In Cliffside Village, Hipster Bookshop Spurs Rural Revival

ZHEJIANG, East China — With the twisted mountain road blocked by yesterday’s snow, Zhao Weiren and his friends have no choice but to park their car and climb the last leg of their trip. They’ve come to visit Chenjiapu, a somewhat picturesque but otherwise ordinary village of 100 or so houses with beige plaster and black shingles. Hugging a steep hillside amid forests of bamboo and ancient trees, the village spends much of the year enveloped in fog. Like elsewhere in the Chinese countryside, young people have long moved away, leaving behind a few dozen elderly farmers. But then a bookshop opened.

On any given day, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people now make the journey up to the village to visit Chenjiapu Bookstore. On that particular winter’s day, Zhao and his friends spent 30 minutes trudging through the snow, but eventually made it. “I don’t think we would have come to this village if there wasn’t a bookstore here,” says Zhao, who lives in the 240,000-strong county seat, Songyang, a winding half-hour drive back down in the valley.

Few in Chenjiapu imagined the bookstore would become this popular when the idea was first put forward in 2016. But local party secretary Bao Chaohuo — most villagers are surnamed Bao — believed in it, and went knocking on doors to get everyone on board. It just so happened he was looking for a “long-term and sustainable project” to breathe new life into the village’s slumbering economy. The year before, President Xi Jinping had announced that no person in China should live below the poverty line by 2020, kicking off a campaign that would leave officials around the country scrambling to find effective ways to improve local fortunes.

A mother and son look through autographed books in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Dec. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A mother and son look through autographed books in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Dec. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

So far, Chenjiapu Bookstore — which specializes in poetry and culture, and sometimes hosts events for readers — has proved a successful formula. Despite its improbable location, books fly off the shelves. Monthly sales in Chenjiapu are equal to those in urban branches, employees say. Li Xia, the store manager, explains that people are more likely to make a purchase after a long and difficult trip. Most visitors would be called hipsters in the West; Li calls them “literary and artistic youth,” and they buy not just books but also items such as notebooks, tote bags, and postcards with village-inspired designs. “With our books and other items for sale, as well as the architecture and the views, customers … find it worthwhile to pay a visit,” she says.

Located in the old cultural center, in which people used to worship their ancestors, the bookstore’s renovated exterior blends in with the village’s 640-year history. Inside is modern and simple, with concrete floors, tastefully exposed wood beams, and a high ceiling. The main entrance leads to a wide corridor with neatly arranged bookshelves opposite huge frameless windows that look out over the valley. There’s an espresso machine and a waffle maker, as well as a viewing platform offering vistas over the valley. It was recently voted China’s most beautiful bookstore.

The shop is a rural offshoot of popular independent bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, founded in 1996 in the city of Nanjing some 500 kilometers to the north and known for being a mecca for book lovers. In 2014, it started branching out — not just into other cities like its competitors, but into villages, too. The Chenjiapu location, its third rural shop, opened last June.

To help the store minimize costs, the local government charges only a symbolic amount of money in rent, and offers free accommodation to its staff. In March 2017, the central government announced favorable measures to develop tourism for underdeveloped rural areas. With strong sales and official support for their business model, the company has plans to open another 10 rural bookstores across the country over the next five years. “We believe that ancient villages with a sense of history and culture should have a place to express the spirit and soul of the people,” says Yu Xiaodong, operations director of Avant-Garde’s rural project.

A villager walks down some steps in Chenjiapu Village, Zhejiang province, Jan. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A villager walks down some steps in Chenjiapu Village, Zhejiang province, Jan. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Yet sometimes such tourism projects fail to benefit everyone, says An Ran, a bookstore strategist based in Nanjing. “It’s a tourism development cycle that combines high-end hotels, restaurants, and leisure facilities that mainly serve tourists, not the local villagers,” he argues. Despite its lofty rhetoric, the rural strategy is just a clever new way to make money, An adds. “Nowadays, bookstores are struggling to make money. Avant-Garde’s practice may open up a new model for bookstores to make profits,” he says.

But in Chenjiapu, the local population is enthusiastic. Villagers have opened restaurants, and two boutique hotels are under construction that promise to create dozens of jobs. Already, some young people are returning from their city jobs to grab a share of the tourism windfall. Farmers who used to sell their produce in the county seat once a month now sell their tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons to tourists for much higher prices. “I can’t even work out how many times my income has doubled,” says Xu Fufen, a Chenjiapu resident who opened a family restaurant. Every weekend and during holidays, her dining room with two round tables is filled with hungry visitors from all over the country slurping down homemade noodle soup. Sixty-something Xu admits she is worried that the uninterrupted flow of visitors might make the village noisy and busy. On the other hand, she says, life here was too isolated anyway, and they’re the good kind of tourists: “Those who travel just for a bookstore are well-mannered. They don’t interfere with our lives. Instead, they bring vitality to the village.”

