Small shops in China can change their operations with remarkable frequency. In a matter of weeks this summer I’ve witnessed a storefront near my home in Beijing’s Dongsi area transform from the mundane to the salacious. For more than a year the shop was a dingy general store filled with military surplus goods, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Then mid-summer the store was cleared out and refurbished. The next tenant was a man selling watermelons. It was, as you can imagine, a short term venture. Once the watermelons were out of season the vendor disappeared. He was replaced by a man selling faux cloisonne vases. The salesman seemed a little desperate, jumping out onto the sidewalk once to drag me in as I walked past with my dog. The shop closed a couple weeks later.
Next it became a sex shop. The new proprietors placed a pink bulb into the light fixture and set a sign advertising “adult products” outside. Then, by means I’ve yet to understand, they acquired a significant chunk of the local calling card business from the mobile phone shop just up the street. I learned this last month when I stopped by the phone shop to get some cards to pay for my land line and internet service. The man behind the counter said the sex shop now handled the card I needed. I thought I heard him wrong. Phone cards don’t usually fit the definition of an adult product. And I was not sure how to explain to any passing neighbors that I was visiting the sex shop to pay for my phone and internet service.
Inside the shop a child and his mother sat on the floor eating noodles, and the father emerged from a curtain to ask what I needed. On one wall boxes of condoms and brightly-colored plastic sex toys sat on rows of shelving. The other wall was covered with cardboard signs advertising mobile phone service options. I bought my calling cards, looked to see if anyone I knew was walking past the door, and hurried onto the sidewalk. Next month I plan to find a more discreet place to buy my phone cards.