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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog


Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing


A Bottle of Vitamins Would be Just Fine

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 21 March 2018

Screenshot of Chinese online shops of various VDS products

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.[1]

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[2] 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.

[1] https://www.marketingtochina.com/market-vitamins-health-supplements-china/

[2] http://news.163.com/17/1103/00/D29DLGDF00018AOQ.html

The Age of Migration

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.