In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Chinese internet lit up like a pinball machine with China's newest sex scandal. The sex itself was nothing special—a young couple got down to business in a Uniqlo changing room and filmed it with a phone. But while the foreign press has focused on CCP censure and Uniqlo's apology, in China, the real payoff has been in the internet's reaction.
The craze began with a trickle of Uniqlo jokes in the early hours of Tuesday, before many had seen the video. Newsfeeds on WeChat, China's 549 million person-strong social networking and messaging mobile app, began to fill up with jokes about the sex sesh. A meme emerged of a kid peaking under a changing room, captioned "Me tonight!" Soon enough, everyone on WeChat began forwarding around links to the video. The nation, collectively, then watched a bit of sex.
Without missing a beat, Zara's public WeChat account posted a comment, "Come to Zara! Our fitting rooms are brighter and more spacious!" H&M posted a nearly identical one. The comments were later pulled down and said to be impostor accounts, but not before screenshots went viral.
Meme after meme emerged. One featured the iconic IFS mall in Chengdu, famous around China for the three-story panda statue clambering up its side. Just to the left of the panda is a huge Uniqlo sign. The meme reads, "I finally know why the Panda has been climbing for so long!" The panda, it seems, was just trying to sneak a peek.
The video's clincher comes about midway through, when a voice announces over the store's loudspeaker, in crystal-clear Mandarin,"Dear customers, welcome to the Uniqlo store in Sanlitun. There are no fitting rooms on the first floor. Please proceed to the second and third floor if you need to try on clothes."
Perhaps the reason this video caught on like wildfire in China is the fact that it was (presumably) made by two of its own citizens. Porn is technically illegal in China, and although the Japanese porn industry has ensured that the sight of two Asian people—or three, or five, or two and a squid—getting intimate on-screen is far from novel in China, the fact that this video was shot inside the country's borders made it special. Also, it was made by amateurs. Most Chinese sex scandals feature government officials posing with prostitutes. This was just two people having a romp, what Chinese netizens call a 野战， yězhàn, an "operation in the field." Many of my Chinese friends described feeling refreshed at seeing Chinese folks having relatively normal, if not a touch ambitious, sex.
The Uniqlo sex tape and the ensuing internet mayhem felt like a collective sigh of relief, a national easing of the guard akin to everyone laughing about a dirty joke at work. It gave people a reason to talk about sex, and the nation's young people took that opportunity and ran with it.
Just 15 hours after the video dropped, clothes inspired by the incident had already hit the market. A video emerged from Guangdong province of two guys wearing shirts with the Uniqlo logo over a blurred out picture of the sex scene. The shirts went up for sale on Taobao, alongside scarves, blouses, and shoes advertised as identical to those in a pile on the floor in the Uniqlo changing room. At a comical price of 9999 RMB [$1,609], the blouse has yet to sell.
Just as quickly as the video went viral, the government attempted to strip it off the web. The link I was sent went dead minutes after it hit our group chat. Thus ensued the whack-a-mole experience that is censorship on the Chinese web. The government takes something down; a replica pops up somewhere else. The government smacks that down, another one boings up to the surface again. Smack, boing, smack, boing, until one party or the other runs out of energy. Hardcore Chinese netizens are so well accustomed to downloading and redistributing information that this sex tape scandal was child's play. It is impossible to estimate how many people saved the video directly to their phones.
A tattoo inspired by the changing room romp. Image courtesy of the author, via WeChat
The night of the Uniqlo Changing Room Incident culminated in one guy getting a tattoo and another one making a pretty good rap titled "Thank you, Fitting Room."
Unfortunately for the budding porn stars, their contribution will likely prove thankless. The police are already investigating the situation, including an investigation of Uniqlo. Some suspect the video was made as a publicity stunt, but Uniqlo has denied that accusation.
Zak is a writer living in China. Follow him on Twitter.