When veteran accommodation businesswoman Shirley (not her real name) took over a 15 room-guest house on a floor in a Jordan building in November last year, she planned to turn the establishment into a short-stay “love hotel”.
Shirley hoped that tapping into the demand of couples for private rooms could shield her business from the slump in tourism caused by the social unrest that was gripping the city.
But with a complete drop-off in visitors to Hong Kong amid the coronavirus pandemic and 200 guest houses predicted to close this month alone, according to one industry figure, she is banking on sex dolls to keep her business afloat.
She came up with the idea after meeting a friend who sold the silicone companions. “I paid a visit to a friend’s place where he showed me a doll,” Shirley said. “Then I thought to myself: ‘It’s quite interesting.’”
She talked it over with Kenneth Lee Wai-lin, who had developed an app for booking love hotel rooms and tutored her on pursuing the business model. “The size of the market is like a dark tunnel,” Lee said. “If you never go in, you’ll never know where the gold is.”
But they would be pursuing a business model that had ended in failure for one entrepreneur. A young man opened Hong Kong’s first sex doll “brothel” in September 2018 by setting up shop inside a 1,000 square foot flat inside a Kwun Tong factory building. Dolls were placed in three rooms, with users charged HK$500 (US$65) for an hour and given the option of making purchase orders.
But two months later, he was arrested for providing pornographic films to customers in the rooms and for displaying sex toys for sale without properly covering them. He had also apparently broken guest house laws by leasing rooms for a period of less than 28 days without a licence. Frustrated, the man decided to close down.
Shirley and Lee aim to avoid his mistakes. They obtained legal advice on the scope of their business and were told they were on a solid footing. “We’re just giving you dolls to play with,” Shirley said. “We’re not prostituting. We’re just leasing rooms that come with dolls.”
The unconventional service will be added to Lee’s existing mobile booking platform, and customers seeking a room can select their favourite type of doll. Rooms, which will be available in different themes, will rent for between HK$900 to HK$1,200 for three hours.
To avoid legal troubles, no pornographic videos will be provided. Neither can customers buy the dolls.
Customers will be encouraged to use the free condoms, and Shirley said she might find one more worker to help clean the bulky dolls, which weigh at least 45kg (100lbs) and cost about HK$40,000 each.
Shirley said her main demographic would be men who had difficulties building relationships with women. In Japan, they are known as otaku and the term is applied to people who are obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture at the expense of their social life. But couples looking to spice things up would also be welcome at the Jordan establishment.
Anticipating a possible public backlash, Shirley and Lee stress their service can help people with needs, including those who wanted to use a doll but had no privacy to do so.
“This is what the market needs. I don’t think I’m corrupting public morals,” Shirley said.
Under Hong Kong law, prostitution is allowed but soliciting is illegal. It is also a criminal offence to run a brothel of two or more people, live off the earnings of prostitution or control a woman for the purposes of prostitution.
Sex doll “brothels” have popped up elsewhere in the world. One establishment opened in Barcelona in February 2017, claiming to be the world’s first. In September the next year, an entrepreneur named Li Bo opened one in northern Shenzhen, claiming to be the first in mainland China.
They’re not providing any sexual services, just several dolls for you to choose
Albert Luk, barrister
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung said Shirley’s licensed guest house did not fit the legal definition of a vice establishment. Neither could he find any aspect of her business model that would run afoul of the law.
“They’re not providing any sexual services, just several dolls for you to choose,” Luk said. “We don’t know what they do with the dolls [in the rooms].”
And even if a minor managed to check into a room with a doll, the obscene and indecent articles laws would not apply, he said.
Hospitality veteran David Leung Tai-wai, founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Guest Houses Association, called the idea “very innovative” and a welcome strategy during difficult time for the accommodation industry. “As long as it is legal, it will be definitely all right as a business,” Leung said.
Some 300 guest houses went under during the social unrest last year, and 200 are facing the same fate this month due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lee said his app to book love hotel rooms was doing well despite the outbreak. “The government is trying to push ahead with social-distancing measures,” he said. “But my business is all about two people being intimate. Did you see how busy I was taking orders just now?”
Although cautiously optimistic, Shirley does not expect to make a big profit. “We don’t know how many people in Hong Kong will accept this or need this. No one knows how many otaku will need this,” she said.
If business went smoothly, the adventurous businesswoman said she might expand by taking over one or two more guest houses. But she was also prepared for the worst. “If public pressure bars me from going further, I will just give up. That’s no big deal. At least I’ve tried it.”
This article With tourists gone, Hong Kong guest house owner hopes sex doll ‘brothel’ will keep her afloat first appeared on South China Morning Post