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Elderly influencers become a big hit in China

Along with fashion, the Fashion Grandmas share advice on marriage, love and life

Members of the Fashion Grandmas dressed in traditional attire during a rehearsal for a performance on a television show in Beijing.
Members of the Fashion Grandmas dressed in traditional attire during a rehearsal for a performance on a television show in Beijing. (AFP)

Exquisitely garbed in a traditional cheongsam dress, 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.

She's part of the group that's popularly known as "Fashion Grandmas", whose one-minute clips and livestreams are turning Beijing's streets into a catwalk are devoured 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, who joined two years ago.

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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 old age, and able to harness the commercial possibilities of technology. It is an economy worth hundreds of billions of dollars, craving longevity, entertainment and consumer goods, and hooked like everybody else to their smartphones.

The "Fashion Grandmas" collective has 23 main members, with dozens more fringe contributors across the country, all aged between their late 50s and their mid-70s. The elderly influencers upload these videos on Kuaishou and Douyin, China's version of TikTok. They make money from pop-up ads in their videos and livestreaming product sales. "They can sell 200 units of a product within a minute of starting a stream," says their agent He Daling.

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 call-outs of domestic violence.

One of their videos shows a man raise 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.

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A generation of Chinese born in the 1960s are reaching their 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 the Beijing Dama Technology Company, which helps run the elderly influencers' social media. "That improves the 'cashability' and quality of China's elderly internet industry."

According to iiMedia Research, the value of China's "grey-haired" economy is estimated to reach 5.7 trillion yuan (nearly $900 billion) this year. The Covid-19 pandemic has also pushed the elderly deeper online, hunting for shopping and entertainment, Bian said.

Ruan Yaqing, one of the 'Fashion Grandmas', recording a short video for her channel in a Beijing park.
Ruan Yaqing, one of the 'Fashion Grandmas', recording a short video for her channel in a Beijing park. (AFP)

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 livestreaming channels. "China's mobile internet industry has earned money from every, women, youngsters, parents, but not the elderly," said Bian, adding, "This could be the last structural opportunity of the industry."

Meanwhile, one of the active members of "Fashion Grandmas", Ruan Yaqing, 58, has her own video channel. She 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 joked.

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. Actually we know everything," she quipped.

Agreeing with her, Sang said, "The elderly should live how they want and be optimistic. Age is just a number."

Also Read: Study suggests older adults more helpful than younger ones

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