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The Fashion Grandmas, elderly social media stars in China, rehearse for a TV performance in Beijing. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

China’s ‘Fashion Grandmas’: elderly social media influencers share inspiring messages about ageing

  • The ‘Fashion Grandmas’ are a group of elderly influencers who are showing China that age is no barrier to elegance
  • They do fashion live-streams, share positive messages about ageing, and speak out about domestic violence

Exquisitely dressed in a traditional cheongsam, or qipao, 76-year-old Sang Xiuzhu is one of an unlikely vanguard of elderly influencers storming Chinese social media with videos of glamour in the golden years.

Two years ago she joined the “Fashion Grandmas”, whose one-minute clips and live-streams of them turning Beijing’s streets into a catwalk are watched by millions of fans. They mix elegance with epithets of wisdom – on marriage, love and life – from a generation who are now increasingly integral to both the economy and online culture of China.

“Our young fans say they are not afraid of ageing after seeing grannies like us living fashionable and happy lives,” said Sang.

China is getting old fast and Beijing is faced with the monumental challenge of how to provide for tens of millions of retirees. But this has also opened opportunities for those who are financially comfortable in their dotage and able to harness the commercial possibilities of technology.
The Fashion Grandmas backstage after performing on a China Central Television show. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

It is an economy worth hundreds of billions of dollars, whose participants crave longevity, entertainment and consumer goods and are hooked, like everybody else, to their smartphones.

The “Fashion Grandmas” collective has 23 main members, and dozens more fringe contributors across the country, aged from their late 50s to mid-70s. They make money from pop-up ads in their videos and live-streaming product sales. “They can sell 200 units of a product within a minute of starting a stream,” says their agent, He Daling.

Showing joy to counter hate: a celebration of Chinatown seniors

Their videos also carry messages of inspiration, such as “beauty is not only for the young,” or “even the elderly can live a wonderful life!” as well as serious messages such as domestic violence.

One of their videos shows a man raising a hand to hit his girlfriend in a store, before a furious older woman grabs his arm and waves for him to be dragged away by security guards. “Domestic violence is illegal” reads the text on the screen, adding that it is shameful to hit women. Another shows a pregnant woman being threatened by her husband before an elegant granny has him pinned back in his chair by bodyguards and gives the woman a hug.

“The elderly should live how they want and be optimistic,” Sang said. “Age is just a number.”

The Fashion Grandmas are taking Chinese social media by storm. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

A generation of Chinese born in the 1960s are reaching the mandatory retirement age of 60 for men and 55 for women. These new retirees are the first group to receive higher education after the Mao-era Cultural Revolution, which scorned the “bourgeois” pursuit of learning and left a generation without social mobility.

“They are richer and highly educated,” said Bian Changyong, chief executive of Beijing Dama Technology, which helps run the elderly influencers’ social media. “That improves the ‘cashability’ and quality of China’s elderly internet industry.”

The value of China’s “grey-haired” economy is estimated to reach 5.7 trillion yuan (nearly US$900 billion) this year, according to iiMedia Research.

Young people assume the elderly know nothing. Actually we know everything
Ruan Yaqing

Bian said the Covid-19 pandemic had also pushed the elderly online, hunting for shopping and entertainment.

To reach this vast, untapped pool of older consumers, Bian’s company also provides online courses for senior citizens to learn singing, dancing or kung fu through live-streaming channels.

“China’s mobile internet industry has earned money from every group … men, women, youngsters, parents, but not the elderly,” said Bian. “This could be the last structural opportunity of the industry.”

The Fashion Grandmas share style tips and social messages. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

Granny Ruan Yaqing, 58, has her own video channel and uses an iPhone to reach over six million fans as she tours Beijing’s history and culture.

She fell into the world of video-streaming to avoid becoming a “nagging” presence stuck at home, she jokes. But she also carries a message on the virtues of age from a golden generation refusing to be pushed into the background of modern China.

“Young people assume the elderly know nothing,” she says. “Actually we know everything.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Mainland’s elderly influencers share inspiring messages about ageing