Xu has the bookstore to thank for more than just a better income. Her daughter and son, who both live in Lishui, a nearby city, now come to visit nearly every weekend with their young children — as do many parents in the region. “They told me there was no such place for reading in Lishui,” Xu says. “We used to see them once or twice a year, but because of the bookstore, we now have something to look forward to every week.” Some villagers have found in shop manager Li a helping hand whenever they have issues with their phones — how to send someone a photo, for example — or when they want to sell their produce online.

Yet other villagers just enjoy reading, like Bao Genyu, 64. He comes to the bookstore almost every day and immerses himself in books while sipping his favorite green tea. He’s particularly into books about Songyang County and rural development, which are hard to find elsewhere. (Among its more than 20,000 titles, the bookstore has a “Songyang Cultural Zone” bookcase.) “We want to offer an opportunity for the villagers and the readers from all over the country to get to know Songyang’s historical evolution, its folk culture, and literary creations,” Li explains. The store regularly invites experts to give lectures on health, culture, and other topics, which are well-attended by villagers and visitors alike.

Bao Genyu reads a book in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Jan. 1, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Bao Genyu reads a book in Chenjiapu Bookstore in Songyang County, Zhejiang province, Jan. 1, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

During the last National Day holiday week in October, over 10,000 people visited the bookstore each day, Bao Genyu says. “They were lining up from outside the bookstore to the entrance of another village down the hill,” he says. “I’ve never seen that many people in my village.” When Sixth Tone visits the bookstore during the New Year holiday, tourists arrive in an endless stream, despite the weather. Almost all of them either buy, eat, or drink something in the shop, says manager Li. Some just come for a good selfie, but Li says she considers it free advertising.

Li and the other staff member, Liu Yating, open the bookstore at 9 every morning, every day of the year. They work five days a week, and alternately take two days off between Monday and Friday, when visitor numbers are at their lowest — about 200 a day. During weekends, they receive more than 1,000 daily visits, and over the New Year holiday, they are so busy that they don’t even have time for lunch.

Village life has been challenging to Li and Liu. The building they have been provided to live in is the best-preserved house in the village, and they enjoy the fresh air and breathtaking views. But city-life luxuries are far away. There’s no longer nightlife or ordering takeout when they don’t feel like cooking. A trip to the county seat takes too long to make on a whim. When the weather is bad, they have to deal with power cuts and frozen water pipes. “Despite the loneliness, boredom, or stress here, for me, this is both my profession and a passion,” says Li, who was promoted from a position of much less responsibility in Nanjing. “As long as I can endure it, it’s a great opportunity for self-development.”

Zhao and his friends spend hours in the bookstore that afternoon. He calls it a magical place and says he will take his daughter with him next time. As they and other visitors leave, Chenjiapu returns to its quiet self, save for the occasional news broadcast or dog bark. People finish dinner around 5 p.m. and go to bed by 8. It’s New Year’s Eve, and while the whole world is waiting for the clock to strike midnight, Chenjiapu is fast asleep.

Additional reporting: Sun Hening; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The New Breed of Handlers Preening China’s Prize

HUBEI, Central China — With her bushy beard, expressive eyes, and wavy coat, Feifei enters the ring and walks a lap. Set up outside a shopping mall in downtown Wuhan, the show makes some shoppers stop in their tracks to snap photos of Feifei. “What’s going on here?” one asks. “It’s a dog beauty pageant,” a middle-aged woman responds, carrying a toy poodle in her arms.

Feifei’s handler leads her to the judges’ table, where the dog strikes a pose as a judge, flown in from Latvia, checks Feifei’s teeth and makes sure her bones are properly proportioned. Spread out in the mall area, other dog handlers — themselves looking their best in sharp suits and dresses — are busy with last-minute preparations. A corgi visibly enjoys getting its butt brushed, and a Doberman pinscher is sprayed with water to cool down.

Schnauzer Feifei waits for more grooming at Wang Xu’s new training kennel before a dog show in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

These 200-or-so purebred pups are the pampered pioneers of China’s growing love for dogs. As the number of pets — now estimated at around 100 million — is ever on the rise, more and more people are willing to pay a small fortune to own a standout dog. Shows like the one in Wuhan attract owners eager to have champion dogs, and kennels who want to show off their breeding prowess. Audiences are slowly catching on

Feifei is a 2-year-old miniature schnauzer whose coat shades from gray to white. “She must feel like a supermodel on the stage,” says Wang Xu, Feifei’s handler and owner. At China’s dog shows, dogs compete at the breed level in the morning. After that round, each Best of Breed winner advances on to the group stage, wherein the dogs are separated into sporting, hound, and other categories. The winners of that round then compete for Best in Show. Feifei has won the top award four times.

