Beijing: Finding love amid crowds of furniture shoppers and the smell of Swedish meatballs might seem unlikely, but for Shanghai’s elderly, Ikea is the place to search for Mr or Mrs Right. For years, hundreds of people, many divorced or widowed, have descended on the store cafeteria in the city’s Xuhui district on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
But given that most were seeking light flirtation rather than a hot dog or a glass of lingonberry cordial, it was only a matter of time before management grew tired of providing a cut-price singles club. So last week, during the seven-day national holiday, when hordes of old people who had not purchased food occupied seats and blocked walkways, the store introduced a strict “no-food, no seat” policy.
A notice was posted at the restaurant identifying a “matchmaking group” who occupied seats for “extended periods”, “spoke loudly” and were also found to be “spitting” and “having quarrels and fights”. “From today the restaurant will only be for people who purchase the food first,” it said.
The older clientele say they have nowhere else to go. “We’ve been to McDonald’s and KFC. But there are barely any peers there,” an 86-year-old named as Mr Qiu told the China Daily newspaper.
“We feel like aliens there — surrounded by youngsters. If there is another place in Shanghai where elderly people can gather, we are more than ready to pay twice as much and travel further.”
Ikea has built some of its biggest stores in China, seeking to capitalise on the spending power of a rapidly expanding middle class. But for the many Chinese who remain unconvinced by Western tastes in home decor, it has other attractions apart from Scandinavian furnishings.
During the warm summer months, many visit to enjoy the air conditioning, kicking off their shoes for a nap, or bringing a picnic or newspaper to relax on the beds or sofas.
The “matchmakers” are refusing to quit the Ikea restaurant, despite the new rules. Many bring their own water and steamed buns, but buy some inexpensive croissants.
“I guess few people know just how lonely old people are,” said a retired woman named as Mrs Xu by a Shanghai news website.
“Our kids are not around, and some visit only on weekends. I feel quite good when I come here. I talk with friends, but some elderly do meet people who become lovers.”