In the peculiar world of Hong Kong men's magazines, popular lads' mags tread a fine line between titillation and obscenity ACTRESS Michelle Reis teasingly lifts the hem of her sleek black dress, the eyes of Stephy and Miki of teenage pop duo 2R widen flirtatiously, Taiwanese model Chi Ling flaunts her sex appeal with a striking pose. Maxim cover girls are the 18-month-old magazine's aces in the pack in the battle for attention between men's magazines on newsagents' shelves. While their subtly sexy poses seduce readers to pick up the magazine, the fare inside is far raunchier, with western models flashing lots of flesh, graphic illustrations of sexual positions and lewd humour mixed in with page after page of fashion, boys' toys, cars, film news, fun features and plain silly stories. In the peculiar world of Hong Kong men's magazines, there is a fine balance between titillation and obscenity and, judging by its success, Maxim appears to be treading it perfectly. The best-selling men's magazine in Hong Kong and the world sits at the more red-blooded end of the 'lads' mags' spectrum, along with HIM and FHM. At the other end are the more genteel men's magazines such as Esquire, Men's Uno and the most recent local newcomer WE Men. All are aimed at the city's 20- to 35-year-old men, who are mostly single with high disposable incomes. Maxim Hong Kong edition, produced jointly by SCMP Publishing and the magazine's international publisher Dennis Publishing, was launched in April last year ahead of a foray into the mainland. While it features racy material from Maxim in the United States and Britain, editor-in-chief Jimmie Poon puts as much emphasis as possible on Hong Kong content. But what is possible in a city noted for its conservatism? While B-list western celebrities are happy to undress for Maxim, many local stars won't even unbutton a blouse - if they agree to appear at all. 'It's not easy with local girls. Some models from the agencies simply don't want to pose for Maxim,' Poon sighs. 'I still don't understand why. I often see them the next week appearing on the cover of a weekly magazine with a swimsuit on. It's just our reputation.' That reputation stems in part from the magazine's global success as a lads' magazine, with four million readers lapping up its diet of sex, sex and more sex. Poon, however, bristles at the lads' mag tag. 'Our readers are blokes, not lads,' insists the former chief editor of Car Plus. 'They are smart guys who go to the pub. They've got a sense of humour. 'They know what they want and they go and get it. They are Discovery Channel fans. And they like girls. They know how to get girls, but with words, not with money or a super-fast car.' While he is proud that Maxim is 'the pioneer of this kind of magazine in Hong Kong', Poon says he does not seek to emulate Maxim's often outlandish British and American cousins. 'In Britain, it's gone crazy. We can't use a lot of the material [from there]. We can't show bare breasts without the magazine being sold in a plastic bag, and that's not good for attracting the glossy advertisers. In Asia we have to get the balance right,' he says. Former Miss Hong Kong Reis, who was Maxim Hong Kong's first cover girl, described her appearance as 'sexy but tasteful'. 'Sexiness transcends gender, measurements and the amount of clothes. It is about thinking sexy and projecting that energy to others,' she says. Although he has landed enviable cover girls such as actress Maggie Cheung, Poon says it is difficult to find a willing and suitable face every month. The value of the right cover girl cannot be underestimated. When Taiwanese model Lin Chi Ling appeared, the magazine sold out. 'This is what it should be like,' says Poon, holding up Lin Chi Ling's provocative pose. 'She's just so good. Now when we ask a celebrity or a model, it's harder. Perhaps they're afraid to be compared to her.' According to Poon, Hong Kong's media traditionally has two acceptable ways of shooting revealing pictures, either in swimsuits or lingerie. 'It's unbelievably constraining. Readers want more. More fun. More sexy.' Instead, Maxim uses a lot of illustrations, such as the recent graphically illustrated feature on how gym workouts can be transferred to bedroom workouts with a sexual partner. 'It's very funny. Humour is very important to Maxim,' Poon says. The magazine, which sells up to 40,000 copies a month in the city at $35 per issue, celebrated its first anniversary in March with an awards night at the trendy Hei Hei Club in Central. There is a lot more than sex in Maxim's Hong Kong mix. It offers guides on how to do useless things such as starting a fire with wood, as well as celebrity interviews and regular features on gadgets, adventure, films and popular science. 'We focus on what men are really interested in. Adventure, humour and fun. We have sex features and we ask people really silly questions sometimes.' But beautiful women remain the key attraction. In a city where the statue of David was not long ago deemed obscene by prurient censors, publishers of men's magazines face a difficult task pleasing readers without falling foul of indecency laws. HIM magazine, published by South China Media, was fined $2,500 last year for publishing an article about men's views on women's breasts in an issue that did not carry a warning notice. HIM was launched several years ago as a magazine 'for 100 per cent red-blooded males'. It began tamely but has upped its sex quotient in the face of competition. Like Maxim, its formula is babes, gadgets, cars, films and fashion. Readers tend to be divided. Maxim reader and accountant Dennis Yu says: 'Of course, I like to see local girls looking sexy, but if they show too much it's like pornography and they won't get respect.' His friend Johnnie Ho, who grew up in Britain, disagrees. 'I find the local magazines a bit coy. It's all very innocent and not exciting at all compared with overseas magazines.' Not all men's magazines are following the global lads' mag trend. Popular upmarket glossy West East launched WE Men in May, focusing on lifestyle, fashion, trends, grooming and relationship advice - as opposed to sex. There was no glamour girl on the cover of its 300-page, $40 launch edition. Instead it featured Japanese footballer Hidetoshi Nakata. 'We are primarily aiming to capture the metrosexual market, although gay men and women also make up our readership,' says managing editor Carmen Li. 'We are bringing new information for the male reader.' Li says WE Men hopes to bridge two cultures and genders. 'We are trying to educate the modern man about what women want, while women read it to get insights into the male species,' she says. 'We are the only magazine to offer serious relationship advice ... Just offering tips on sex technique is a bit one-dimensional.' However, the burgeoning circulation of lads' magazines suggests that the old maxim 'sex sells' applies equally to men in Hong Kong as it does worldwide. The cover girls might even loosen up and join the party.