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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - When the global economic crisis began diminishing demand at Chinese sex toy maker Sweet Secrets, owner Chen Xiangru knew where she should go instead -- the long-repressed domestic market.
Sweet Secrets, one of the newest residents of China's largest sex toy emporium in Beijing, was once a profitable exporter to Europe and the United States until a slump in exports forced Chen to target a country where sex is still taboo for many people after six decades of straight-laced Communist Party rule.
Armed with China's first registered trademark for a sex toy company, Chen set up Sweet Secrets' first retail outlet in Beijing this month in a four-storey building packed with shops selling almost every imaginable kind of sex-related product.
"When I first started this company, I was really embarrassed about what I did for a living. When people asked me what my job was, I told them I made toys," she told Reuters in an interview.
"But, when I began to create and manage the new brand, I was guided by the hope of creating products that support health and harmony," Chen said in between training staff at the new store.
Sweet Secrets made about 5-7 million yuan (about $700,000 to $1 million) a year before the financial crisis, but sales have fallen by more than one-third since the global economic downturn started, forcing Chen to rethink the business.
But sex remains a sensitive subject in China. In May, the country's first sexually explicit theme park was torn down even before it opened after an outcry from officials, who said it was "vulgar, ill-minded and misleading."
One of the challenges Chen faces is training her staff about products. Very few knew what some of the toys were before being interviewed for the job and many had no idea what handcuffs might be used for in bed, she said.
"But I am surprised that many young Chinese are ready to work for the company," she added.
Chen's employee Cheng Chong said his parents saw his job as shameful, though he thinks he's helping people.
"When people didn't have enough to eat during the 1960s and 1970s, they took no interest in, and were not aware of, this matter. But living conditions have improved," Cheng said.
Chinese culture has traditionally had a very open attitude toward sex. That changed after the Communists took power in 1949, when at times even holding hands or kissing in public was punishable by prison terms on charges of obscenity.
Since China began landmark economic reforms in the late 1970s, those attitudes have changed remarkably.
Xiao Dai, a 20-something out shopping for sex toys, said his generation's thinking was akin to young people in the West these days, though his parents' generation still lives in the more conservative era of Mao Zedong.
"China's been open for a while now, and there's definitely sufficient demand for this market. Our perspectives have changed a lot, and are more or less the same as people in Europe and the United States," he said.
"There's no need to rule out such things anymore."
Writing by Ben Blanchard, editing by Miral Fahmy