Dog shows have a long history in the West. The first English dog show took place in Newcastle in 1859, and every year, thousands of dogs fill New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the annual, multi-day Westminster Dog Show. In China, however, the events are a new phenomenon. The Wuhan show is one of about 80 shows organized around the country by China Kennel Union (CKU) — a nonprofit established in 2006 that’s the only recognized Chinese member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the World Canine Organization. Whereas the Westminster Dog Show is nationally televised and has a large, paying live audience, CKU’s shows are free, and likely wouldn’t attract any viewers were they not organized in downtown shopping areas, says Wang. But the number of shows is growing.

Much like the shows, being a dog handler is a relatively new occupation in China. Fewer than 100 handlers are full-timers like Wang. “Presenting dogs in a show is just a part-time job or a hobby for most dog handlers in China,” the 33-year-old says. In Wenlin, the village in suburban Wuhan where Wang lives and trains his and his clients’ canines, people think he walks dogs for a living. “They don’t understand that dogs can be showed or should be groomed,” Wang says with a shrug.

To prepare the dogs for top performances, handlers give them daily exercise, obedience training, and continuous grooming. It can be physically demanding work, and requires passion and patience. “The dogs I train come in all sorts of different personalities and tempers, so dog handlers need to be able to communicate with dogs on a spiritual level,” says Lu Bing, who became a dog handler in 2015 after learning from Wang.

But dog handlers are well-compensated, mostly from the fees they charge owners for taking care of their pets, which can be more than 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a month. Depending on how many dogs they manage, the best handlers in the industry can earn over a million yuan a year. Wang has six dogs of his own, all schnauzers, and handles up to 14 dogs from clients — a self-imposed limit to make sure they all get enough care and attention.

Growing up in the Hubei countryside, Wang’s family had mutts, though back then he had no concept of dog breeds. In 2012, Wang was getting tired of working as an engineer in a state-owned company. He decided to learn from his sister, who is a schnauzer breeder, and later to become a handler. “I feel happier and less stressed when I am with dogs than humans,” he says, adding that, purebred or not, “emotionally speaking, I love them all.” In 2015, he became the first A-level dog handler in Hubei province — the top level as certified by CKU.


Wang Xu’s dog handling team at their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 25, 2018. Fan Yiying

For every breed there are particular techniques to achieve the best look. For schnauzers like Feifei, it’s all about the back hair, which is tangled and thick in its natural state. About three months before she is to compete, Wang will pull out most of the hairs on her back — which he says is slightly painful but bearable for the dog — so new hairs will grow and form a neat, needle-like coat come showtime.

Dogs are judged on their posture, appearance, expression, and pace. Whenever Wang gets a new dog, he’ll first conduct a series of inspections — such as the dog’s bone structure, waist circumference, and ear and eye spacing — to check whether the dog meets its breed’s standards, which are determined through the FCI. The dog’s character is also crucial. “If a dog is too stubborn and refuses to change after a period of training, it can’t compete,” says Wang.

Wang competes in about 30 shows a year, and has so far won over 200 Best in Show awards. There’s no prize money. Instead, he’s been rewarded with trophies, dog food, promotional items in every shape and form, and even the latest iPhone. “It’s not about the money,” he tells Sixth Tone. “I just want to present the dogs’ best sides and enjoy the show.”

But winning can be profitable. Wang Lin — not related to or a client of Wang Xu — is the manager of a kennel in Wuhan that’s registered with CKU. The kennel has over 200 dogs of about 10 breeds for sale. A few years back, they hired professional dog handlers to compete in shows. “After earning a couple of Best in Show honors, it’s definitely boosted our visibility and raised the dogs’ prices,” she says. Business has improved so much that the kennel didn’t have the time to partake in any shows this year.

Some clients are enthusiasts with deep pockets. “Owning a champion dog is a way for the wealthy to show off,” says 24-year-old Lu, Wang Xu’s former protégé. “Once their precious dog has a breakout performance onstage, they can brag to others: See, even my dog is awesome!”

Tan Liang, a thin and soft-spoken 50-something who works in finance, has wanted to show his dogs since he bought a purebred German shepherd back in the late 1980s for over 2,000 yuan — then a whole year’s income. Since then, he’s grown his pack. “I know I bought good dogs, and I want other people to admire them and have professionals judge them,” he says. “It’s all about gaining face, you know.”


