Little helpers catch on for a hard night's work
The young woman in the adults-only shop approached and asked: 'You want Viagra? 'We are out of stock at the moment but can order it. How much do you want and at what price? How about this one?' She pointed to a blue packet adorned with a picture of the Statue of Liberty, offering a mainland-produced pill with a name that means 'impotent penis'.
'No, I want the American one,' I said.
'Fine, let me make the order,' said the woman.
'We get a steady demand for it among all age groups. The price is 120 yuan (HK$106) a pill, but be discreet. It is illegal, remember.' The shop is in People's Road, Chengdu, two doors from a cinema showing blue movies including The Rape and Kill Case, I am Mad for You and Endless Attraction at 10 yuan for a comfortable sofa for two.
This is Viagra country. Sichuan's provincial capital is one of several cities that have caught the bug for the blue pill, be it the real thing or one of more than 30 domestic imitations, even though the Government has not approved Viagra despite months of trials.
On January 3, 10,000 people queued from the early hours at a shopping mall in Wuhan, Hubei province, after a pharmaceutical firm said it would give away free samples.
Police were called in to restore order after the eager crowd trampled over advertising hoardings and furniture.
Last July, more than 1,000 people stood in the rain at a shopping mall in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, waiting for free samples.
'The tiny blue pill has become a totem for men at the turn of the century,' the China Youth Daily said last week.
'Some say that if Freud's theory of libido started the first sexual revolution, Viagra will start the second. In some cities, it costs up to 300 yuan a pill. To take it has become a symbol of style and modernity.' Chengdu's first free handout was last April, when more than 1,000 queued up in the city's central square. More promotions followed during the year.
Taxi driver Liu Qiang said: 'The police kept order but did not interfere. The response from men in Chengdu was warmer than elsewhere in China.
'Ten years ago, they would not have dared to queue up in public because they would have received a severe telling off from their families. But things are more relaxed now.' Another driver said the market price of 120 yuan a pill was half what it had been two years ago.
'Some people buy it and divide it in two, but you do not know if it is fake or not,' he said.
'I am in good health so do not need it. But those who buy one and have a hard night's work think it is worthwhile.
'There are plenty of prostitutes, mostly from rural areas and some from the city.
'For someone like me, it costs 400 to 500 yuan a night and double that in the posh hotels. With the economy weaker, the price has come down but the demand is still there.
'You cannot buy Viagra in state shops but in private ones. But you have to be persistent because it is illegal to sell it.' Try Wukuaishi, one of the city's biggest wholesale markets. The sales ladies there were suspicious too.
'We may have it. How much are you prepared to pay?' said one.
'The officials come and do checks so we have to be careful,' her colleague said.
'We do not sell Viagra to someone on the first visit. We only sell to those we know.' She said business for the real thing was slow because of the high price, up to 160 yuan a pill, brought from Hong Kong.
'Now, if it were 30 yuan, everyone would want to buy. Maybe that is the reason the Government has not approved it.
'Perhaps it is afraid that it will be too popular and people will find a way to put it on medical expenses paid by employers and the Government, when a person ought to pay with his own money.
'The Government does not want its welfare budget to go to foreign companies.'