On the face of it, a dating show for retirees set on the Chinese-North Korean border shouldn’t be a romantic hit.
Love Won’t Come Too Late has proved to be just that. Produced by a local broadcaster in snowy Jilin province, the reality show has won fans for its no-nonsense format and straight-talking participants.
The potential lovebirds are introduced by name, age and the size of their pensions. They then go to each other’s apartments and check out the square footage and living habits – to the point of opening cupboards to see how the clothes have been folded.
The low-budget show is not even set in a studio. It relies on a team of 20 year-olds in jumpers and jeans to escort the pensioners to each other’s homes and to keep the conversation going by asking polite questions.
Often the prospective matches then founder on the question of money or whether the other party wants to travel – the men usually don’t. Sometimes, because of the cold, the couples don’t even take off their coats on camera.
The comments made by the show’s participants don’t pull any punches.
“He’s too penny-pinching,” says a 68 year-old widow about a 73 year-old divorcee she’s paired with when he insists they should go Dutch on everything. “What if one of us gets sick? Shouldn’t the other pay for treatment?” she queries.
The beauty of the format is that viewers can contact the show by phone if they have seen someone they like. This can eventually end in participants finding the perfect match.
One 67 year-old who irritated the first two women he met later found love with the third – a retiree two years younger than him who kept a very clean house and cooked him a delicious meal.
“For the first time I feel like I have a home,” he tells the audience, holding back the tears.
The show has struck a chord in a rapidly aging society where some 48 million elderly have lost their spouses and many others are divorced. Indeed, in Beijing up to a third of divorce applications are from recently retirees (i.e. between 60-70 years old) who find they can’t co-exist without the distraction of work. Some opt to delay their separations until their children have grown up.
Love Won’t Come Too Late isn’t the first of its kind. There have been others TV series such as Love Choice and To Love Each Other. In fact, senior citizen dating shows have become one of the most popular genres in recent months as Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on the entertainment industry has seen a number of variety shows banned.
Fans of the show love it for the participants’ interrogative styles: “Is your health okay?” and “Is your flat in your name?” being two of the most common lines of questioning.
Viewers found the responses of the elderly contestants to be genuinely heartwarming as well as hilarious.
In Love Choice, one widely forwarded excerpt featured a grey-haired senior frowning at five photos of potential matches he was presented with. “No, no, no,” the man said, looking rather disappointed. The director then cut to the response of the five women. “You think you are 20 year-old?” one sniffed. “Would we still want you if we were still hot?” another said.
Viewers often comment on the sincerity of the participants too: that they’re really looking for partners rather than appearing on a TV show just to launch an acting or modelling career as younger Chinese do.
It has also increased awareness of the loneliness that many of the country’s 260 million people over 60 feel – and even induce some guilt the their own behaviour. It’s not uncommon for adult children to discourage their widowed parents from remarrying for a self-interested reason: to prevent inheritance disputes down the line. At the same time academics increasingly recognise that the traditional role of caring for grandchildren often leaves elderly people feeling unsatisfied or even unhappy – particularly now that the workforce is more mobile and their offspring might work in cities far from the place the retirees originally put down roots.
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