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Sex Toys and Traditional Medicine: Revisiting the Health Products Mall

Your immune system needs daily boosting.
Aug 4, 2020 | 12:00 Tue
Photos: Brandon McGhee
Offbeat: "Offbeat" is a column about stuff to look at or do in Shanghai that's interesting or weird (relatively, of course), that doesn't fit anywhere else.
I was looking for dried deer dick. Instead I found a lady selling Size Queen Specials — huge silicone pricks — and complaining about the travel ban.

"I can't offload these giant ones because no foreigners are coming anymore" she lamented.

Of all the ways the travel ban has impacted the country, I have to admit, a softening of the novelty rubber cock economy was not one I had anticipated.

I was at the "Health Products Market" (baojian pin shìchang / 保健品市场) in Kaixuanmen Dasha, a four-story, aging theme mall of the type popular in the 90s and 2000s before the rise of e-commerce made it much easier to buy ginseng, quivers of deer dicks and cheap sex toys online.

My assignment was to poke around the place on a rainy afternoon, revisiting what was once a wild compendium of TCM exotica — dried lizards and scorpions, turtles and tree bark, the ephemera of nature broken down for tinctures, decoctions and remedies for whatever ails you — topped with a floor of less natural but infinitely more recognizable masturbators, model vaginas, disembodied sexual organs and take-home peckers for all persuasions.

But things have changed over the years. Perhaps the sellers have been hollowed out by competition from e-commerce and infinite choices from across the country for similar products. Maybe the pandemic and the new, stricter laws on the sale of animal parts have limited the selection. Maybe the market for deer dong just wasn't that, um, firm, and as society gets richer, we move on to other... things.

What's left are three dilapidated floor in a fading but still majestic open atrium, packed with stall after stall stocking vacuum-sealed, gift-wrapped and/or loose piles of medicinal ingredients. Ginseng, wolfberry, cordyceps, fungus, mushrooms... you name it. The arsenal of traditional Chinese medicine is vast and every root, herb and parasitic fungus exploding from the head of a caterpillar that you can imagine is on display and available by the jin. The jars of ginseng roots, grown into haunting, contorted mandrake shapes, are particularly eye-catching.

The air is thick with the unmistakable smell of an apothecary, tinged with dust and neglect. On a weekday afternoon, there were just a handful of other customers. None appeared under fifty. Shop-keepers either sat on their phones hidden behind burlap sacks of natural produce, or were busy preparing goods for delivery. They were not interested in making conversation with a visiting white guy and a couple photographers just out for kicks.

Probing questions about the product, or about the state of business, or about the mall, were either ignored, or answered as brusquely as possible. "It's good for your immune system." "Business is down." "We've been here about twenty years." This mall is for those who already know why they might need a pack of dried lizards, berries or turtle shells, not somebody trying to decide on the spot. The TCM Mall is only interested if you're buying.

Of course, the real draw for anyone out for a cheap laugh or bachelor/ette party gag is what's on the fourth floor. Sexual health and TCM are not so far apart, all part of a general approach to wellness. Getting your rocks off is necessary. It's natural. It's good for your immune system. It's why a dozen rooms of silicone cocks and rubber vaginas are in the same building as ginseng and caterpillar fungus.

Not, as I first suspected, a coffee grinder.

At one time, this mall was swish enough to have a LELO store, but that's gone now. One shop-keeper said that vending machines were the future, removing that fraught interpersonal element.

What's left are a handful of stalls up here, on the fourth floor, quietly doing their trade in ticklers, teasers, vibrators, clips, clamps, tear-away thongs, jumbo Frankenserters, tongue fondlers, quick-release cock eagles, fireman red strap-ons and this... guy.

You wonder how malls like this sustain themselves in 2020. A couple of the shops seem to run as bases for ecommerce delivery, but others appear to rely on a handful of loyal, repeat customers. I can see the appeal. A scrolling photo carousel on Taobao can be misleading. Sometimes, you need to see the freeze-dried wolfberry with your own eyes. Sometimes, you need to fondle the goods and look the seller in the eye as he explains why this ginseng root costs 280rmb per kilo and that one costs 880rmb.

And sometimes, just sometimes, you need to buy a footlong silicone dong without leaving an electronic paper trail.


Kaixuan Men Dasha is located at 428 Tianmu Zhong Lu, near Wuzhen Lu / 天目中路428号, 近乌镇路.


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