UNIVERSITY senior Kingston Luo opened a Taobao shop five months ago after his father gave him 40,000 yuan (US$6,441) to start his own business. Luo did some research and joined a chain of sex toy sellers.
“I didn’t tell my parents the details because they wouldn’t understand and would probably think I’m a pervert,” the 21-year-old Wuhan-based student tells Shanghai Daily.
Luo has spent half the money on products and training/education for salespeople. He hasn’t earned much yet, but he is confident and enthusiastic about the future of the sex toy industry in China.
Over centuries, with some exceptions, Chinese have been pragmatic about and appreciative of sex, and sex toys were included in emperors’ tombs to help them enjoy all the pleasures of the afterlife. The Internet overflows with sites selling traditional Chinese sex tonics.
The subject of sex (xing 性) is largely taboo today, however, and it’s a struggle to include basic sexuality education in schools in many Chinese cities.
Still, attitudes are changing and Luo decided to “seize business opportunities and learn from the best.”
So he skipped school, where he majors in chemistry, to visit the 11th China International Adult Toys and Reproductive Health Exhibition that opened yesterday at Shanghai International Exhibition Center.
The annual gadget show — complete with adult-film stars and skimpily clad models — features more than 100 Chinese and foreign manufacturers, chain brands and hospitals that treat sexual dysfunction.
The 3-day event is packed, especially the booths of vendors who hire young women — some famous Chinese nude models and Japanese X-rated film stars — to present everything from silk lingerie to high-end dildos.
Flashes and clicks from cameras and cell phones are unstoppable, but the exhibition hasn’t made the top 10 topic clicks on Sina weibo microblog. Animation and auto expos, with their own scantily clad ladies, get more tweets since they’re more mainstream.
“No way I’m tweeting this. It’s OK to say I’m there for the girls at the auto show, but it’s weird to be known for visiting sex toy exhibitions. I don’t want parents, relatives or acquaintances to jump to the wrong conclusions,” says freelance writer Jeff Wang who is in his late 20s. “But I am sending photos to good friends and I’m sharing in my intimate WeChat Moments — they are more open-minded.”
By “wrong conclusions,” he means stereotypes of men in raincoats and promiscuous women buying sex toys and aphrodisiacs. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m impotent,” says the single man.
Like the attitudes expressed at the exhibition, China’s sex toy industry is at an intriguing moment.
Last year, a mobile application called Xing Jia Bi (quality-price ratio 性价比) — a pun on the character xing or sex — got 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million) in angel funds and was briefly one of the top-downloaded apps. It’s an online sex device shop allowing users to buy with one click and pay on delivery.
Sex a taboo word
The industry has come a long way since 1981, when Shanghai held its first sex exhibition. At that time the Shanghai Museum of Natural History presented the “Natural History of Sex” from France, breaking its annual attendance record of more than 700,000 visitors.
Only a few years before that exhibition, kissing on the street was a crime, considered immoral public behavior. The show was wildly popular and people were eager for all the information they could get. It went on national tour.
But it was not until 1993 that the first sex toy shop, Adam and Eve’s Health Center, opened in Beijing.
A news report at the time said only a few people showed up on the opening day, cast furtive glances and left in embarrassment. The shop has become a chain brand and its Wenzhou-native owner, Wu Wei, has become one of the mainland’s first sex device manufacturers. He established Ailv (loving partners 爱侣) in 1994.
Business took off in 2000 when Wu started getting orders from Japan and the United States. Its website calls it “the world’s largest reproductive health product supplier and servicer,” selling to more than 40 countries. Wu has said China is his biggest target market and he’s waiting for attitudes to change.
A handful of toy manufacturers have created some buzz, but the topic still causes blushes; they are legal but not discussed freely, even on the Internet.
Last month, a Xiamen-based company recruited for a “sex device experiencer” — someone to try the devices, write clever and amusing endorsements and change attitudes. The annual salary was 150,000-200,000 yuan, more than 4 times the income of the average university graduate.
The company said it had received a few hundred applications, including some from graduates of prestigious universities such as Tsinghua University and MBA graduates from overseas.
The company and applicants may have been inspired by Ma Jiajia, born Zhang Mengning, an attractive 24-year-old woman who founded Powerful Sex Shop when she graduated in 2012. She wrote frankly about the devices she sold in a humorous, self-deprecating way. She attracted more than 200,000 followers on Sina weibo.
Many people admired her openness and praised what they called her healthy image and “Lolita style,” meaning girlishness. Others condemned her for discussing things best left hidden.
The big adult toy show in Shanghai started in 2004, shortly after the Food and Drug Administration removed the gadgets from the category of medical devices, requiring a special license to manufacture and sell.
“That was a turning point and many more sex toy shops opened in the next 5 years,” says Lao Zhang, a sex toy manufacturer from Xiamen city in Fujian Province.
The global financial crisis reduced US and European orders by a quarter and the company then produced more for China. “But the main business is still orders from overseas,” he says.
Zhang says his medium-sized factory supplies more than 100 online shops and 30 brick-and-mortar retailers, in addition to overseas buyers.
Domestic orders have increased 12 fold since 2003, but the base was very small. Over 3 years, domestic sales have increased 30 percent a year, according to Zhang, who declines to discuss revenue.
Because most people are uncomfortable talking openly about sex and sex toys, there has been no major market survey.
Those in the industry are sure they have a winner and they are doing some careful marketing.
In 2012, Chun Shui Tang (Spring Water Home 春水堂), one of the largest sex device websites, produced a mini-series, “Adult District.” The animated production, with five, 10-minute episodes, was set in a luxury sex device shop owned by an attractive and graceful woman. There’s a storyline and various customers — men and women — and shop assistants openly discuss the function and quality of devices.
In real life, the brand’s brick-and-mortar stores didn’t flourish like the fictional one and expansion was curtailed. Spring Water Home’s owner, Lin Degang, said it was too difficult to expand offline shops because they get so few customers. He estimated the Chinese sex device market to be at least 30 billion yuan (US$4.8 billion) a year.
“That’s is way too much,” says Rock Shi, who has one Taobao shop and one offline shop in Shanghai’s suburban Jiading District. He estimated it at around 2 billion yuan.
“The online business is getting real competitive in prices. I sell around 100 inflatable sex dolls every month for 200-300 yuan each, but dozens of shops sell low-quality dolls for 100 yuan,” Shi says.
Now he is looking for a good supplier to meet his design specifications for quality devices “that aren’t just cheap and bad copies of Western toys that don’t suit Asian sizes and tastes.”