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  • Isa Cheng

Portraits of Shanghai ayis: an immersion in the life of middle-aged women

In the rapidly modernizing, young, and energetic city of Shanghai, there is a group called ayi (auntie). They are generally 40-60 years old with gray hair and wrinkles as their physical characteristics.

Once their children have grown up, and they are no longer active in the job market, the ayi group seems to have “retired” into the background; their sense of existence in society has been somewhat overlooked.

So here comes the question: where can you find ayi on the streets of Shanghai? The park? The wet market?

The following photos are an observation of the ayi through the lens of Shanghai streets.

Some were working in Lawsons or the wet market. Some were strolling or exercising in the park after buying groceries. Some were taking pictures with their besties to post on their WeChat Moments, just like the modern youth.

Take a deep dive into the ayis’ lifestyles, their fashion sense, their hobby of taking pictures, and their jobs. Follow the photos and observe the unique lives of Shanghai ayis.

Ayis with the squad

Middle-aged and elderly Chinese are social creatures: they are often spotted in groups or pairs, engaging in different leisure activities. From chatting on a bench, strolling in the park and babysitting their grandchildren, to enjoying quality time with their besties. After a lifetime of painstaking work and their own daughters and sons probably busy working, hanging out with people who are the same age makes perfect sense for Shanghainese ayis.

Online ayis

The rapid introduction and spread of mobile technology in China created a generation of tech-savvy ayis that is unparalleled in any other country. From mobile payments to 朋友圈 pengyou quan (WeChat Moments), from TikTok to online shopping, Shanghainese ayis are as connected to the web as younger generations. It is not uncommon to witness some of them snapping selfies with flowers and trees, browsing through their social media timelines, or playing online games.

Exercising ayis

Another unique characteristic of Chinese middle-aged and elderly women is their habit of exercising outdoors. Unbothered by the fast-changing landscape of big Chinese cities, they are determined to find the perfect spot for square dance, fast-walking and stretching. After all, what would the appeal of Shanghainese public parks be if not the chatty ayis dancing and playing badminton like there is no tomorrow?

Working ayis

However, not all ayis are born equal. Many of them did not retire at age 55 and still have to work to provide for themselves and their family. Most of them are migrant workers whose pension plan is completely different from the one Shanghainese hukou holders can rely on. These ayis are cooking in restaurants, serving baozi at your local corner shop, selling vegetables at the wet market, or sweeping the streets. Although they are often invisible to wealthier citizens, they are an essential part of Shanghainese life, and we can’t help but appreciate them even more.


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