The state of Asian porn

By Gerrie Lim for AVN Online
July 1, 2007

Content providers of Asian erotica once considered themselves members of a unique niche, but they now share the perils and pitfalls of the adult online arena. All ambitious webmasters need to remain vigilant, because adult businesses no longer can afford to see product split into the old brick-and-mortar and click-and-mortar worlds. Companies now compete in an intensely demand-driven environment with consumers' enjoying an array of options never before available, and so an economic Darwinian situation has developed.

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Four years after I examined the state of Asian online erotica ("Bring on the Tsunami: The Rising Tide of Asian Porn," AVN Online, January 2003), some major Asian companies have perished. At first glance, this may seem odd, as recent statistics indicate porn in Asia is booming. In the most recent study by TopTenReviews.com (March 2007), Asia clearly drove the world market. China, South Korea, and Japan were the top three countries in worldwide porn revenues for 2006-at $27.4 billion, $25.73 billion, and $19.98 billion (all USD), respectively-with the US in fourth place at $13.3 billion; the ninth and 10th places were taken by the Philippines and Taiwan, each at $1 billion.

Additionally, Japan placed fifth in the list of top video porn producers (the US and Brazil were the top two) and in the list of adult website pages (2.7 million) viewed by country. (The US and Germany finished first and second with 244.66 million and 10 million, respectively).

When mystique loses its charm

There's no doubt the abundance of Asian porn consumers remain. However, how producers cope with the overwhelming demand-since the pieces of the pie are shrinking-makes for an entirely different picture.

Concepts such as "brand loyalty" now mean something very different, because viewers can (and do) choose to take or leave what they see (video-sharing sites, anyone?), and even "Sunday surfers" now delight in partaking of free content. Tell that to some of the producers I previously interviewed for that January 2003 story, and watch them cringe.

Intrepid Brit Sean Clarke, once known as "Pervy" in Asian erotica circles, wrote of his now-extinct adult portal Flog-On.com: "Well, it had to happen one day. The original Flog-On finally became a victim of its own success and security flaws." In 2002, Clarke was confident about his business model, largely built upon thousands of hardcore Asian-girlie TGPs-but the revenue stream somehow failed to meet its intended target.

"I've pretty much taken myself out of the adult world," Clarke told me. "I still have a few adult sites, all movie-gallery posts, which I only maintain because they provide me with a few hundred dollars a month for almost no work. My time now, aside from my daytime job-I'm now running e-commerce for a mainstream site-is taken up with more mainstream Internet activities, like affiliate marketing."

Similarly, the vivacious Shirley Young, who ran AVWatcher.com (launched in November 2002 to target Asian adult DVD fans in the US), said she is "no longer in the business." Her fare largely consisted of Japanese porn, the discs replicated in Taiwan and available via online order-somewhat innovative back then, but now commonplace.

In Singapore, the infamous SammyBoy.com, a favorite among Asian sex-tour fans, experienced a seismic shift. Visitors still can glean information about Southeast Asian brothels, massage parlors, and karaoke-lounge cathouses, but those lists now reside on static portals; with the exception of SammyBoy's visitor-friendly forums' page (which is hosted on a server in the US) the site no longer is updated regularly. (Offline pornography remains illegal in Singapore, although the local government conceded defeat in cyberspace and made a token effort to curtail it by blocking only 100 adult sites.)

"I'm just a webmaster who hosts a forum about Singapore sex," Samuel "Sammy Boy" Leong said. "I do not determine the direction the forum takes. The collective membership [is what sets] the tone; all I do is categorize the content in order to make the forum as user-friendly as possible. The site itself is no longer regularly updated.

"Everyone owns a [camera phone] and a digital camera nowadays, and as a result, people make their own porn-they don't have to buy the stuff anymore," he lamented. "I now run the site as a hobby, and I sell just enough advertising space to cover overhead. What I did previously was relevant many years ago, but not anymore. There are scores of sites about the Singapore sex scene nowadays. Yahoo Classifieds is full of freelance girls advertising their services directly to the public."

