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January 11, 2011

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Sunset Love

ZHANG Jianfen is thrilled about getting married and plans to get her marriage certificate before the Chinese Lunar New Year in early February.

"He is a very nice and tender gentleman who treats me very well. It was truly destiny that brought him to me," she says with certainty, then gives a sweet, bashful smile, like any girl talking about a great boyfriend.

Zhang, a 68-year-old retired textile designer, looks 10 years younger and blushes slightly as she recalls the "wonderful dates" with her husband-to-be, Hu Hexiang.

They met in a social club for middle-aged and senior people in the Nanjing Road E. Residential Community. It was the first visit for the 67-year-old former shipping company technician and neither was interested in the other at the time. Hu stopped coming after a few visits.

"It was amazing when we saw each other at a morning exercise group in the community a few weeks later, and even more thrilling when we learned that we lived in adjacent lanes," Zhang tells Shanghai Daily.

The two found they had a lot in common: Both of their spouses had been ill for years before they passed away. And in terms of savings and economic status, they're about on par.

They followed the modern fashion to go to movies, dances, karaoke, and also maintain some traditional rules - Zhang didn't let Hu into her apartment, not even the entrance of the longtang (lane) where she lives, for more than a month.

Occasionally during the interview, the nicely dressed Zhang peeps at a dozen or so people in the social club, about her age, dancing on the polished wood floor. In the next room, 50 to 60 people are playing cards and chatting.

These people, a hundred or so - from 50 to 82 years old - meet twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. The sessions start at 2:30pm with dancing, then comes a lottery, then karaoke. The fun ends around 5pm. Tickets cost 3-5 yuan (45-75 US cents).

Everyone must provide proof that they are single, such as a certificate of divorce or household registration saying "spouse deceased."

Like Zhang, most of the members are well-dressed, men in trendy jackets or even suits, and women in brightly colored skirts and wearing makeup. Most men are looking for wives at least 10 years younger so they can take care of them; women want spouses of about the same age for the same reason.

When older people fall in love in China, the relationship is called xiyang hong (red sunset), meaning that even though people are in their sunset years, their love burns bright red.

The road to the club leads through narrow streets and decrepit buildings on Guangdong Road near the Bund - like the cliches about old people living alone in drab circumstances - but the club itself is full of color.

The city is facing the problem of a graying population and how to provide care for its elderly. An increasing number of old people have only one child to support them when living is costly and consumer prices are at a record high. Also, there are few organized activities for seniors in their leisure time.

For example, in the Nanjing Road E. Residential Community, 24,188 people are over 60 years old, more than a quarter of the community's total population of 95,435.


No one knows how many are single but the club, operating for less than a year, has more than 500 members. Half of them are from outside the community.

There's a depressing stereotype about the situation of China's elderly people, one that is depicted on TV and radio talk shows, TV dramas and sensational news headlines: Selfish children oppose or actually prevent their lonely parents' remarriage because they, as offspring, fear losing their "rightful" inheritance to a new spouse.

Older single parents live alone and have a hard time sustaining themselves. They are lonely and depressed. They want and need companionship. Filial piety isn't what it used to be and many single children can't or won't spend much time with their parents. Many seniors are frustrated and say they have a right to a happy life with a new spouse.

That's the picture, and there is truth to it.

This club, though, tells a more encouraging side of the story. Since it was founded in December 2009, nine couples are either married or engaged. The eldest couple is 82-year-old Liu Minying and 80-year-old Zhang Haixiu, who got married last December after dating for five months.

But these club members are neither the poorest nor the well-off, so they don't have the money problems.

The poor families, often living in dilapidated houses marked for demolition, squabble over whether a new spouse should be included in the official household registration - compensation for demolition often depends on the head count and sometimes is divided among family members.

And the rich families are worried about who gets the big pile of money after father or mother passes away.

Some children or relatives are embarrassed that "old people" would even think of such a "shameful, morally wrong" thing as remarriage and a new conjugal bed - at their age.

Lao bu xiu

Children and relatives feel that they themselves lose face. There's a saying to describe some old people in general who act unwisely: lao bu xiu (old people don't know shame).

"We don't have that much money, probably just enough to spend for the rest of our lives, and we each have small old house of around the same size, value and status," says Zhang, the bride-to-be.

Most important, the three children from the two families are all married and don't live with them anymore, clearing a major obstacle.

One 69-year-old male member surnamed Chen was forced to break up with his 54-year-old girlfriend, simply because her son is still in school and lives at home.

"It is simply not convenient or realistic for someone at my age to be living with a child in his teens," he says. So he's looking for a new mate.

And in some cases, uncaring children are the reason old single parents seek a new companion.

"I made the decision to find a new husband the moment I overheard my daughter-in-law calling me a bitch when I was on phone with my son," says a 68-year-old female member unwilling to reveal her real name.

"If she is already like this now when I can still walk and complain, what will she do to me when I get older and really need to be taken care of?" she adds.

According to Zhang Lingling, the 57-year-old head of the club, these older people are fashionable and cheerful, just like younger people, if not more so - "as long as you pair them up the right way."

Zhang knows the background of all regular members by heart and is active as a matchmaker. "They are very realistic and have clear standards of what they are looking for, unlike young people who emphasize feelings," Zhang says.

She adds that all the nine successful couples have something in common. The children are not living with them, and the families are similar in property ownership (number, value and type), savings' accounts and the social status of their children.

"Without these basics, the children won't be supportive," says Zhang, "and wouldn't even stay neutral about the marriage."


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