When in Shanghai, visit Ikea’s lonely hearts club

Elderly people at the Ikea restaurant, where they meet every Tuesday, in the Xuhui district in Shanghai. Picture: AFP

Elderly people at the Ikea restaurant, where they meet every Tuesday, in the Xuhui district in Shanghai. Picture: AFP

Published Jan 19, 2024


More than a decade after Ikea tried to kick them out, the raucous Shanghai pensioners' matchmaking group that gathers weekly in the furniture store's cafeteria is still very much alive and kicking.

Every Tuesday, hundreds of elderly lovebirds take over most of the tables in the chain's spacious canteen, shunning the classic Swedish meatballs for their own tea, snacks and even booze brought from home.

Faced with empty nests and changing social structures as China's population ages, they have taken matters into their own hands and turned the store into an unlikely dating site.

"There's nothing embarrassing about saying it. It's not only young people who need love, elderly people also need love," an impeccably made-up retired nursing home director named Qingqing told AFP on a recent winter afternoon.

The atmosphere - and noise level - was more like a high school cafeteria than an old people's home.

Glossy fur and leopard print mingled with leather baseball caps and mirrored sunglasses, as some sat around giggling and chatting while others roamed the room flirting.

High-spirited pensioners passed around tangerines, tea and the occasional bottle of cheap alcohol, littering the tables with peels and nutshells.

Among the more than 297 million people aged 60 or more in China, a quarter are single, according to official data.

While multi-generational households were the norm in the past, many elderly people now live on their own.

In a 2016 survey by Beijing's Renmin University, a quarter of over-60s said they experienced loneliness.

"I'm lonely all the time. I feel that life is very boring at my age... I always wanted to have a partner," said Gu Yijun, a lively retired coach driver.

The 73-year-old regularly travels an hour and a half by public transport to come to the meet-ups, but he was sanguine about his chances of success.

"It's also a way to relax and have fun," he told AFP.

"It's much better than facing the mirror alone at home, seeing only myself reflected back."

Need care

The group has met at Ikea for more than 10 years, although no one seems quite sure how it all started.

There appears to be no clear organiser, with most saying they had heard about the gathering from friends.

"There are some practical difficulties for us to go to more elegant places," said Qingqing's friend Xu Yizhen, adding Ikea's affordability "suits us better".

Initially, the multinational company was less than delighted by its ageing lonely hearts club.

The store's many attempts to get rid of them have been widely reported in Chinese and foreign media since 2011.

Ikea assigned extra security, roped off the seating areas and put up a sign urging the group to disband, reports said.

One guard recounted an altercation with an old man who threw hot coffee at him when asked to be quiet.

Tensions appear to have cooled off considerably since then.

At a recent meeting, staff did not raise an eyebrow when a man dressed in a teddy-bear-patterned suit wandered around smoking and trying to make people do shots of whisky.

Ikea "has been aware of the loneliness of the elderly in its neighbourhood who need care and interaction, so the store would like to provide a place where they can feel at home and meet with friends", a representative told AFP when contacted.

They did not reply when asked about Ikea's past interactions with the group.

Tight schedules

Ikea is not the only seniors' dating hotspot in the city.

Some spend Tuesdays in Ikea, then head to People's Park at the weekend, joking that they have "tight schedules".

On a cold Sunday in the park, AFP saw some familiar faces swaddled in thick cotton clothes, introducing themselves and chatting.

The more introverted stood at the edge of the group, waiting to be approached.

The chances of finding true love in either location are difficult to gauge.

"It's unlikely you'll find (a nice partner in Ikea) because good men and bad men are mixed here," said Qingqing.

Gu said it was difficult for those in "less well-off economic conditions" to find someone, while painter Li Shiqi, a regular for 10 years, bemoaned the fact that people's standards were "quite high".

"I heard from others that the success rate here is less than three percent," he said.

Li finally did get lucky last month, although his paramour is now travelling.

"We had a little crush on each other because of her good looks and relatively young age," the 74-year-old said.

"If we are ready to begin a romantic relationship, when she comes back, we will be together."