“You see, health is really the ‘1’.” Mrs. Cao concludes after the story of how she has been helping her best friend to take care of the friend’s husband who suffered from dementia. Mrs. Cao in her early 60s believes that if one’s life is valued as a string of figures, then health is the beginning ‘1’ before all the ‘0’. Wealth, social status, knowledge, beauty, and etc. are all the following ‘0’s, without the ‘1’, the rest in life means nothing and values nothing. In order to keep the ‘1’, Mrs. Cao takes multi-vitamin products on a daily basis. In the middle of our conversation, Mrs. Cao answered a phone call from her sister who is going to take a holiday in Australia. In that call Mrs. Cao said to her sister: “Don’t buy anything else for me, a bottle of vitamins would be just fine!”
Mrs. Cao’s passion for vitamins is very commonplace among her peers. So far, more than 90% of the people above 60 I met in Shanghai reported that they took vitamins and dietary supplements (VDS) in the past one month. Foreign VDS products are given preference as people believe that the quality of an international brand is more reliable.
It is reported that Chinese spent over 109 billion RMB (US$17.3 billion) of VDS in 2015. By 2020, the market of VDS in China is expected to reach 149 billion RMB (US$23.6 billion). With over 350 million middle class consumers, mainland China represents the largest VDS market in the world thanks to the increasing disposable incomes and increasing health awareness especially among urban ageing middle-class.
In the sub-district in central Shanghai where I conduct fieldwork, more than half of the population is 60-year-old and older. A 2017 survey conducted by ‘Shanghai Consumer Protection Committee’ shows that in 2017, more than 70% of elderly citizens purchased bao jian pin (health protection product) in the past year, and more than 13.8% of elderly citizens (60+) consumed more than 10,000 RMB (US$1,587) on bao jian pin in the past one year. Given the average disposable income among Shanghai residents in 2017 was 58,988 RMB, and the elderly citizen is the relatively low-income population in China, it is not exaggerating to say the consumption on bao jian pin almost accounts for one fifth of annul disposable income of the aging population in Shanghai.
Such a phenomenon is important for me to further understand people’s daily practice of self-care (yang shen). As the field work moves along, I will continue to observe and analyse systematically the reasons why people have such a passion for bao jian pin. And what the consumption of bao jian pin can tell us about the people and society.