Lu Bing, right, and Wang Xu with border collie Yuanyuan outside their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tan bought a black-and-white border collie he named Yuanyuan — meaning destiny in Chinese — at a certified CKU kennel for 10,000 yuan in 2017, and has entrusted her to Wang Xu. “I can imagine that handling my own dogs would be one of the most enjoyable things in the world,” Tan tells Sixth Tone. “But presenting a dog to show its best qualities is an art, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do such a good job.” Last year, Wang Xu handled another of Tan’s dogs to Best in Show awards at all the competitions in which he participated. “This is rare in the history of Chinese dog shows,” Tan says with pride.

On the day of the Wuhan competition, Wang Xu gets up at 5 a.m. He bathes the dogs, and then packs his equipment — from grooming tables and cooling mats to brushes and blow dryers. Then he puts his four show dogs — Feifei, a French bulldog named Cool, and border collies Weiwei and Yuanyuan — into his van and hits the road.

Arriving at the venue an hour before it begins, Wang Xu has no time to waste. He finds an empty spot, and one by one gives the dogs their last go-over. “I’m trimming her legs into the shape of a baseball bat,” Wang Xu says while working on Feifei. “They’re slightly thinner on the top and slightly thicker on the bottom.”

After a little while, Tan spots his border collie, Yuanyuan, entering the ring. He is thrilled and nervous, and eventually takes a step back so as not to distract her. “It’s her first show,” he whispers. “I don’t want her to see me and get too excited.” He takes his camera to capture every moment.

In the end, Feifei is judged Best in Group but falls short of the top award. Yuanyuan wins Best of Winner, a prize which is four levels lower than Best in Show. But Tan is happy. After the show he goes backstage, and strokes Yuanyuan. He hasn’t seen his furry friend for weeks. “You did great today,” he says softly. “Let’s keep it up.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Tiger Art Village That Won’t Change its Stripes

HENAN, Central China — The sweltering July heat, the passing trucks, and the loitering pigs cannot distract the dozen painting students from the task at hand. The villagers, young and old, are sitting around a table in their teacher’s studio, putting the finishing touches on their tigers’ whiskers and fur with the utmost concentration.

The village of Wanggongzhuang’s love for the big cat is announced to every visitor by a giant boulder situated next to the corn fields and the road into town. Engraved into it, giant red characters spell out “Formidable Tiger Village.”

The hamlet has several ties to the animal. Most people here, even those that are not directly related, are surnamed Wang — a character that means “king.” Tigers are considered the king of all animals, and — with some imagination — the stripes on their foreheads resemble the character wang (王). In Mandarin, “tiger” sounds similar to “good fortune,” and so the animal represents a king’s bravery and power.

In one Henan village, more than half of the residents are involved in creating and selling tiger-themed paintings. By Liu Jingwen and Han Xinyu/Sixth Tone

But the strongest connection is painting. Most people in Wanggongzhuang make their livings from tiger art: Among its 1,366 villagers, over 600 paint tigers, and at least another 200 are engaged in related businesses.

Wang Jianmin, 52, is considered the industry’s pioneer, the artist who first realized that tiger paintings could mean big business. His spacious, stark-white art studio is covered wall-to-wall by paintings, from tiger portraits with almost photorealistic detail, to giant mountain-and-river landscapes with hundreds of animals skulking around the scenes. Wang has his own distinct style for the animals’ fur — flowing and elegant, but with thick layers of paint.

Painting techniques, Wang says, are passed down and improved upon from generation to generation. When he was little, he learned the craft from his father and grandfather, who would paint tigers because the animal is part of the Chinese zodiac. “But they had never seen a real tiger,” he says. “The tigers they painted were not as vivid as mine, because I’ve had the chance to see real tigers in the zoo.”

Different compositions carry different meanings. Tigers painted going uphill imply continuous progress, such as getting rich; tigers painted moving downhill are believed to help ward off evil spirits and ensure the safety of the people living in the house; tiger portraits represent leadership, which make them popular among soldiers, entrepreneurs, and government officials.

Wang has kind eyes and a mild dispostition, which is reflected in his style of painting. He doesn’t see the tiger as a fierce animal. Instead, in his art, tigers are confident, carefree, somewhat gentle, and presented in calm, natural settings — surrounded by reeds and a lotus pond, for example. “We are peasant painters who combine tigers with rural elements,” says Wang.