Survival of the freshest

The sites that seem to survive are those hell-bent on exploiting specific services, such as live video chat, although no one yet knows the perfect business strategy for endurance. Once-major Asian-adult players like AVE Entertainment, A6 Inc., and Typhoon Pictures-which were omnipresent as recently as five years ago-apparently foundered. Two existing companies-Fantadream and Oriental Dream-declined to comment.

These companies were chasing after the same consumer dollar, but the consumer has become smarter and more sophisticated. The old "pay-per-minute, free user-account, and click-to-buy-time" model of online procurement clearly doesn't work as well anymore. How else could one explain the ongoing success of niche businesses like Grooby.com, which features Asian transsexuals? Grooby Chief Executive Officer Steven Gallon told me four years ago that his business model primarily relied upon membership retention. "Memberships are still most of our money," he said recently. "We have started becoming affiliates to other sites, especially ones like Adult Friend Finder and those doing live video chat."

Grooby planted the flag on the specialty niche in 1996 with its first Thai transsexual sites, Ladyboy-Ladyboy.com and ShemaleYum.com. The company now hosts six other sites, including BlackTGirls.com and hardcore site Shemales-From-Hell.com.

"Probably being the first at what we do helped us a lot," Gallon noted, "and also having such a head start on the plethora of other Asian shemale sites [that] have come out since Ladyboy-Ladyboy started. We haven't sat back but changed and adapted with the current technology, spent a lot more on getting new affiliates working with us, and tried out a bunch of advertising. I've seen a lot of lady-boy sites close, but ours seems to be doing quite well. Our business strategy was, and still is, making sure people know how good our sites are. Once people have joined one of our sites, they will most likely join another, and the personalized customer service encourages them to stay."

The fundamental mistake his competition made, Gallon observed, was in not harnessing and retaining mindshare. "It's hard, though, ensuring that people come to see our site when they're presented with so many slick options," he noted. "Unfortunately, many sites don't deliver great content within their members sections, or [the members sections] consist of licensed and non-original content, or they are just one of multiple front doors to the same site. A customer will lose faith if he feels the sites are taking advantage and not providing what they promise." Interestingly, Grooby's membership stats remained rather unchanged in four years: Its largest membership base remains in the US and Canada. "Over 50 percent is definitely US traffic," Gallon revealed. "Western Europe and Australia are not far behind, but Japan has risen very fast."

His staff-now six full-time employees plus 18 freelance photographers, graphic designers, and others-collates Asian transsexual content shot in Southeast Asia. "Thailand and the Philippines not only have more transsexuals per capita [than] anywhere [else] except for Brazil, but they're also easy to shoot in," Gallon remarked. "We have also shot in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. I'd desperately love to break into the Korean and Japanese models market and am currently actively seeking partners."

His affiliate program is evolving: Grooby, which once paid 40-percent revshare four years ago, now pays 50 percent. Still, Gallon has one pet peeve: "The bad thing for us is that a lot of mega-companies who have no interest in the scene, just the bottom dollar, have jumped on board-as have producers who previously would never have associated themselves with transsexual erotica." His competition has become stiffer (pardon the pun), and he said his latest project, Asian-American-Girls.com (launched in March), will help Grooby compete in the heterosexual market.

"I love Asian women. I think they're the best looking in the world," Gallon said. "Ninety-nine percent of Asian porn is from Asian countries, yet the United States has some of the best-looking Asian women. We've been working on this for over three years, and we now have photo and video shoots of more than 100 Asian-American girls of all types. I think many guys want to see these girls rather than the country-girl look we seem to get from the Southeast Asian countries and the overdone porn from Japan, which has become predictable."

