Chinese Museum Finds Sex Isn't Always an Easy Sell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Communists didn't shut it down. The free market did.

China's first-ever sex museum was hemorrhaging money, so it closed shop here after 20 months of showcasing some of the most splendid moments in the country's bedroom history.

But the man behind the groundbreaking exhibit isn't giving up. He's found a new location and is risking his life savings to give it another shot.

"I'm definitely taking a big risk," said Liu Dalin, 69, a sociologist and owner of the collection of more than 1,700 artifacts dating back as far as the Bronze Age. "If I don't do it now, the work I've invested in my whole life will all be wasted."

Attendance was dismal, mainly because few people knew where the museum was. Tucked away on a side street off bustling Nanjing Road in the heart of Shanghai's shopping district, it was supposed to be an ideal location with plenty of foot traffic. But no one, it turned out, could find it, high up on the eighth floor of a nondescript office building.

The small oasis of culture was drowned out by a sea of pizza parlors, sushi joints, noodle shops, karaoke bars and department stores. The kiss of death came when the building's management refused to let the museum hang a marquee or road sign. Liu said he was told the word "sex" isn't allowed to appear in any commercial advertising.

"But we are not advertising commercial products--we are trying to educate the public about our culture, the history of our ancestors," a despondent Liu said.

The sign snafu points to the arbitrary nature of China's prudishness. Shanghai has thousands of shops peddling sex toys. Viagra knockoffs sell like hot cakes. Some karaoke bars double as brothels. Much more graphic displays of nudity and sexual situations are available in pirated movies, live modern-dance performances and traveling exhibits of nude photography.

If anything, the material on display at the Museum of Chinese Ancient Sex Culture may not have been titillating enough. The most graphic depictions of erotic positions were drawn with almost childlike smiley faces--images that historically were placed at the bottom of a bride's dowry trunk so the newlyweds would know what to do.

Venture Proves Costly for Department Store

Only a few dozen customers, tops, trickled in each day to soak up the history lessons. Sometimes there were none at all. But with rent more than $6,000 a month for the prime real estate, Liu and his backers needed at least 100 visitors a day just to break even. And despite an admission price cut, from about $6 to $3.70, the museum was too expensive for most locals.

Often, only foreigners came in to peek at the wide-ranging collection of sensuous Buddhas, phallic stones, erotic scrolls and bedroom furniture. They were mostly tourists and expatriates who tracked the museum down based on directions in English-language publications.

Finally, the New World department store, a state-owned enterprise that had bankrolled the venture thinking it would be a cash cow, decided to pull the plug. The store had lost at least $200,000.

So at the end of April, the show was over. Liu packed up his treasures and started looking for a new home. Various offers came and went from would-be partners. But in the end, Liu decided to strike out on his own, using royalties from the more than 70 books he has written as well as money he got from selling his antique furniture collection.

The only space he could afford was on the first two floors of a new apartment building surrounded by other residential high-rises in a quiet neighborhood. In advance of Sunday's planned opening, the rooms are undergoing extensive remodeling. Unlike the previous space, which had no windows and no natural light, this one is awash in sun from bay windows embracing several large showrooms.

No Interference From Local Officials

Liu believes that people will find the new museum without difficulty. Its large, street-level windows are great for displays, which should be within the law.

"If we don't succeed this time, it'll really be the end of it," said museum manager Hu Hongxia, who admitted that he is nervous.

But as far as Liu is concerned, it's a wonder his museum was allowed to exist at all. Although local officials never endorsed him, they didn't try to shut him down, either.

"What I'm trying to do would have been impossible 10 years ago," Liu said. "I was scared I'd be shut down immediately. That didn't happen. This is progress."

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