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    Add to Heart: Single Seniors Looking for Love at IKEA

    The Swedish furniture store’s restaurants have become popular spots in Shanghai for single senior citizens, matchmakers, and elderly residents just looking to pass the time.

    It’s a Tuesday afternoon in October, and the Swedish Restaurant at the Ikea store in Shanghai’s Xuhui District is packed. Finding a seat is virtually impossible, with almost every table taken up with tea flasks, biscuits, melon seeds, and other snacks.

    Large numbers of middle-aged and elderly people converge on this spacious canteen around the same time every day — many of them in search of a hot date.

    Some seniors chat loudly in small groups; others sit alone, watching on as the crowds mingle around them. The dress code appears to be smart casual: The women almost universally wear flesh-colored stockings and black shoes while the men sport neatly pressed shirts buttoned to the neck.

    This Ikea store dating scene has been a fixture in Shanghai for more than a decade. In addition to singles and matchmakers, these gatherings also attract older people who are simply looking to stave off boredom and loneliness. Regulars say that common topics of discussion include pension plans, children and grandchildren, and housing — although, among groups of men, the talk can turn bawdy at times.

    Nannan, a petite woman in her late 50s, is sitting by herself, quietly sizing up potential companions from among the male attendees. She divorced from her husband seven years ago, has a son and a daughter, and a granddaughter in high school. This is only her second visit to the Ikea restaurant, she says, having previously tried the scene at People’s Square, another popular spot in the city for senior citizens looking for love.

    About a year ago, she paid a matchmaker 300 yuan ($42) and provided a list of conditions for a suitable partner, leading to a fair amount of interest. She proudly takes out her phone to show off a long declaration of love sent on WeChat by one potential suitor.

    Nannan has been on dates with several men, and some have even developed into relationships, but none of them have worked out in the long term. She’s usually been the one to end things. “After dating for a month, they all want to go to bed with you,” she says. “If you’re a woman, you’re not willing to do that. And if you have to refuse once, twice, it’s time to say goodbye.”

    Her criteria for finding a companion aren’t excessive: They just need to have a place to live and a pension. She currently lives with her daughter but feels that it’s not a long-term solution. Unlike some singles, however, Nannan does not insist on finding a partner who will add her name to their property deed. “I’m a reasonable person,” she says.

    The most important requirement for Nannan is to be legally married, though many older men aren’t willing to take this step. She shares that someone once introduced her to a man who was financially secure and suggested they live together, with the caveat that if one of them were to fall ill, that person would go back to their own children to receive care. “It’s laughable when I think about it,” Nannan says. “In other words, while I’m still mobile, I’ll be your free housekeeper, do your laundry, and cook for you. But when I get sick, you want me to go back to my own kids. Are you out of your mind?”

    Just as Nannan finishes that thought, a man sits down next to her. He’s stylish, wearing a cashmere sweater, black-framed glasses, and a silver necklace. They seem to know each other, as she mentions his dog while affectionately plucking stray hairs from his clothes.

    After he leaves, Nannan reveals that she and the man dated for a few months and are now “just good friends.” The man is 71 years old, and although she was satisfied with both his age and appearance, Nannan says that the relationship broke down over the issue of trust. Specifically, she confides, he once took a trip that she wasn’t able to accompany him on because of work commitments, and when she tried to video call him, he declined, leading her to suspect that he had another woman with him.

    Truth and lies

    At three o’clock in the afternoon, Nannan leaves Ikea while her “good friend” chats with another woman. The Swedish Restaurant is a lively meeting place where anyone can chat with anyone else, whether they know each other or not. If the conversation flows, they can make plans to meet for dinner.

    When Nannan was sharing her dating experience, an elderly husband and wife from Shanghai were sitting across from her, apparently listening intently. After Nannan leaves, the wife leans over and says, “I don’t think her story is as simple as she made it sound.”

    Conversations among singles at Ikea seem to be a mix of truth and lies. One woman initially says she is not yet divorced, and that she’s just seeking dates as a “backup plan.” But a moment later, while chatting with an older man she’s just met, she claims that she is actually divorced, and her ex was awarded custody of their child. A man with a certificate of intellectual disability is also overheard boasting about owning a house and a car, although his friend later reveals both in fact belong to his younger brother.

    Disability certificates are hot commodities at these meet-ups, especially among women from other regions of China who want to obtain Shanghai household registration through marriage, which would provide them with access to local benefits in social insurance and health care. Many see the status as providing greater security in later life. “It could take them 10 years to secure their household registration if they marry an ‘ordinary Shanghai resident,’ but only five if they marry a person with a disability,” explains one matchmaker.