In his early twenties, Wang and three other villagers, who were somewhat accomplished painters, were no longer satisfied with selling their work in the nearby town. They expanded their horizons to urban painting markets, where they realized there was an untapped market for their wares. “We noticed that most of the paintings in the markets were portraits and landscapes, and that we were the only ones selling tiger paintings,” he recalls. Few artists seemed interested in painting tigers, which demands a high level of technical ability and patience due to the intricate fur and other fine details.

Some 20 years ago, Wang first hit it big when a 6-foot (1.8-meter) tiger painting — China’s art world uses imperial measurements — sold for a price of 100 yuan ($15 today) at one of the urban markets. Since the village’s farmers made less than 30 yuan per month at the time, the sale created quite a stir. Suddenly, relatives and neighbors came looking for him and his three companions — now respectfully called the village’s “Four Great Tiger Kings” — to learn their craft.

Hundreds of villagers are now painters, though the majority of work is still created by the four “kings” and their 20 or so best students. The others merely copy their work to meet market demand. Last year, the village collectively sold around 90,000 tiger paintings, with a revenue of nearly 100 million yuan, according to local government figures. Prices range from a few hundred yuan to nearly 1 million yuan apiece. Most paintings are 6 feet long, but some can be huge, with hundreds of tigers in one frame. Forty percent of the works are exported to Japan, Bangladesh, South Korea, and other countries where tigers are also worshiped.

The village is a collection of neatly arranged two-floor houses and art studios. Walking around, it’s common to see a husband and wife, or a parent and child, painting together at home. Though many villages around China stand nearly empty as people have moved to cities in search for better-paid work, villagers in Wanggongzhuang have stayed home to paint. Many locals now own multiple properties and drive luxury cars.

Wang Jianfeng, 35, started painting at age 13. In 2000, after years of practicing with Wang Jianmin, he finally sold a tiger painting for 80 yuan. Nowadays, his paintings sell for 10,000 yuan on average. His atelier is filled with piles of artwork that are destined for buyers all over the country.


Wang Jianfeng counts the delivery forms in Wanggongzhuang Village, Minquan County, Henan province, July 11, 2018.

Compared with painters of his teacher’s generation, Wang Jianfeng says painters his age prefer different styles. Instead of tigers that look relatively gentle and are painted in soft, muted tones, Wang Jianfeng enjoys using bright colors to paint tigers who have their teeth bared and claws brandished.

Wang Jianfeng is also one of the first villagers to use livestreaming to sell his works. His wife broadcasts him painting and manages the accounts, which have a combined follower count of nearly half a million. According to local government figures, about one-third of all paintings are now sold through the internet. In a good month, Wang Jianfeng can make over 1 million yuan in online sales.

According to Wang Jianjin, who became the village’s first agent around the time when Wang Jianmin made his landmark 100-yuan sale, the growth of online sales hasn’t affected offline business. “The works sold online are mostly mid-to-low-end paintings,” he explains. Buyers of more expensive pieces usually prefer to see them with their own eyes. The village’s 70 or so agents travel around the country promoting and selling the local artwork, and — just as importantly — staying on top of the latest trends to make sure Wanggongzhuang doesn’t fall behind in the market.

People who discovered that they lack artistic dispositions have found ways to join in the windfall. Wang Ximei tells Sixth Tone she dreamed of a lucrative painting career, but failed to master the brush. She then changed plans, and went to Beijing to learn how to frame and mount paintings. In 2004, she opened the village’s first mounting shop and saw orders rise steadily ever since. “I have to work over 12 hours a day to meet demand,” she says, not taking her hands off a mounting machine.


Wang Ximei works on the mounting machine in Wanggongzhuang Village, Minquan County, Henan province, July 11, 2018.

Though the tiger art trade has given Wang Ximei a relatively comfortable life, she doesn’t want her 2-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to get involved in it. “I stepped into this industry because I had no other options to make money,” she says. “But they now have access to study at university, and will have many more opportunities in the future.”

Because everyone caught up in this feline art world has no time to tend to their fields, villagers who still farm have been able to rent large plots of fallow land, and thereby increase their incomes, too. However, differences remain. “The income gap between painters and farmers like me is incalculable,” exclaims 60-year-old Wang Peifeng, who grows corn and peanuts. When pressed for a figure, he says that artists earn about ten times as much as farmers do.

To help the farmers with their incomes, in July, the local government started renovating farm houses so that they can receive lodgers — improving the look of the village in the process. Some land will be set aside for urban tourists to pick their own fruits and vegetables. “We hope it can attract more visitors to our village who aren’t here for professional reasons,” Wang Peifeng says.

