Slide Over, Auntie: Young Chinese Find Tasty Meals in Senior Canteens

Slide Over, Auntie: Young Chinese Find Tasty Meals in Senior Canteens

By Oghale Apr23,2024

Inside a canteen for seniors in downtown Shanghai, a worker brandishing a sponge inched closer to Maggie Xu, 29, as she was finishing her rice and garlic-and-oil-soaked broccoli. Ms. Xu ignored her.

“If you come at 12 o’clock, the aunties will give you less food,” Ms. Xu said, speaking softly. After 1:30 p.m., they give away soup. They also start to hover — like the auntie with the sponge — hurrying laggards out the door.

Ms. Xu is familiar with the rhythms of the Tongxinhui Community Canteen because she eats there every day to save money. She has a good job as an accountant at a foreign firm, but she can’t shake a creeping sense of unease about her future.

“Only when you save money will you feel safe,” she said.

In these tough economic times in China, many young people are jobless, but they aren’t the only anxious ones. A devastating crash in the value of real estate, where most household wealth is tied up, has heightened a feeling among young working professionals like Ms. Xu that their situation is precarious, too.

In Shanghai, some people are finding relief at subsidized community centers that once served mostly seniors but are now also drawing younger crowds. The food is affordable and plentiful. The plates on offer, sometimes as cheap as $1.40, are crammed with local specialties like shredded eel with hot oil, steamed pork ribs or red braised pork belly.

Similar to soup kitchens, the canteens are privately run but subsidized by China’s ruling Communist Party and cater to older residents who are too frail to cook or are homebound, offering discounted meals and delivery services.

At the canteen where Ms. Xu likes to eat, diners who are 70 or older are given a 15 percent discount. The canteen is part of a three-story party community center that opened in May.

As neighbors and workers from nearby shops and small offices pack into the canteen for lunch and dinner, collapsible dining tables and plastic chairs are quickly assembled, spilling out into the building entrance to accommodate grumbling bellies.

During the lull between meals, older residents sit in the entrance, chatting and passing the time. A giant sickle-and-hammer ceiling light glows, reminding diners of the landlord.

The canteens date back to a dark time during Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, when the Communist Party replaced private restaurants with communal canteens, said Seung-Joon Lee, an associate professor of history at the National University of Singapore.

Mismanagement of the canteens played a role in the disastrous famine that would come to define the Great Leap Forward.

“Perhaps to some, it may remind them of the tragic events of the Maoist communal canteens,” Mr. Lee said.

More recently, community canteens have emerged as part of a broader social welfare initiative to improve food services for a swiftly aging population.

There are 6,000 local groups running community canteens around the country, according to the official Xinhua news service. In Shanghai, where nearly one-fifth of the population is 65 or older, there are more than 305 community canteens. Many of them get tax breaks and low or free rent.

But the canteens have become an important fixture for Shanghai’s younger working population, too. The portions are often so generous that they can be stretched out over several meals, and diners can often be seen packing away dishes they haven’t finished.

The cost-saving impetus stems from a reluctance to spend that has become so common among Chinese people that it is contributing to the country’s economic problems and prompting top officials to talk with a sense of urgency about promoting confidence.

If there is one thing that Deng Chunlong, 31, is missing right now, it’s confidence. Mr. Deng’s personal-training business has suffered. Some clients have stopped going to his studio altogether. Others sign up for a third of the classes they used to, he said.

Mr. Deng, who is tall with unruly hair, has been eating cheaper food at the community canteen in Jing’an, a district of Shanghai, to reduce his spending. He recently stopped renting an apartment and sleeps in his Pilates studio.

“I feel that business is not as easy as before,” he said between bites of cauliflower and pork. “It feels like people are not willing to spend as much.”

When Mr. Deng discovered the canteen a year ago, it had mostly older customers, he said, but the clientele has since expanded. “There are many young people now,” he said.

In some neighborhoods, the young stand alongside older people, forming lines that sometimes stretch onto the street. The customers find the community canteens listed on restaurant apps and on social media platforms, where people also share tips about which dishes are the tastiest and the cheapest.

“Young people who are not very wealthy for the time being must visit Shanghai community canteens,” one person wrote on Xiaohongshu, an app similar to Instagram. Another person described the canteens as a “happy home for the poor.”

It was by scrolling on Dianping, a Chinese food app, that Charles Liang, 32, discovered Tianping Community Canteen in the upscale Shanghai neighborhood of Xuhui.

From the outside, the canteen looks more like a modern restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a red brick facade. Inside, the plastic blue boxes overflowing with colorful and dirtied plastic plates give the place more of a cafeteria vibe.

“I tend to save money,” said Mr. Liang, an independent graphic and clothing designer who said finding work had become harder. A two-month Covid lockdown across Shanghai in 2022 also weighed on his outlook, he said, making him more ambivalent about his future and cautious about his finances.

Mr. Liang said he ate regularly at the canteen, which opened in 2020. On this particular evening, when he arrived for dinner, every table was full. One man in a three-piece suit sat down with a tray filled with dishes and began to partition food into plastic takeout containers. Nearly everyone ate quickly and left.

As Mr. Liang was finishing his meal, the dinner crowd began to thin out and some of the canteen’s servers and chefs sat down to eat. One of the servers, Li Cuiping, 61, a migrant worker from the central Chinese province of Henan, said she had been serving people in the canteen for half a year and had noticed more young people in recent months. “Everyone is welcome,” she said.

On a recent Wednesday at another canteen, near Jiangsu Road in the Changning district, a worker known as Fatty Yao was busy clearing more than a dozen empty blue and white dishes left by a group of young office workers. The canteen was serving more young people like that group, he said.

The dishes had been left by Qiu Long, 24, and five of his colleagues who worked together at a lighting design company about a 10-minute walk down the road. Mr. Long and his colleagues said they had started eating at the canteen only a week ago.

They kept returning, though, because it was cheaper and offered more variety than other eateries nearby, many of which Mr. Long said tended to go out of business after a few months.

“I think for working people,” Mr. Long said, “the canteen is a more affordable place to eat.”

Li You contributed to research from Shanghai.

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