Meet ‘Uncle Underwear’
SHANGHAI – At the leafy west end of Yuyuan Road, boutiques, coffee shops, and bistros jostle for space and the attention of fashionable urbanites. But a few steps down from street level, Uncle Underwear stands out.
Zhu Shaozhuang, proprietor and namesake uncle, is a celebrity clothier for an older demographic.
“If I get up late, there’s a crowd waiting outside the shop,” Zhu told Sixth Tone.
Only about 20 square meters in size, the shop uses every inch of its walls to display reasonably priced, comfort-forward undergarments: loose full-length underwear, bras for the elderly, long underwear, and undershirts. It feels a bit like the way a London salon would have squeezed paintings onto its walls in the 19th century, if Turner had been into stripes and tropical prints.
You might find the shop’s styles a bit gender-stereotypical. Women’s products are usually floral. Men’s products mostly have blue stripes: stripes in every shade of blue, in every width.
Uncle Underwear even sells false collars, a bib-like mock shirt once commonly worn between long-sleeved underwear and a sweater in winter as a cheap alternative to a varied wardrobe.
Each item has a huge handwritten price tag, usually around 20 yuan ($3).
Zhu says he’s not trying to make money, but is running a community for the elderly. Each day, the first thing he does after opening the shop is to turn on the music. He has about 300 golden oldies downloaded on his phone, and plays them on loop all day. His regular customers will come in one after another. Some are not here to shop, but just to chat or sit and listen to his music.
On a recent Friday afternoon, two Sixth Tone reporters were the youngest visitors to the store by nearly 30 years.
On one side of the wall, a motto handwritten by the owner reads:
“You are not a collector, you are a businessman, so don’t hoard your product or your money. This is the lesson learned at the cost of countless people’s blood. Be willing to cry, but clear out your stock.”
Zhu got into the business in middle age. In 1990, at the age of 40, he lost his job at a state-owned electronics factory in a wave of layoffs. A friend of his helped him find a job as a salesman at a Three Gun underwear shop. The brand offered budget goods at budget prices, and was popular with middle-aged and elderly people.
After a few years learning to buy and sell, Zhu opened his own discount underwear store, “Brand Name Underwear Discount,” stocking Three Gun and other legacy Shanghai brands, such as Chrysanthemum.
It was a local operation until Zhu made the national news as part of a debate about urban renewal. “The street was being redeveloped at that time,” Zhu said, adding his shop was facing eviction.
The Xinmin Evening News featured him in an article about the cost of gentrification, writing that “This uncle’s underwear store shouldn’t be forced out of business — people need him.”
The attention saved the store. Zhu kept his lease, and renamed his shop “Uncle Underwear” after the article. (He’s also the actual uncle of three adult nieces and two nephews).
Three months later, Good Life Home, a television program, reached out to Zhu with a free renovation plan for the shop. It was broadcast as the first episode of the program.
Since then, he’s enjoyed a national reputation, helping business enough to keep up with rising Shanghai rents.
“Seven people from one family in Guangxi came to Shanghai for a trip. They came to my store with a few empty suitcases, and bought more than 3,000 yuan worth of underwear in one go,” Zhu said. “They believe in the quality of Shanghai products.”
The only downside of being famous is that he can’t rest, even on public holidays.
Zhu says he’s a man on a mission to keep retail alive. The rise of e-commerce is marginalizing entire communities who are not tech savvy, he said.
“Older people aren’t good at using mobile phones. They don’t buy things online,” Zhu said. “They need brick-and-mortar stores.”
Zhu originally planned to close the business when he turned 75, but now he wants to keep going as long as he can.
“The other day, I saw a story online about a 97-year-old Japanese lady, who continues to serve the elderly after she retired as a nurse,” Zhu said. “I’m inspired by her.”
However, Zhu is worried that manufacturers are abandoning products that only the elderly buy.
Zhu said that the manufacturers he orders from have already cut the sizes available for some products. He’s even heard rumors that Three Gun will shut down its production lines for elderly underwear.
“I think they should continue to make them,” Zhu said. “Now that society is aging, we should think more about the elderly.”
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: Zhu Shaozhuang talks with a customer at Uncle Underwear, Shanghai, Sept. 9, 2022. Fu Beimeng/Sixth Tone)