The government is also working to promote the village by encouraging art classes — something it’s been doing since 2006. But just improving skills won’t take the village to the next level, says An Desheng, the government official in charge of promoting the village’s cultural industry. “Most villagers paint tigers just to make a living,” he tells Sixth Tone. “We need more villagers who truly love painting tigers.”

Luckily, a new generation seems poised to take tiger painting to new, unexplored places. Wang Jingheng, 23, is one of a few villagers who have attended an art academy. “Our elder generation didn’t master the basics of painting,” Wang says, sitting in his father’s studio. “If all of us young villagers just stay home and learn from our fathers, we will have a limited outlook, and it will be hard to keep pace with the market.”

It doesn’t concern Wang Jingheng that his paintings are not yet priced as high as his father’s. He’s convinced creativity and innovation will bring him success. “Tigers with flying wings in bold colors are probably shocking to the senior village painters, but for us, it’s where the future stands.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Shanghai Sex Shop Selling More Than Just Toys

SHANGHAI — With thousands of sex shops sprinkled throughout the city, another store opening its doors isn’t usually cause for queues. But on Pepper Love Store’s first day, word spread quickly via social media. Soon, a line snaked through the former French Concession, putting a smile on the face of Mao Yongyi, one of the shop’s six owners. “We probably became the hottest sex shop in China,” he says.

Situated in a prewar residential building, Pepper Love Store somewhat resembles a house with every room richly decorated. At the top of a staircase lined with sensual photos, one doorway leads to a bathroom boasting an artful display of dildos, vibrators, and cock rings in all shapes and sizes above the tub.


Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying

For customers who don’t know how to choose among the many products, Mao and his colleagues are on hand to give advice. They don’t want to be the kind of sex shop where the staff “gives you a look as if you’re doing something dirty,” Mao says. “We aim to help couples have a better sex life.”

The third floor is full of sexy lingerie and BDSM products, from whips to nipple clamps. Though sadomasochism is a subculture within a subculture, says Mao, around 20 percent of customers purchase SM-related toys. “We also give them tips on protecting each other,” Mao says.

The shop is set up to ensure privacy. Visitors must make a reservation, as only six pairs are allowed in every hour; all time slots have been booked in the two months since it opened. “Many people ask me, ‘Are your customers really willing to speak to you about their sex lives?’” Mao says. “As long as you’re in a professional environment and speak to them professionally, people are certainly willing to talk.”

Compared with the puritanical days of the 1980s, when selling or producing sex-related products was against the law, Chinese society has become a lot more open-minded: Sales of sex toys are increasing, people frankly discuss anything from their one-night stands to BSDM experiences on specialized social media apps, and e-commerce platforms offer half-hour delivery services for condoms. According to Guangzhou-based research firm iiMedia Research Group, China’s online market for sex toys was worth nearly 18.9 billion yuan ($3 billion) in 2017 and will exceed 60 billion yuan by 2020.

But according to Pepper Love Store designer Zhuang Xiaokai, society still has a ways to go. Upon entering the shop, customers are greeted with crimson walls and an abundance of flowers. “I use a lot of flowers to imply sex,” says Zhuang. She hopes the creatively decorated store will inspire people to spice up their sex lives and can convey to Chinese women — who Zhuang says are sexually repressed by traditional views of chastity — that pleasure is good.


Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying

Sixth Tone visited Pepper Love Store and spoke with Mao Yongyi and Zhuang Xiaokai, both in their late 30s, about the shop, their views on sex, and how Chinese men are failing their female partners. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: Yongyi, you previously ran another sex shop and now have about a decade of experience in the industry. Based on your observations, what, generally, do people get wrong about sex?

Mao Yongyi: In my opinion, sex is a way for couples to build trust and enhance understanding with each other. However, sex is often neglected or treated as a job by many Chinese couples. They don’t communicate or discuss it. Many men don’t know how to please their partners; on the other hand, it’s not uncommon for Chinese women to not know how to enjoy sex. Having sex with their boyfriends or husbands is viewed as an obligation. As long as the men are finished or happy, women think it’s good enough.

Sixth Tone: Many customers now prefer to buy adult toys online for privacy reasons. Why did you decide to open a brick-and-mortar shop?

Mao Yongyi: There are hundreds of thousands of adult toys in the world — how could you know which one suits you best without consulting professional shop assistants and playing around with it? When you shop online, you can’t see its size, you can’t feel its texture, and you don’t know whether it’s hard enough for you or the vibrational frequency is right for you. Most customers who have just started to explore sex toys don’t really know how to select the products that fit their needs, or how to use and play with them in multiple ways. Our job is to understand their needs and help them find the most suitable products.

Sixth Tone: Who are your main customers?

