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Thursday, February 16, 2006

China's Sex Toy Revolution

By Joshua Samuel Brown

Consider this: In the early nineties, a European businessman was thrown out of China when a package mailed from home (opened by ever-watchful customs agents) was found to contain a penis-shaped vibrator. The businessman was charged with the importation of an item spiritually polluting to the Chinese people, and was summarily given the boot.

So the fact that in August, 2004, 6000+ people were wandering around the floor of the Shanghai International Exhibition Center visiting booths displaying the latest in dildos, vibrators, nipple clamps, blow up dolls, anal beads, pocket pussies and latex fetish gear is indeed noteworthy, not just to swingers & fetishists, but to those monitoring the tremendous sea-change in China and the views of her people (and no less importantly, her government) regarding sex and the myriad products that enhance sexual pleasure.

It's a revolution that began with baby steps. In the latter half of the nineties, shops selling sexual aids began opening up in China's larger cities. Unlike sex shops in the west, these places were almost clinical in appearance, more often than not run by frumpy older women dressed in white lab coats. But they did a booming business, and by the early part of the current decade, shops like these had spread from city to city, and even in the smaller towns, stores selling marital aids were popping up. Items that were once taboo had become big business in the middle kingdom, both for domestic use and export. So perhaps its not all that surprising that Shanghai - a Chinese city long associated with titillation - would be chosen to host China's first sex toy expo.

But from the get-go, it was clear that the expo was hardly the delirious orgy that it might have been in Las Vegas or Amsterdam. The expo's organizers, under the watchful eye of big brother, were taking no chances. No expo of this type would be complete without runway models displaying the latest in sexy lingerie, and it was here that the trepidation of organizers to toe a fine line was apparent; the models, thin, leggy Chinese women, sauntered down the runway to thumping beats, as they might have on any catwalk in the world. But beneath the sexy lingerie and latex, all were wearing cloth body suits, lest an errant nipple pop out and evoke lust from the gathered crowd.

This isn't to say that there weren't flashes of hardcore lust available for those with a taste for such things. One booth that had a near constant crowd around it was that of Jill Kelly Productions, a California based company that produces what might be called by aficionados as "the finest in hardcore adult entertainment". In the center of the crowd, on a high stool that put her luscious figure on good display, sat a bona fide American porn star signing posters for an eager line of fans.

Cindy Crawford (she swears this is her real name) is the star of around 250 Adult films, and despite the fact that such films are highly illegal in China, Cindy said she'd developed quite a following in Shanghai.

"When I got here, I was greeted with a bouquet of flowers by a group of adoring fans who told me that they'd seen a bunch of my movies. All off pirate discs, I'm sure, since there are no legitimate channels to distribute work like mine (pornographic movies are still illegal in China). Still, it's flattering to know that my films are being enjoyed here."

Another westerner who'd come to the expo with high hopes was Wilfred Keller, whose Belgium based "Jenny's Erotic Fashion" specializes in high-end erotic silk and latex. His experiences were not as copasetic as those of Ms. Crawford, though his story probably wouldn't surprise anyone who's tried to enter the Chinese market on a wing and a prayer.

"I was robbed yesterday, the place was a madhouse, crawling with thieves. People were stealing from us left and right, underwear, latex, you name it. My wife put her mobile down and within 5 seconds it was gone. You see this?" He asks, holding up one thigh high leather boot with six-inch stiletto heel. "Somebody stole the other one...what use is one fetish boot? The police finally came by, they told me that usually there are 10 guards for an expo of this size, and at this one they had 25 and still couldn't guarantee security. They advised me to put my gear away and display empty boxes instead, so I did."

Nonetheless, Mr. Keller - whose items are high end, top of the line stuff with price tags three to five hundred percent higher than their made-in-China equivalents - expressed guarded optimism in the possibility that his latex and lingerie would find a niche in the ever-opening Chinese market.

"While Japan is still a better market for us at present, because of the price difference and China's high import duties, we still see China as a potentially huge market - this expo is really just an opportunity for us to get a foot in the door."

There were other western businesses with erotic wares on display - Pjur, a German company producing high end lubricants, and Sweet Supplier, who's very lovely French business rep displayed a variety of lickable candies molded in the shape of equally lickable body parts. But to get the real picture of how booming the sex toy industry in China really is you needed to check out the local booths. Many of these were small-time operators; Fuyin Medical Instruments, a company producing a three-piece erection-sustaining device whose instruction manual might best be described as "overly complex," China Kama Industrials, manufacturers of S&M gear ("you'd be surprised at how many Chinese - men and women - enjoy being whipped," said the owner), and manufacturers of condoms and lubes of all describable shapes, colors and flavors.

The biggest of these (both in market share and booth size) was Loves. In business since 1995, Loves is the venerable pioneer of the Chinese sex-toy industry. Sitting in his second-floor jerry rigged platform/office (complete with bar, upstairs sample room displaying the more risqué products, and meeting room), Loves' president Wu Wei was clearly master of all he surveyed down on the floor.

"When I first started this business, it was very difficult. I waited four years to get approval, and had to endure all sorts of legal scrutiny. Back then, items like these were considered immoral. Now, it's just another business. Mine is the biggest exporter of Erotic goods in all of China, and our products are the most widely sold within China."

Mr. Wu called for one of his people to bring in some samples. "We're very proud of this one," he said, laying on the table a small box bearing the logo "Lord of the Rings" written in the same style letters as the movie of the same name. Inside was a small rubber ring attached to a thumbnail sized cylinder.

"Press this button and it vibrates. Women love it! And the best part is that the vibration device detaches, so you can wash it in water and use it again and again."

To Mr. Wu, the future of sex toy sales in China is coming up roses. "Look at how far we've come already," he said, gesturing at the throngs of people on the floor checking out wares that just a decade ago wouldn't even have had names in Chinese. "This market can only get more mature. One day, Chinese people will crave these products as naturally as they do water when they are thirsty." Ever the adult entertainment entrepreneur, Mr. Wu expressed optimism that one day ("in ten years, perhaps") China would even have a flourishing adult movie industry like America.

The visiting American porn star was equally optimistic about the pace in which China's sexual products industry would open up, and she's putting her money (or image, at least) where her mouth is. The expo was only part of her reason for coming to China. Before heading back to LA, she's slated to fly down to Shenzhen to visit a factory that's just been consigned to produce her own signature line of adult items (vibrators, dildos, and more, all bearing her likeness and seal of approval on the package).

As for the possibility of morality standards relaxing enough to allow for China to jump into the lucrative world of pornography, she was even more hopeful than Mr. Wu. "I'd just love to come back to Shanghai and be able to shoot some scenes with some beautiful Chinese women." She said, flashing a salacious smile as a passing fan snapped yet another picture


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