Is a fuchsia silicone phallus that buzzes and rotates in both directions more or less objectionable than pictures of a young woman clad in pasties and a thong? According to the Chinese government, the “power bunny,” a mainstay in countless “adult product health shops” across its otherwise stodgy capital city is a vital part of the nation’s embrace of a market economy. The scintillating photography? Banned by Chinese censors, who have been waging a merciless campaign against “vulgar and unhealthy” online imagery.
Thousands of sex dolls shops have sprung up in recent years among the dumpling stalls and hair salons of cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. Chinese are experimenting with the help of mainland-manufactured toys, gadgets and S&M gear once destined solely for the hedonistic West. While the government remains skittish over pornography, it appears to condone the sex toy industry–so long as the latest fetish wear and pleasure products are sold alongside contraceptives.
As Lu Yao, proprietor of a sex shop in Beijing’s university district, puts it: “A little fun makes life more harmonious.”
A spokesman for the Beijing Adult Sex Toy Convention, held in April, said there are more than 10,000 sex toy manufacturers registered with the China’s Industrial & Commercial Bureau, though many companies produce adult novelties without a license. The bureau itself shied away from confirming this. Even amid the global recession, 100,000 people attended the three-day expo, including nontrade onlookers ogling the head-spinning array of pumps, wands and harnesses.
According to Sexq, an online wholesaler, China’s annual product and contraception revenue is 50 billion yuan, or $7.3 billion, growing 20% a year. Worldwide, the sex toy trade exceeded $1.7 billion in 2006, the latest year available, according to the products and apparel division of AVN Media Network in California, a source on the industry. According to state media, 70% of the world’s supply is made in China.
With that business now coming home in a big way, even foreign specialty sellers are attracted. Tucked into Beijing’s massive Shilihe health-product market–near some boxes of knockoff Viagra and a sign that declares, “Enjoying erotic pleasure is basic instinct”–is an outpost of Japan’s Nippori Gift Co. brimming with colorful vibrators.
Nobuo Oku, the CEO, was visiting the shop one May day to check up on operations. Oku, who says his private sex toy company brought in $33.6 million last year, first arrived here from Japan two years ago to open a factory in Fujian Province that now manufactures 300 items ranging from inflatable dolls to bondage gear. Although China sales account for only 10% of his total, he says his mainland business has quadrupled since he opened his device-dominated Beijing shop in May 2008.
“The European and American markets are too saturated, but China has potential,” he says, clutching one of his large blue models, richly priced at $70.
Oku, 64, has big plans for China–including a new store that opened in June in Wangfujing, downtown Beijing’s glitzy shopping district, and further expansions in Fuzhou and Guangzhou by the end of the year. “People’s minds are more open there,” he says.
High-and-mighty Chinese once went to bizarre lengths to enhance their carnal experiences. Ming emperors were known to drink concoctions of female silkworms, quartz and a girl’s first menstrual blood to increase their stamina. Even today tiger’s penis remains a popular black-market remedy for those desperately needing a boost. Just next door to Oku’s shop, in fact, an erectile-dysfunction pill promises: “Take it, you can make love like an African man.”
Compared to Japan, however, Oku says that China is still lagging when it comes to sensual awareness. “Enjoying sex is still an alien concept here,” he says. “I see myself as nurturing Chinese sex culture.”
But the Middle Kingdom provides certain challenges. “I have a headache because everything gets copied here,” he says, pointing to several popular products lining the glass shelves. “They don’t copy stuff that doesn’t sell.”
The biggest rival to Oku’s shop chain comes not from other stores but the Internet, which so far hasn’t been curbed by the ever watchful authorities. Xiao Zhao is a 34-year-old Web entrepreneur in Beijing who used to sell clothing on Chinese auction Web sites, but in 2006 he began dabbling in erotic toy sales after noticing all the shops.
In May 2007 he began selling adult products online full-time, now earning $14,000 a year. He’s hardly reached Oku’s level yet, but then there are millions of potential Zhaos out there. Just as in the West, the Internet allows one to browse in private (if no one is monitoring). Discretion has also been Zhao’s calling card. Nobody knows his true line of work, including his family (his transliterated name is common). “They think I’m still selling shoes and shirts,” he admits.
Yet as much as the Chinese prefer to think they are more conservative than depraved Westerners, the merchandising suggests otherwise. On learning that many American towns forbid the sale of adult toys, Zhao was incredulous. “Don’t they have sex shops on every corner, too?”