Mao Yongyi: Ninety-five percent of our customers are women who have a relatively high salary and good taste. They come by with either their partners or female friends. Most of our female customers can’t find satisfaction during sex because most Chinese men don’t know how to make love. Chinese men learn how to have sex from porn and intend to apply this to their partners. The majority of them have the inexplicable arrogance of thinking they are the best man in the world that their woman could possibly have. They don’t know much about the female body, nor are they willing to please their partners.

Sixth Tone: What are some of the most frequently asked questions from your female customers?

Mao Yongyi: I think Chinese women, especially urban millennials, are more and more open about exploring their bodies and spicing up their sex lives. But they also have common concerns: People often say they’re not sure whether they’ve ever had an orgasm, or they don’t know what to do when their boyfriends do a certain thing they don’t like or think is uncomfortable [in bed].

Sixth Tone: How have views on sex among the younger generation changed in the past decade?

Mao Yongyi: I think people are becoming more open about it, but the younger generation is receiving more mixed messages and misleading information about sex on the internet, and no one has taught them what’s wrong and what’s right. They don’t know how to protect themselves or be responsible to others. For instance, the definition of sexual assault is unclear to most of them. We’ve met a lot of customers who have a difficult time in their sex lives due to sexual assault they experienced in childhood.

As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system.

Sixth Tone: When straight couples visit the shop together, how do the men and women react differently?

Mao Yongyi: I wish I could see more supportive men, but unfortunately, I’ve only met a few in the shop. Men are more than happy to come here with their better half. But what annoys me is that they act as if they are very experienced and know all the products well. They then pick up anything they feel is exciting and ask their girlfriend to try it. Every time I witness that, I ask the guy: “Have you ever thought about what your girlfriend would like? Do you know her needs? Do you know what suits her body best?”

Occasionally, we meet girls who know exactly what they want. I remember a girl asking her boyfriend to buy a cock ring so they could try it together. He mocked her and told her to put it down, which really embarrassed her. I then suggested that the guy buy the product because he’s really lucky that his girlfriend knows her own body well and is willing to experience something new with him. He did so, reluctantly.

Sixth Tone: Xiaokai, what’s your favorite part of the shop?

Zhuang Xiaokai: One of my favorites is the window display that looks like a flower-shaped tunnel, symbolizing how people reach their climax. I also like the three deer [engaged in a threesome] that people see as soon as they open the door. [Visiting couples] could be either opposite sex or same sex, which shows our stance on sexual minorities. I’m surprised and happy to see that many customers we’ve served have no problem sharing their sexual orientation. I hope these artistic elements can attract visitors to our shop and eventually help build a healthy and positive attitude toward sex.

Sixth Tone: Pepper Love Store is your first foray into the industry. Why did you decide to join the world of sex shops?

Zhuang Xiaokai: As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system. It’s really a problem when most parents still don’t know what to do when their children ask where they come from. I think it’s high time for Chinese people to face up to sex.

This article was published on Sixth Tone.


Plus-Size Models Challenge China’s Narrow Beauty Standards

GUANGDONG, South China — As soon as the sky clears one rainy summer day in Guangzhou, plus-size modeling hopeful Wang Jialin hurries out for a test photo shoot. Passersby stare as she poses on the busy street.

“I’m used to it,” the 20-year-old mumbles. At 165 centimeters tall and weighing 94 kilograms, she stands out in Chinese crowds. The long black floral dress she wears is size 5XL, while most stores only carry small, medium, and large.

Wang had never considered becoming a model until her mother, who works in the clothing export industry, came across a plus-size modeling agent and suggested that her daughter give it a try.

“Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness,” Wang tells Sixth Tone. At school, she was bullied for her size. She doesn’t remember anyone ever telling her she was pretty until she met modeling agent Huang Fei.

Fat-shaming is rife in China, whether in everyday interactions or popular media. While many countries have beauty standards that favor the slim, the pressure to be thin is particularly intense in China, where it is common for family members, acquaintances, and even strangers to comment on one’s weight.

Chinese people think of beauty as slenderness.

Last year, the viral “A4 waist” challenge saw swarms of Chinese girls post photos on microblog platform Weibo to prove that their waistlines were narrower than a vertical sheet of A4 paper. Shortly after, another Weibo beauty challenge launched in which female users posted photos showing off legs skinny enough to be covered by their smartphones.

Yet the nation is gaining weight as nutrition and living standards improve and lifestyles change. In a 2015 report, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission stated that more than 30 percent of the adult population is overweight — defined as having a body mass index of 24 to 27.9 — up from 22.8 percent in 2002.

