Chinese grandparents are done babysitting and are ready to go viral

HONG KONG — The 65-year-old woman is squatting in a field and holding a head of cabbage. Behind her, two friends are swinging, cucumber and radish in hand. “This rotten cabbage, let’s take it out, eat it, get some gastronomic freedom,” cabbage woman Guo Yifen raps in a low, squeaky voice in the song “Spicy Hot Pot Real Rap.”

The trio, known as Sister Wang Is Coming, are known for sharing playful videos on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Ms. Guo and her music partners, Wang Shuping, 64, and Wang Xiurong, 66, have over half a million subscribers who watch their food-related music videos, featuring jams like “Fried Mushrooms” and Country Food Rap.

The group are among a growing number of older Chinese people who have found viral success by sharing their daily lives online. In this corner of the Chinese internet, octogenarians sing, septuagenarians tango and gray-haired fashionistas walk the catwalks and offer makeup tips to millions of fans. There’s even an 86-year-old man who sits around and plays video games like Call of Duty.

With more than 260 million people over the age of 60, China has the largest and fastest growing elderly population in the world. Almost half are online, where some choose to live out their professional dreams, while others just have a little fun. Many find companionship through their fans, an antidote to an otherwise lonely life. They are part of a new generation of Chinese retirees who have fewer grandchildren than before and the financial freedom to pursue hobbies and share their experiences online.

The accidental singers, dancers and celebrities are part of a global community of older people who have embraced the highs, and sometimes the lows, of social media.

In China, influencers are helping to challenge a particularly entrenched stereotype that grandparents are expected to stay home or help care for their families by cleaning, cooking and caring for their grandchildren while their adult children work. For some retirees, grandchildren aren’t a factor at all, with more young Chinese rejecting marriage or choosing not to start a family.

“We look at our parents’ old age and think that we should live differently,” Sun Yang, 66, said. A former English teacher who retired more than a decade ago, Ms. Sun and three of her friends are fashion influencers who go by the name Glamma Beijing. In their videos, they model vintage and modern clothing and weave style advice with everyday life advice.

“What we’re doing now is something we could only dream of when we were young,” she said. Many of Glamma Beijing’s more than two million followers are in their 50s and 60s. But there are also younger people who ask women about school and dating. Some say the tutorials helped them overcome their fear of aging, Ms Sun said.

Glamma Beijing stars will occasionally feature the family in their videos. Ms. Sun’s daughter-in-law manages the social media account and her 6-year-old granddaughter often helps film. But above all, the four women talk about travels, hikes and fashion show rehearsals.

Independence is a common theme in many influencer videos, as they push back against the idea that older people should stay home in retirement and help raise the next generation.

In the Sister Wang Is Coming music videos, Ms. Guo and her friends run around in the fields, play pranks on each other, or lie in the grass and dream. They rap about their love of cooking and gastronomy. It’s a world away from the daily routines they once had as mothers and wives with children to raise and husbands to feed.

“Times are changing,” said Lin Wei, 67, another Glamma and former nurse who has vowed to stay active in her old age. “We have to follow society and integrate into it.”

China faces a slew of demographic challenges — including plummeting marriage rates and a record number of births — that have helped shift cultural norms around what it means to grow old. With one of the lowest retirement ages in the world – the average is 60 for men and 55 for women – Chinese seniors have plenty of time to pursue new creative pursuits online.

“For previous generations, their lives were more confined to the family, watching TV and caring for children,” said Bei Wu, a professor of global health at New York University. “But now this generation, because they have less responsibility for raising their grandchildren, they have more free time, their scope of activity goes beyond the family, and therefore the role of their friends and their social life is more important.”

For foodie rapping grannies who live in a village near Beijing, the videos started as a way to pass the time during the pandemic. “It was just having fun and messing around,” Wang Shuping said. When Ms. Wang’s son, Ren Jixin, came to visit her during the Lunar New Year holiday, he thought he could help the women polish their act.

“We sing out of tune. We are deaf,” Ms. Guo said. Mr. Ren, a composer of documentary films, suggested the trio rap instead of sing, and he started writing lyrics for the group. This year, hundreds of thousands of people started following their Douyin account. Mr. Ren has returned home and now spends several days a week writing, rehearsing and filming.

“It exercises our brains,” Ms. Guo said of the content they create.

There’s money in it too. Through her Douyin account, Sister Wang Is Coming earns about $1,400 per month. It’s not enough to live on, but as their fanbase grows, they’ve gained more interest from companies who want to advertise with them.

For Glamma Beijing, streaming is much more lucrative. They can earn over $115,000 through advertising and sales commissions with just a handful of live streams. At one such event in August, the four grandmothers sat by a lake in a Beijing park and talked about their youth as 21,000 people watched online.

But success can have its challenges. Some older influencers in the country are run by talent agencies that impose grueling quotas and demand hawkish products and brands from their clients. Fans can be fickle, and social media platforms like Douyin can bombard users with channels more focused on selling products than telling a good story.

When 86-year-old Tang Shikun started filming himself singing in 2020, a thousand viewers tuned into each session. These days, only about twenty people watch Mr. Tang at any one time. Douyin told his grandson, Tang Rui, who manages the account, that Mr. Tang’s content is too simple and therefore not promoted on the platform.

This didn’t bother Mr. Tang, who performs under the account name Grandpa Loves Singing. A former ammunition inspector at a state-owned factory, Mr. Tang has been retired for 36 years. Music, he said, has given him satisfaction since moving from northeast China to the tropical southern province of Hainan in 2019.

Mr. Tang, a widower, first found himself alone in a new town. “Now I play the keyboard for Douyin people, and I can get to know all the friends in the world,” he said. There are regulars at his daily sessions for whom Mr. Tang likes to play their favorite songs.

One fan, a 50-year-old entrepreneur who goes by the name “Sunshine” online, loves the traditional Mongolian ballad “The Prairie Has a Blue River.” Another fan, a woman in her 50s from southwest Yunnan Province, once asked Mr. Tang’s grandson for his bank details. She sent him over $2,000.

Mr Tang said he has earned more than $68,000 in tips and donations since he started posting his videos online two years ago. “I play the keyboard and sing happily, and people listening can also benefit from this happiness,” he said. “I think old people should have their own way of life,” he added, “not to sit idle every day, but find their own hobbies to enjoy happiness.”

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