Predictability is a curse

Consider the case of Thai-girlie site ThaiChix.com, the homepage of which claims "100,000 Asian photos, plus 20,000 Asian videos and daily updates, full access with your membership to 24/7 customer service, and much more!" Monthly dues at $24.95 USD (or $44.95 for two months, with a starting three-day trial at $4.95) give members access to various Asian porn stars (by letting members post questions on message boards), and all in-house content is fully searchable and broadband-friendly.

Not at all predictably, according to its longtime photographer Mike Legge, ThaiChix.com is run by a Spain-based Swedish girl named Sue. That's certainly a novel way to beat censorship, since Thailand has outlawed pornography and, between 2002 and 2006, the Thai government blocked access to some 35,000 adult sites.

"It's all client-driven," Legge, an Englishman based in Los Angeles, told me about his own site, MikeLegge.net. "They prefer it that way." Legge's "Sexy Asians" collection offers photo sets priced per image (starting at 35 cents USD for up to 10 sets and trending downward to 12 cents per image for 101-plus sets) zipped for download. "Some American sites specialize in Asians, others in Latinas or black girls, so they want to go straight to that particular section. I also have clients in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Canada, and Germany. People seem to like the same stuff all the time, as long as it's new; they get bored with the same models. Whenever I put up a brand-new girl, sales go up. People want to see the next great, new, pretty, sexy girl."

What's Legge's perception of the so-called "yellow fever" phenomenon? "When I started out in London as a fashion-glamour photographer, I met a very pretty Japanese girl, Yazuko Nagazumi, and we went out for a couple of years," he said. "I photographed her a lot and she became, I think, the first Asian model in London and possibly in Europe-she also worked in France and Germany. I also traveled through Southeast Asia for some years. But, I realized, finally, that a beautiful girl is a beautiful girl, period."

Exploiting the lure of personality

While the celebrity status of the "Asian porn star" long has been a mainstay on the Internet, even that seems to be changing, according to fetish model and porn diva Mika Tan, star of and box-cover model for recent films like Lorraine Sisco's Façade and David Stanley's Yours Truly and winner of the 2007 AVN Award for "Underrated Starlet of the Year (for Unrecognized Excellence)" and the 2006 Adam Film World award for "Best Asian Starlet."

Tan, whose heritage is Okinawan-Taiwanese-Japanese-Samoan, in 2001 said many webmasters fail to optimize the page-view potential of ethnic-niche imagery, which she said is a veritable gold mine. "The Internet has changed since then," she recently said, "which is why I never really cared about putting up a members area on my own site since 2001. There is way too much competition. I think the only way a model can make money now is to offer something people cannot get anywhere else: her real self."

Tan's personal site (MikaTan.com) has no membership section and mostly contains biographical information and her work schedule, along with a referral page for models seeking fetish/BDSM work. Tan herself started out as an Internet model on HollywoodAsians.com and GeishaHouse.com. "I had a chat-room member who called me his 'cyber-geisha' once, and I thought [it] pretty much hit the nail on the head," she explained. "Buzzwords and metatags mean nothing; treating everyone with respect and sincerity gains new fans and members. I think it all comes down to personality.

"Chat rooms are good for someone who is naturally a tease," she continued. "Guys pay by the minute, so the longer you can flirt with them, the more successful you will be. You only have to worry about the one camera angle, and if you don't like someone, you can boot them out of the chat room. Internet chat rooms are so different than video work. New girls in the business need to understand that it takes more than a willingness to open your legs to be in porn."

It also takes more than the courage of one's convictions to compete in today's Asian adult arena. The Internet still serves to feed insatiable mass appetites for the fresh and the fanciful, but it's anyone's turf war to win. While sexy Asian models with winsome figures once provided an auspicious vehicle and fueled retention, they now are only pawns in a larger gambit. Worrying about inevitable things such as chargebacks has become trivial, since winning the loyalty and trust of so many fickle consumers now is the real goal-and it's a harder challenge, since nobody can afford to paint by numbers anymore.

Nevertheless, no one has all the right answers.

Copyright 2007 AVN Online, reprinted with permission.


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