Clothing sizes in China are not standardized across the fashion industry, but “plus size” typically begins at the equivalent of a U.S. size 10 or U.K. size 14. “It used to be that the middle-aged were the main customers for plus-size clothes, but now they have been replaced by young women who can afford trendy clothing and love dressing up,” Huang tells Sixth Tone.

Plus-size model He Jiahui poses at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth TonePlus-size model He Jiahui poses at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone


In China, plus-size modeling is a relatively new business that only surfaced around 2010. Now, the city of Guangzhou has become the center of the plus-size modeling industry due to the southern coastal region’s flourishing garment export sector and its status as a hub for online women’s fashion retailers. Plus-size models can make over 10,000 yuan ($1,470) per month, twice the average monthly salary in the city, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Huang is one of the plus-size modeling industry’s pioneering agents. She sees plus-size modeling not only as a business opportunity with real growth potential, but also as a way to change popular perceptions around fatness, beauty, and health. Since she started her agency in 2012, she has signed more than 20 female Chinese plus-size models, all weighing between 70 and 100 kilograms, but she says she sees demand for many more. Her clients are primarily retailers on Taobao, China’s biggest e-commerce website, who want to showcase their fashion on a range of body types.

“We have a great shortage of models, but it’s so hard to find qualified ones,” Huang says. Every day, she receives photos from more than 100 eager young girls with dreams of glamour and stardom, but few make the cut. “I can select maybe one good candidate every couple of days,” she says.

Strict beauty standards apply, even in the plus-size modeling world. Huang looks for pretty girls who are at least 1.65 meters tall; are under 25 years old; and have a relatively slender waist, a long neck, and — most importantly — a small, photogenic face. “These requirements rule out most big girls who want to be models,” she says.

Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (left) takes sample photos of model hopeful Wang Jialin in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth TonePlus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (left) takes sample photos of model hopeful Wang Jialin in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Huang herself is plus size, weighing 80 kilograms. The 34-year-old Guangzhou native studied sculpture at university, which she says gave her confidence in her aesthetic judgment.

“I can tell immediately that you’ll be a popular model,” she tells Wang. But though she encourages Wang to take pride in her appearance, she also asks Wang to lose 15 kilograms in two months so she will have a more defined hourglass figure.

Huang used to model herself, in addition to running her own clothing shops and restaurants. She got her start in 2010 when a friend asked her to pose for his plus-size online boutique. Back then, she says, the nascent industry was so desperate that she was chosen despite her height. She quickly saw an opportunity to build a business by recruiting girls who were taller, prettier, and younger than herself.

I have this sense of crisis; I feel like I need to constantly improve so I’m not eliminated by this industry.

Her business partner in the neighboring city of Dongguan, 32-year-old Cai Wenwen, had a similar experience. Cai began modeling part time in 2011, thrilled that she could make 300 yuan a day when her salary as a secretary was only 2,000 yuan a month. “I enjoyed applying makeup, posing, and being pretty in front of the camera,” she recalls. “I was proud to be a model because it satisfied my vanity.”

As Cai grew older and the industry matured, she decided to step aside and become an agent. She’s also in charge of a live-streaming channel for a plus-size Taobao shop. “Customers trust us if they see girls their size trying on the clothes in front of the camera and answering all kinds of questions live,” Cai says. One store for which she used to model herself boosted its sales from a few pieces a month to several hundred a day after Cai replaced a slimmer model.

Wang says that as brick-and-mortar shops don’t carry her size, she relies on Taobao, which boasts hundreds of retailers that sell plus-size clothes. But she only buys from those that use plus-size models, which she says make up a small minority.

Another model, 22-year-old Wang Lanxi, says she is anxious about the future of her career. “Youth is prized in modeling,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I have this sense of crisis; I feel like I need to constantly improve so I’m not eliminated by this industry.”

Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (right) measures model He Jiahui during a live stream for a Taobao store in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone Plus-size modeling agent Huang Fei (right) measures model He Jiahui during a live stream for a Taobao store in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, June 20, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Every week, Wang Lanxi presents a two-hour live stream for a Taobao store with another model, He Jiahui, also 22. The duo try out a dozen new items in front of some 10,000 viewers, explaining which styles pair best.

Before this week’s broadcast, He spent nearly eight hours at a lingerie shoot for her own Taobao shop that hasn’t officially opened yet. After failing to find any decent plus-size lingerie in Chinese stores, she decided to order 122 sets from a manufacturer in eastern China and start her own shop. She plans to launch by Qixi Festival — known as Chinese Valentine’s Day — which falls at the end of August this year.

“I believe it’ll be a hit,” she says. “I just want people to know that big girls can be sexy as well.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.