Shanghai Street View: Tricky Traditions

Ikea clamps down on freeloading seniors in Shanghai

As fall rapidly descends on Shanghai, two of our city’s newer traditions are in the headlines this week, raising the question of what really defines tradition in a place where change is so rapid.

One headline involves a well-known IKEA furniture store in Xuhui District, whose cafeteria-style restaurant has become famous as a hang-out for lonely retirees. The other involves an eatery famous for its scallion pancakes, or congyoubing, which may soon get a new lease on life after being shut down due to lack of a proper license.

Both stories have become fixtures in our local lore in recent years, meaning many longer-term residents are familiar with them and consider them almost a part of Shanghai’s urban fabric.

The IKEA story first popped into headlines as early as 2011, when customers began to complain that seats in the cafeteria-style restaurant were often filled with retirees who mostly came to socialize without actually buying anything. IKEA was quite careful about the situation, probably due to concerns about bad publicity that would result if it tried to forcibly evict the seniors.

But apparently store managers finally decided enough was enough, and are now taking new action to free up seats for real paying customers. In a quiet but decisive move, the store recently railed off the restaurant’s sitting area, making it only accessible to people who had passed through the cafeteria line and purchased some food.

Some retirees were a bit upset at first and even argued with store staff that they were being deprived of their former seats. But most eventually accepted the situation, with some standing outside the guard rails and chatting while standing, while others purchased modest items like bread before taking their usual seats.

I used to have little sympathy for these kinds of people, who often seem to feel they are entitled to use private spaces like restaurants and coffee bars even when they don’t buy anything. Such behavior is very rare in the west, and many stores will openly ask such people to leave.

But over the years I’ve become a bit more sympathetic to these retirees, many of whom are often simply lonely and looking for company, but live on extremely limited budgets due to the small size of their pensions. That said, it does seem like Shanghai could take more responsibility for filling this particular need by setting up more activity centers and organizing events for retirees, rather than forcing private companies like IKEA to involuntarily shoulder the burden.

Scallion Scandal

The other story was a bit more upbeat, and saw a major local company step in to try and help an older man whose scallion pancakes had become a local culinary legend over the last 3 decades. The man, Wu Gencun, had been making the greasy pancakes by hand and selling them for 5 yuan apiece from a small shop in his backyard on Maoming Road, often attracting long lines.

But the city forced him to shut down a couple of weeks ago, saying he didn’t have a proper license. Such shut-downs have become quite common these days, and show that Shanghai is finally cracking down on commercial enterprises that create nuisances and also sometimes health hazards when they’re set up in unauthorized places like residential areas and backyards.

Wu’s plight drew massive attention from local media, and now locally-based take-out dining service has stepped in to try and help him find a new location. I’m quite skeptical by nature, and suspect that probably made its decision at least partly for publicity and to earn good will from city officials, who were feeling pressure due to a story that didn’t cast them in a very positive light.

Still, I do applaud the delivery company for trying to help the situation, and also commend Shanghai for continuing its clampdown on illegal eateries without caving in to the negative publicity. We’ll have to wait and see what happens next, since Wu’s previous lack of rent was a major factor that helped him to operate profitably. Thus it’s far from clear that he’ll be able to stay in business once he has to pay real rent, despite’s good intentions.

At the end of the day, Wu’s shop does seem to represent a certain form of tradition that’s worth saving, since 30 years is quite a long time in today’s rapidly changing Shanghai. I’m less certain about whether the same is true for IKEA’s shorter tradition as an activity center for seniors, which seems more like a wake-up call for local officials to do more to take care of our city’s senior population that will only get larger over time.

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