    The elderly couple in the seats close to Nannan’s table have been coming to observe the Ikea dating scene every Tuesday for years. Like for many others, they say, “it’s just to pass the time.” They have one son, who is childless by choice, and a pet dog. When they aren’t traveling, the Ikea restaurant is the place they will frequent the most.

    Despite regularly attracting a bustling crowd, these gatherings have produced few successful matches, the wife says, adding that even those who go on to get married often reappear at Ikea after a few years.

    Good karma

    Large groups of seniors began gathering at Ikea in 2007, when the company began offering free coffee in its restaurants, although how it became a popular matchmaking spot is unclear. Jun Licheng, a matchmaker known by the nickname “Long Legs,” says that, rather than pay the 10 yuan admission fee to attend one of Bai’s events, people instead began getting together at Ikea for free. By 2018, he says, the restaurant at the Xuhui store was regularly packed with almost 200 single seniors.

    In his trademark red shirt, Jun wanders the restaurant like a soldier on patrol. He takes his role seriously and insists he is the “only 100% voluntary matchmaker” at these gatherings. Whenever the subject of payment comes up, he makes a Buddhist hand gesture and says, “I’m Buddhist; doing good deeds brings me good karma.”

    He manages a WeChat group in which nearly all 28 members are middle-aged women, and most are from outside of Shanghai. Any man with “favorable conditions” is quickly snapped up after joining the group, he says. Contrary to the reports of other regulars at Ikea, Jun claims he has successfully matched as many as five couples this year alone.

    However, the definition of success can vary. For Jun, once two people start spending time together, he considers them a couple. He doesn’t track how things progress, and he says some people have even blocked him on WeChat for fear he might demand compensation for his efforts.

    The elderly dating crowd at Ikea is similar to the one that gathers at the central People’s Square, with participants aged anywhere from their 40s to their 80s. Anecdotal evidence suggests most participants are of modest means. “Whenever an event charges a 1 yuan admission fee, attendance drops by 95%,” jokes a man at Ikea. Obviously, the comfortable indoor environment and free coffee at the Swedish Restaurant are key selling points.

    There have even been reports of fights breaking out as people compete for seats at Ikea. At one point, in what appears to be an attempt at crowd control, the store introduced a charge for non-diners who entered its restaurant. In response, seniors began buying the cheapest dishes, like chicken nuggets or egg tarts, and then made them last.

    Attendance has dropped considerably in the past few years, down to about 60 people, as many regulars have lost mobility or passed away. However, Jun says recent months have seen a surge in newcomers, largely due to a spike in media interest.

    Playing house

    On another Tuesday in October, Chen Yumei arrives at Ikea for the afternoon gathering, her trademark trolley bag in tow. Chen has become somewhat of a celebrity here since featuring in an award-winning documentary that debuted at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival. “May” tells of her search for a companion in the parks, card rooms, and dance halls frequented by Shanghai’s single seniors.

    The movie shows Chen, who is twice divorced, as she prepares to go out: She carefully chooses an outfit, applies some lipstick, and ties a scarf around her neck. It’s said that she has more than ten trolley bags in various colors to coordinate with what she’s wearing. She also uses extremely colorful language throughout, particularly when complaining about older men.

    However, for Chen, making her regular trip to Ikea is becoming harder. She used to live in a small, one-bedroom apartment in the city center, but she decided to rent that out and move to Pujiang Town in the suburban Minhang District. To get to the restaurant now takes her two hours on public transportation.

    Regulars at Ikea are all familiar with this sharp-tongued elderly woman, and some say she has a knack for finding men who will treat her to meals. Yet Chen maintains that she’s no longer looking for a partner. “I’m almost 80. What’s the point in looking now?” she says, before breaking into a series of often-repeated complaints about her parents leaving her brother the family fortune, and how her only daughter has neglected her since getting married.

    “People have become spoiled and have developed increasingly high expectations that are no longer realistic,” says Jun with a smile. “We’ve already turned our own social circles upside down and still haven’t found companions, so we come here to Ikea.”

    After years as a matchmaker, Jun says he has identified many “dating patterns” among the various attendees. For example, women from out of town seeking Shanghai men will usually demand marriage and even joint ownership of any property. The dating dynamics among local seniors are entirely different, though, he says. Usually, they won’t get married, and if one party falls ill, that person will need to rely on their own family for care. There are also “travel couples,” those who are only together on holiday, and “weekend couples,” who live separately most of the time to care for their grandchildren.

