Boyfriend for hire? 10 strange things on Taobao

Express delivery workers the day after the biggest online sales day of the year, 12 November 2013 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Taobao's success has meant busy times for express delivery staff, particularly on its annual sales day

China's Taobao is one of the world's largest e-commerce websites, a combination of eBay and Amazon, only bigger. Its 500 million registered users trade almost 50,000 items of merchandise every minute on average.

Taobao has two major platforms - the TMall, where established brand owners sell directly to customers, and the Taobao Market place, where smaller companies and budding entrepreneurs set up shop.

On 11 November 2013, when Taobao held its annual big sales day, 1bn yuan worth of goods were traded in just over six minutes and the total sales for the day amounted to more than 35bn yuan ($5.6bn; £3.45bn).

With more than 800 million items listed, you can find almost anything offered for sale on the website.

Here are just some of the unusual items up for sale on the Taobao Marketplace at the moment.

1. Drone for sale

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Last November, the rebels in Syria announced they had shot down a drone operated by government forces.

As soon as pictures of the drone appeared on the internet, it was recognised as a product sold on Taobao by a Shenzhen-based Chinese company.

The DJI Phantom 2 Quadcopter is a remotely controlled flying device which has a built in camera.

The quadcopter shot down by the Syrian rebels is sold in the TMall store of DJI Innovations for 4,999 yuan.

TMall statistics show that DJI has sold 134 Phantom 2 models; 80 within the last month. It is impossible to tell if the publicity brought by the Syrian conflict was a contributing factor.

2. Boyfriend for hire

The Lunar New Year in China, like Christmas in the West, is a time for family get-togethers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Not everybody in China can bring a partner along to family get-togethers

But for many single men and women, these gatherings can be a highly stressful time when relatives start asking questions of a personal nature.

Right before the Chinese New Year, there was an explosion of listings of men offering their services as pretend boyfriends.

One such vendor had a clear list of prices:

  • For trips to other cities to visit family - 800 yuan a day
  • To act as shopping escort - 150 yuan an hour
  • To help release negative energy by listening to complains or abuse - 50 yuan per 20 minutes

The listings have all disappeared as the festive season is now over, so there is no way of knowing if any of the men who offered themselves for hire actually received any business.

3. Live scorpions

Image copyright AFP

On Taobao, live scorpions are popular merchandise, with more than 800 vendors offering anything from African emperor sorpions sold as pets to live Chinese armour-tail scorpions offered as health food.

Image caption A bag of scorpions sold on Taobao

The scorpions are generally sold at the price of around £1 for a dozen.

A vendor claiming to be one of the largest suppliers on Taobao published pictures of packaging to assure customers that the lively creatures would be safely packed inside containers, and that there would be printed instructions on how to unpack them safely upon arrival.

If a customer still feels squeamish after all that assurance, there is always the option of ordering the scorpions ready boiled or fried.

4. Breast milk soap

One product that has become quite popular on Taobao are soaps said to be made with breast milk by new mothers.

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One vendor explains on her page that she makes her soap with her own breast milk because her son cannot drink it all.

"I used to pour it all down the drain, but it seemed such a waste," she writes.

She posted a picture of herself holding her infant son together with pictures of small bars of soaps in heart or flower shapes.

The soaps are gentle, so can be used by both adults and babies, the vendor says. She also claims that the soaps are not only good for deep-cleansing adult skin, but also effective against nappy rash on infants.

5. Vegetables and luffa water

Wang Xiafeng, 32, is known to hundreds of thousands of Taobao customers as Brother Earth.

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Image caption Wang sells more than 20 varieties of farm produce in his shop

In the three years after leaving a successful marketing job in Shanghai, Wang has built up one of the best-known farm produce brands on Taobao.

"My parents were really worried when I quit my job in Shanghai," Wang admitted. "But I had my first customer within a couple of days of opening up and I've never looked back."

Wang now sells more than 20 varieties of farm produce in his shop, from lotus seeds to homemade sausages.

His two best-selling items are potent home-brewed rice wine and luffa stem water, which many believe can soothe and whiten the skin.

Business is good, Wang says. He now makes much more money than when he was working in the big city and has time to spend with his family.

"My ultimate goal is to help the other villagers to get wealthy, too," Wang said, "I am still working to make that happen."

6. Taoist talismans

Over thousands of years the ancient philosophy and religion of Taoism has become tightly woven into the Chinese way of life.

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There are dozens of shops on Taobao run by Daoshi, the Taoist clergy, offering "Fu", the Taoist talisman said to possess special powers that can either bring the purchaser good luck or help to ward of ill fortune.

A very popular type of Fu is one that helps to soothe a crying baby.

Taoist symbols are written on special paper and religious rituals performed to strengthen its soothing property. The Fu is then folded in a special pattern and sealed in a pouch.

It can then be either put inside the baby's crib or under the pillow.

Prices for Fus vary. Currently the cheapest one on Taobao goes for 0.1 yuan, while the most expensive version is priced at 166,000 yuan.

7. Marmite

China offers a vast array of different food items, but alas, Marmite is not something that can be readily found in every local supermarket.

Yet those in desperate need of a yeasty fix do not need to despair, as a ready supply of Marmite is available on Taobao.

There are two types of Marmite on offer: the yellow-topped big-bellied jars like those on British supermarket shelves, and the red-labelled New Zealand product that is more common down-under.

The Marmite is purchased from overseas, and different vendors have different sources of supplies: the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand - take your pick.

One satisfied customer left the following feedback: "Just the same good old taste as the ones I had back in England."

8. Poetry for the soul

The Sadness of a 50 Cent Poet is the name of a shop that has nothing but poems for sale.

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The shop offers 45 short poems by four poets.

The message is blunt: "Ours is an age when poets starve. Our poems are free. If you think they are good. We would not mind a 50-cent donation."

According to site statistics, the shop was set up last August, and has so far only received two donations.

9. 'President Combo' lunch

When China's President Xi Jinping stopped at Qingfeng Steamed Dumpling Restaurant in the heart of Beijing for lunch last December, he most likely did not expect his meal choice would become a top selling meal combo for the restaurant.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mr Xi ordered a pork and onion bun at a dumpling shop in Beijing

The address has now become a tourist attraction and hundreds of people turn up there to order what is now known as the President Combo.

But if you cannot make it to Beijing, you can still yenjoy the President Combo, via Taobao.

The meal of six pork and leek dumplings, two side dishes of mustard greens, and a stew made of pigs liver and intestines cost President Xi 21 yuan.

The same meal on Taobao would set you back 70 yuan.

10. Gaming credits

Online gaming is big business in China. According to official statistics, the nation had 190 million online gamers in 2012, and the sector's total income for the year reached 69bn yuan.

Taobao is an important trading platform for gamers, where they can purchase virtual credits from game operators or pay other gamers for virtual items that only exist in games.

Some gamers, pushed for time or patience, choose to pay to avoid the time-consuming task of levelling up an avatar.

The website features dozens of gaming workshops that offer power-levelling service.

These workshops are generally staffed by groups of full-time gamers, and a few days of round-the-clock playing will see an avatar transformed from level 1 to level 90.

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