China to Take a Great Leap With Playboy Bunnies

Times Staff Writer

May a hundred bunnies bloom.

Playboy Enterprises Inc. said Monday that it planned to open a club here, the largest city in a country where the government keeps so tight a check on pornography that Playboy magazine is banned.

Playboy Club Shanghai, scheduled to open late next year, would mark the revival of the members-only establishment, which got its start in Chicago in 1960. The last of the 22 U.S. clubs, celebrated for the wait staff’s uniforms of fishnet stockings and corsets festooned with fluffy cottontails, closed in 1988.

“The bunny is back,” said Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who like many a Chinese emperor favors silk jackets.


Chicago-based Playboy said it was partnering with a local company, Shanghai Entertainment Ltd., to open a 120,000-square-foot complex with three restaurants, a two-story disco, a two-story cabaret with skyboxes, a spa, a wine bar and a cigar lounge in Changning district, where many foreigners live and where Hooters of America Inc. recently opened its first restaurant.

“The current cultural and business climate in Shanghai, coupled with the Playboy brand’s extraordinary strength in Asia, give us an exciting opportunity,” said Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter and chairwoman and chief executive of the company.

Just a decade ago in Shanghai, “almost all nightlife was seen as suspect,” said James Farrer, an associate sociology professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and author of “Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai.” These days, “it’s seen as part of development.”

Across China, Playboy is a familiar brand; the bunny ear logo is routinely pirated by copycat manufacturers. And if a Playboy Club could succeed anywhere, it would seem to be in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city of 17 million that has dazzled the world with the velocity of its growth and where almost anything is for sale.

In fact, a Playboy Club might be too tame.

“It’s based on a very American concept: that you can look but you can’t touch,” said Paul French, a London native who has lived here since 1987 and is publishing and marketing director of research firm AccessAsia. “This is a city where sex is pretty much available everywhere. Shanghai is based on the concept where you can look and you can touch.”

Shao Weijie, a 35-year-old Shanghai businessman, said that although the notion of a club staffed with women dressed as rabbits sounded interesting, the Playboy concept might be baffling to the average Shanghai resident. “I think people will want to have a look, but once you go there, you might be confused,” he said, about “what can you do and what you can’t.”


Times staff writer Roger Vincent in Los Angeles contributed to this report.