    At Ikea in Xuhui, Shanghai men are especially wary of so-called “house launderers” — women from outside the city whose goal is to get married, sell off the properties they own independently in their hometown, and buy a property in Shanghai with their new husband, thereby turning their personal assets into more valuable shared assets in one of China’s most expensive metropolises.

    An eight-month study of senior dating trends in China, which included subjects from the Ikea activities in Shanghai, concluded that China’s so-called “blind date corners” possibly emerged in response to insufficient social support networks for seniors. One respondent was reported to have said her main reason for seeking a partner was “just to have someone to call for help if I get sick in the middle of the night.” The study also suggests that such activities have low success rates.

    “Single seniors are naturally more cautious than young people,” says a researcher who worked on the study. “The seniors I spoke to all complained that this dating space is rife with people making calculations about personal gain, but they’re also plotting their own gains.”

    March of time

    Many of those who have been participating in the Ikea dating scene for a while say they have given up on finding a partner. Yet they still come every Tuesday, and some every day.

    Zhang Yi is one of the most regular visitors. Each day, after eating lunch at her residential community’s senior citizens’ canteen, she grabs her battered black shoulder bag and rides the bus for an hour to Ikea in Xuhui. Up the elevator to the second floor and around the corner, her exclusive spot is the table closest to the wall, where she can look through the floor-to-ceiling window into the lobby below.

    Shanghai born and bred, Zhang first experienced the Ikea dating scene in 2009, when the restaurant was less than half the size it is now. She was 60 years old, and she always made sure to put on lipstick before going out. Now in her mid-70s, Zhang has abandoned what she calls “unnecessary grooming.” She used to work in a department store selling fabrics and took early retirement in her 40s for health reasons. She’s lost contact with the ten or so colleagues she used to know.

    She says that places where seniors gather tend to have a kind of “geriatric feel” to them, but Ikea doesn’t. No one has any conflicting interests, and it’s easy to get along. People can chat with anyone, and if they don’t enjoy someone’s company, they just find someone else to sit with.

    “We call ourselves Ikea friends,” says a woman in a face mask from northeast China who often sits with Zhang. The pair aren’t connected on WeChat, and they are unlikely to run into each other outside of the store. However, these Ikea friends will join real estate tours together, visit exhibitions, or plan to meet at a certain subway station the next day. Jun’s the same: He’s at Ikea every Tuesday, will meet up with other regulars for exhibitions and other group activities on Wednesday through Friday, and spends his weekends at the People’s Square matchmaking events.

    Zhang lives in a one-bedroom apartment by the Huangpu River tunnel. Twenty years ago, her late husband fell seriously ill, and the family needed to spend all its money on his treatment. If this hadn’t happened, she says, they would have bought a second home. Her daughter is also in rented accommodation, and her grandson is completing his graduate studies. Zhang says that although there’s nothing she can do about her family’s financial situation, it still weighs on her, leaving her with little appetite for dating.

    If Zhang gets to Ikea and she sees friends there, she’ll stay until about four o’clock in the afternoon. If not, she’ll leave early and catch a random bus to enjoy some people-watching on an aimless journey. Afterwards, she will return to her community’s senior canteen for dinner, then head home, plug in her phone, and sit down on the sofa to watch short videos until it’s time to go to bed.

    Some of the seniors who gather at Ikea believe that, for people their age, the passing of time is a thing to be endured. One woman who lives in Shanghai’s suburban Jinshan District always sits alone at the Swedish Restaurant, sometimes even resting her head on the table to take a nap. One day in early October, she set out from Ikea in Xuhui with a male friend, traveled two hours on two separate buses to reach another Ikea in the northern Baoshan District, stayed for less than 10 minutes, then made the long journey back to the Xuhui store before returning home. “Time has no value to me,” she says.

    The Ikea dating scene has also witnessed the aging of its members. Only about three years have passed since the filming of the documentary, but Chen Yumei appears much older today. Her dyed red curls betray gray roots, she no longer wears lipstick, and her silk scarves are now more often stored in her trolley bag than tied around her neck. Some say that Chen has not been the same since losing money from investing in financial products several years ago.

    Around 5 p.m., Chen prepares to leave Ikea. She takes out a large can and fills it with ground coffee from the beverage machine. Outside the store, she lights a cigarette and begins her long journey home, her red trolly bag slowly disappearing into the distance.

    Reported by Zhou Hang.

    (Due to privacy concerns, some interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Xue Ni and Craig McIntosh.

    (Header image: People enjoy meals at an Ikea store in Guiyang, Guizhou province, March 2022. IC )