid girlfriends. As an ad asks: "Are you on the verge of breaking up, without knowing why? Is it killing you? Is he always telling you he is busy? Is it true? What is he doing, looking at his mobile all the time? If you are having doubts about your relationship and want to confirm your suspicions, we can help you! All you need to do is buy our service, and you can leave the rest to us. We will test his integrity and keep the operation top-secret. Our clients' privacy is our top priority."
Here's how it works: for a flat fee, an agent will masquerade as a pretty girl on WeChat, and flirt with your boyfriend to see if he will (i) cave and respond, (ii) flirt back, or (iii) God forbid, agree to meet up to take things further. Oh, and there are real-time updates and screenshots provided to the buyer, too.
Prices range from S$5.69 to S$225.60, and are tiered according to the level of involvement required.
For example, the most basic package is for one day of service, comprising only text messages. Climb up a few rungs, and agents - or "loyalty testers", as they are known - will share pictures of a "guaranteed fair-skinned pretty girl" to tempt the poor sod further.
The most elaborate package includes one-to-one consultations beforehand (share your specific concerns, and they will "apply the best testing methods" accordingly), personalised correspondence (to ensure that the conversation is tailored to your man's interests), and ongoing after-sales service (you'll receive a consolidated report detailing the investigation's findings). The duration for such top-tier packages is not stated.
It's not just one quirky shop offering such services, mind you. Based on our cursory scroll through the search results, there were countless service providers - pages and pages and pages on the app.
Reviews are effusive (although, to be fair, paid reviews are rife on Taobao so it's hard to say for sure how many of these are genuine). Here is a selection from a shop known as chun he jing ming - an idiom which means "A Very Lovely Spring Day" - which had over 50 such transactions in the month of April alone:
- "I recommend this to all girls; I hope you can get rid of shitty guys as soon as possible."
- "The tester is really great - pretty and gentle. If I were a guy I'd want to get to know her. But my boyfriend and I have been together for a long time, so he did not respond to the tester. Oh, I feel so happy!"
- "Tester #149 is super nice. In the beginning, my boyfriend didn't want to talk to her. I thought he was a really good boyfriend and wanted to end the test. But the tester was very persistent and he eventually fell for it. Thank you very much; now I have to figure out how to solve the problem."
At some point, one has to wonder whether these "problems" are self-created.
It's worth noting that the overwhelming majority of such ads target mistrustful women. While some shops certainly advertise girlfriend loyalty indices too, I have yet to come across any reviews that show men have actually used the service.
Also, what I find most intriguing is the fact that such services are pre-emptive in nature. Sure, private investigators (PIs) have been around forever - remember those www.catchcheatingspouse.com.sg taxi bumper ads? - but this takes things to a whole new level. It's paranoia at its finest.
Let's face it, though. If you're going to such lengths to test your partner's loyalty - whether through old-school in-person private eye methods, or via some new age Taobao ruse - you've likely got way bigger problems, mate.
I guess the internet could help you with those too; after all, you truly can get anything from Taobao.