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China's Forbidden Fruit China's Forbidden Fruit
by Valerie Sartor
2008-03-29 08:32:52
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Last week I stopped at a very traditional looking teashop, hoping to buy some good Chinese tea for Jane, my friend Michael's wife, before flying to Santa Fe to visit my friends. Jane loves tea; she never drinks coffee. The quaint looking storefront is on my way home but I'd never been in there before because I’m a coffee addict. Imagine my surprise when I finally climbed the stairs and walked in – only to discover an incognito sex store stocked with outrageously sized and colored dildos, artificial vaginas that warmed up and made noises, and even blow up dollies!

Stunned into staring at it all while simultaneously frozen in fear and fascination, I sheepishly asked the grinning young man why the outdoor sign advertised tea: “cha” – 茶. "The tea's in the back room," the cigarette-smoking clerk answered with a leer, “Come on back, I’ll show you what I’ve got.” Shocked and embarrassed, I backed into a shelf of dildos before scrambling out of there quick! Truly, you really never know what you’re going to get into when you come to the PRC.

porn_shopinside_400China has changed in so many ways. Since I moved to Beijing last year from two years of quiet life in the modest, backward northern provinces I’ve watched beautiful young girls wearing practically nothing nonchalantly riding up steep escalators, sexy young men swaggering about in tight designer clothing, leaning intimately on their punky girlfriends. And everywhere I go I see old European men, some scruffy, some spiffy but all over fifty, with pretty young twenty -something escorts and wanna-be wives. Sex – not communism - pervades the air. As the economy here continues to boom the sex domestic sex industry has also jumped onto the bandwagon.

Wen Jingfeng is the founder and board chairman of the Beijing-based Adam & Eve Health Center. He has an admirable economic goal: Wen has wanted to market the perfect vibrator ever since his adult sexual health product shop, (the first of its kind in China) opened 15 years ago. Located on East Fuchengmen Road in Beijing’s Xicheng District near the gate of the People’s Hospital, his shop was initially a joint venture in cooperation with the Beijing Municipal Family Planning Committee and the Beijing People’s Hospital. Wen’s store has now evolved into a high-tech sex-products company with several branches.

Before 1999 the Chinese got their birth control products from government family planning agencies and hospitals; sex toys were virtually unheard of inside China, although the country has been the leading manufacturer of these products for decades. Nowadays condoms are prominently displayed where people stand while waiting to check out their purchases. Male friends told me that one brand: “Big Bill”, was famous during the US Clinton/Lewinsky scandal but disappeared after Bush came into office. Today’s boxes in supermarkets are moderately priced, bright and cheerful looking, with happy, smiling penis cartoon characters sheathed in multi-colored condoms.

But Wen’s Forbidden Fruit Sex Store sells much more than contraceptives. He stocks pregnancy test reagents, aphrodisiacs, sexual intercourse supplements (Chinese and Western), masturbation products, glamorous underwear and a few odd things I couldn’t quite identify. Small and cozy, the Beijing Youth Daily called it “a kind of symbol of China’s reform and opening to the outside world” on February 19.

The products are “implicit and low-pitched” a Chinese friend told me. Sales girls wear white gowns; they’re polite and courteous, discreetly allowing customers to choose products by themselves. Conversations, if any, are conducted in very low voices. People purchase either very quickly or in a very leisurely fashion, a young salesclerk revealed.

As can be expected these kinds of shops attract more men than women. But with China’s new sexual revolution people will come in pairs to browse around, another clerk told me. “Some customers even ask us to connect the power and demonstrate the products. Some care about whether the products are on discount or not. Some even buy the products to be used as ‘white elephant gifts’ for a party.”

Wen asserted that his original intention of establishing the shop remains unchanged: namely, to increase knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and help Beijing residents to overcome “cultural fallacies” about sexual behavior.

Wen said that the change in attitudes regarding sex has both shocked and delighted him. He described how his first customer inadvertently entered the store and saw the condoms openly displayed. “It was a cold day after a big snowfall. We didn’t have our first customer until 16 days had passed. A man in his early 20’s walked into the shop without thinking. Wearing a military coat, he whistled and looked up and down at the commodities on the shelves. He was so shocked when he came to understand what the commodities were that he suddenly stopped whistling, his mouth dropped wide open. By and by, his expression changed from embarrassment to seriousness. Finally he took some money from his pocket, bought a box of condoms, and left the shop quickly without saying a single word.”

Wen’s first sale garnered him 9.6 yuan. He was so delighted with his success that he ran outside and spent it all on steamed dumplings in a nearby restaurant. Incidentally, that dumpling joint, with its intimate proximity to Wen’s shop, has also prospered over time. Wen reported that initially business remained slow - until he got the idea of inviting reporters to come and take a peek. After the Beijing Youth Daily wrote a small back feature on February 13, 1993, the western press went wild and mobbed the shop. Wen became a semi-celebrity and people now openly gloated over his goods. Copycat stores quickly sprang up all over Beijing.

Wen, a Beijinger by birth, graduated from the China University of Political Science and Laws and the China Academy of Social Sciences in the early 1980s. He first worked a government bureaucrat but quit, starting his sex shop business in 1985. Wen even wrote a book: Forbidden Fruit 1993 – My Sex Shop and I, explaining that a French film had inspired his business activities. He recounted how some people initially desecrated his building, writing negative graffiti: ‘hooligan’ and ‘porn shopkeeper’; Wen persevered. Interestingly, the police never shut him down although they definitely snooped around inside his store.

Today Beijing’s Qianmen Street, formerly noted for as a wholesale grain market, is now infamous for wholesale sex products. Sex product wholesalers have even established their own chamber of commerce to solve commercial disputes.

Sex sells everywhere in China. Southern China has always done better commercially than the northern regions, with Shanghai historically the center of sin and loose moral conduct. In south China’s Guangdong Province, one sex commodity wholesaler has more than 80 shops. “Shopkeepers’ kids do their homework in shops,” a local said, “Like all kids, they laugh, fight and run about, throwing the artificial sex organs at each other.”

The Chinese government has only made clear stipulations for family planning contraceptives standards; no regulations currently exist for other products such as artificial sex organs. Among the 22 functions for the food healthcare products approved by the Ministry of Health, there is no mention of “improving sexual functions”.

My male friends also told me that fake Viagra is sold in drugstores and on the street. Some Chinese denounce sex products, especially the more Western items like whips, chokers and electric clips. “They’re against social ethics and for perverts,” a Chinese colleague hissed when I told her what I’d seen recently. “They shouldn’t be put on shelves.”

Wen said that many shops use these kinds of products as sales gimmicks to attract attention. “Competition is fierce,” he muttered grimly. Like any businessman Wen wants to survive and thrive. This entrepreneur is always looking for new ways to stay ahead of the competition. “I’m not just thinking about making money,” Wen commented. “I was lucky to be the first. I want to improve the market and stay in the sexual commodities business for the long term.”

The author is an American freelancer writer and editor in Beijing.

    
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