At a Shanghai Ikea, lonely senior citizens look for love and a place to call their own

by Zheping Huang / December 12, 2016 / Quartz

Shanghai

On a recent afternoon, Sun Zhicheng, a 70-year-old retiree from Shanghai, walked into the cafeteria of the Ikea store in the city’s central Xuhui district, just as he has every Tuesday and Thursday for the past three years. He ordered two shrimp cakes and a bottle of grape juice, which cost him 20 yuan, or a little less than $3.

Sun was dressed in a navy blue suit, and wore his dyed black hair slicked back. The only tell-tale sign of his 70 years was a cluster of white hair at the end of his right eyebrow. For about an hour, he sat there all by himself, peering at the other patrons cruising around the nearly full 700-seat cafe. During that time, he only took one bite of his cake.

He was not there for the food, or the furniture, he was looking for a wife.

For several years, elderly Shanghai widows, widowers, divorcees, and the rare never-marrieds have met regularly at the cafeteria of Ikea’s Xuhui store seeking new mates. Sometimes hundreds strong, the group’s members would stay for hours without buying anything, until the Swedish retailer cracked down in October, banning freeloaders from the cafe.

Now Shanghai’s seniors and the Swedish furniture giant are in an uneasy standoff: hundreds of seniors are still coming on Tuesdays and Thursdays looking for love and eating little, while security guards and cafeteria attendants try to hustle them out so younger, bigger-spending customers can take a seat. It’s a vivid example of the uncertain future facing China’s elderly population—modernizing cities and the weakening bonds of extended families are leaving them less of a role in society, even as their numbers grow, and grow.

Thanks to Beijing’s recently ended one-child policy, the number of Chinese over 60 is expected to grow until at least 2050, when one in four, or 350 million, will be over age 65. Shanghai is already the greyest major city in the country, and by the end of 2015 about 30% of the locally registered population was over the age of 60, twice the national figure. People in Shanghai also live longer than the average, meaning they’re outliving first wives and husbands, and looking for love and companionship well into their 80s.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I visited the Ikea cafe to talk extensively to several of the seniors looking for matches there. Ikea, they admit, is an unlikely place to cure loneliness, and a strange one to try to spark a second marriage—but they linger on, because they have no where else they’d rather go.

Sex and property, but not much love

In Sun’s own words, the 20 yuan he paid for food so he can hang out at the Ikea cafeteria is a “welfare lottery.” The big prize is finding someone to share the rest of his life with, after a divorce he said he doesn’t want to talk about. “I’m here to give myself some hope,” he said, but he doubts he’ll actually “win the prize.”

In the past three years, Sun has met several women he liked, but they haven’t liked him back—mostly, he claims, because of his financial status. He gets a monthly pension of 4,000 yuan (about $580), and owns a one-bedroom apartment that’s 30 square meters, a comfortable situation for a Shanghai retiree, but he’s not wealthy by any means. He’s also met women who like him, but who he thought were “nagging” or had “bad auras.”

“Shanghai’s female comrades are pretty shrewd,” Sun said of the women cruising at Ikea. They say “If I marry an old guy, it’s just like I’m a woman in my prime getting married, it’s formal.” That means she wants to be in charge of her partner’s salary and savings, and even inherit his property for her own children if he dies.

For seniors, finding true love at Ikea is just as tough as any other Chinese singles event. Chinese people traditionally want a marriage that is evenly matched in terms of salary, property, and family background—it is never just a combination of the husband and the wife but also of their two extended families. This is especially true for these elderly patrons, whose first marriages followed this pattern decades ago.

That’s not to say everything is traditional. Seeking casual sex at Ikea, while uncommon, isn’t unheard of. There’s a handful of senior men and women who come on Tuesdays and Thursdays just to find sexual partners, several patrons said. One of these even slept with both an Ikea cafe regular, and her daughter, who is in her 40s, two people told me.

 There’s a “vicious circle” in the dating scenes at the Ikea cafe, said Xu Jianmei, a 59-year old with wine red hair, tattooed on eyebrows, and giant gold hoops, who was on her third visit. “Women are afraid of men coming for sex, and men are afraid of women coming for money,” she said. Read more…
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