How China’s ‘Broke Ghosts’ Are Keeping Up Appearances during Straitened Times

Photo for The Washington Post by Gilles Sabrié
Pacific Department Store was one of the Shanghai area’s most popular shopping malls in the 1990s and 2000s.

SHANGHAI – The waitress set a pot of boiling broth in the middle of the table and arranged the small dishes of snacks that come free with any meal here at Haidilao, one of China’s best-known hot pot restaurant chains. It was just before midnight.

“I can bring you a blanket and a pillow,” she said, “but you’ll have to be out at 7 a.m.”

This offer – to sleep in a booth and get a night’s rest in central Shanghai for the price of dinner – is one that scores of young people have recently taken her up on, the waitress said.

All manner of partygoers and late-night diners were gathered around plumes of chili-laced steam on a recent night, the restaurant the hottest spot in a shopping mall that was otherwise closed.

Many of them would be catching some shut-eye under the Haidilao’s greasy tables, and freshening up with the free mouthwash and hair spray in its well-stocked bathroom. It’s not an obvious place to refresh for another day in China’s capital of culture and fashion.

But crashing in the restaurant allows people, whether from the suburbs or out of town, to stay in the city for cheap.

Calling themselves “broke ghosts” and “ruthless money-saving fiends,” they’re part of a generation of young people in China who are trying to stretch their dollars – and having a ball while doing so – amid China’s economic slowdown, the first of their lives.

They endured the country’s cutthroat education system with the promise that their future wages would buy them a lifestyle better than their parents and grandparents. They’ve graduated to find that, as China’s economic woes pile up, their futures are much less certain.

While some young people have responded by “lying flat,” similar to “quiet quitting,” others want to hang on to that sense of aspiration that has propelled China’s economic rise. That means photos worthy of Xiaohongshu, China’s answer to Instagram.

Online, the “ghosts” and “fiends” swap tips, perfecting the age-old art of having fun on a budget for the image-conscious social media age: How to throw a party with discount groceries, make art pieces from household objects and find the ingredients for a weekend out in Shanghai – a free cup of coffee, a place to spend the night and of course to charge their phones to document all the fun, while spending as little as possible.

China’s economy has struggled to rebound from three years of pandemic lockdowns. A storm of debt threatens to topple the property market, where the middle class has stored its wealth. Consumption is sluggish, and deflation is looming. Unemployment for 16- to 24-year-olds reached such record heights that the government has simply stopped releasing the numbers.

After years in China’s competitive education system, it’s difficult for young people to shake a sense of comparison, which is only amplified on social media, said Madeline, a 30-year-old freelancer from Shanghai who previously worked in higher education and spoke on the condition she be identified only by her English name.

Amid the economic crunch, there’s still pressure to seem to be living the good life, even if an undercurrent of anxiety about the future runs beneath the perfect posts.

“The job market is really challenging right now,” said Madeline. “But still, people are always asking for more.”

Especially in glitzy Shanghai, young people still want to keep up appearances, and they’re getting creative to stretch their money as far as it will go.

In the heart of Shanghai, deep underground below People’s Park – famed for its marriage market, where parents try to find a perfect match for their single children – shoppers seek a different kind of happiness: the rush of finding an absolutely rock-bottom discount.

There’s no better place to find one than HotMaxx, a chain of bargain stores offering snacks, drinks and household products at even lower prices than on Pinduoduo, a Chinese e-commerce site renowned for unbelievable deals (and, until recently, its unprofitability). The secret at HotMaxx? The dollar boxes of fig-flavored Oreos and off-brand Spanish wine crowding the shelves are just about to hit their expiration dates.

Nelson, a 19-year-old college student from Inner Mongolia, doesn’t mind. He’s at HotMaxx scoring an ice cream to share with his girlfriend while they’re on a three-week trip to Shanghai with his band. It’s a fraction of the price of the ones sold at the fancy cafes surrounding the park.

A park hangout is one of the best ways to enjoy the sights on the big city on a budget. “The views are free,” adds Nelson.

Restaurants across the city have started targeting budget-conscious diners with another viral internet trend: the blind box, where shoppers sign up to receive a food delivery that’s a mystery to them until it they open it.

At the Jin Yuan eatery in the corner of a food court under a shopping mall off Shanghai’s famed Nanjing Road, the blind box contains two main dishes, two sides and rice for less than $2.75.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a box included peppery braised pork, stir-fried cabbage and pressed tofu fragrant with fresh cilantro. The restaurant sells a fixed number each day only to people who purchase ahead of time online, which means the boxes are bought almost exclusively by internet-savvy young people, said a cook behind the counter.

Shanghai’s budget-conscious gourmands also stand by a time-honored source of cheap eats: the grocery store at closing time. One 27-year-old blogger who goes by the alias “Vicious, money-saving fiend” said that by buying leftover vegetables, she could spend just $8 a month on food and still be able to entertain friends. Her go-to party snack: the rind of a watermelon, pickled and dried in the sun.

She’s saving the money she makes from online ads on her “frugal inspiration” content for a down payment. If she lives like this for another three years, she told a Chinese media outlet, she could buy herself an apartment in the southern megacity of Shenzhen. The comments on her videos applaud her for being “so ruthless.”

Over at the Pacific Department Store shopping mall, shoppers flooded in on its last day of operation, jostling with salespeople boxing up inventory.

Some had come for the promise of the going-out-of-business sale. Others were there for the nostalgia, reliving the boom years of wandering the halls of what had been one of the area’s most popular shopping malls in the 1990s and 2000s.

The bargains on offer weren’t as good as they expected so they weren’t buying much, multiple shoppers said. Instead, many people were live-blogging and taking photos, documenting the end of an era.

“Everyone wants to save as much money as they can while still having fun,” said Huang, an 18-year-old college student who worked part-time at a women’s shoe store in the mall.

Photo for The Washington Post by Gilles Sabrié
On Aug. 31, the day that Pacific Department Store closed its doors for the last time, patrons shop for bargain clothes. But many others were live-blogging and taking photos, documenting the end of an era.

Huang wouldn’t lose her job when the mall closed, but be transferred to another location of the popular footwear brand. Some of the salespeople at the independent stores upstairs won’t be so lucky, she said, speaking on the condition that her full name be withheld to avoid getting in trouble with her bosses.

Down the hall, a clerk at the counter of a luxury Korean skin-care brand said that, like a growing number of Chinese people in their 20s and 30s, she’s looking out for herself when it comes to the future. Jin, who also spoke on the condition her full name be withheld, doesn’t own a house, isn’t married and doesn’t want to have children, despite the government’s push to combat population decline.

For some, being frugal isn’t just a way to save money. Like Jin, it’s a way to opt out of the demands and expectations of China’s competitive work and school culture.

“Some Internet-native young people show off their frugality on social media,” said Wang Ning, a professor of sociology at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. “But what they are showing off is not frugality. Rather, the they’re expressing their dissatisfaction with society,” Wang said in an interview in local magazine Southern Views.

Most of the people who shop at Jin’s skin-care counter these days are older returning customers, she said. Instead of splurging on expensive brands, she sees more young people turning to cheaper products.

“The future is unstable,” said Jin. “We do what we can to prepare for it.”