Why you should care
From solo karaoke booths to apps that mimic human interaction, the Chinese are devising solutions to help them fight loneliness.
When 54-year-old factory worker Chen Dongtao moved back to his wife’s hometown in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province a decade ago, he struggled to make friends. His colleagues were all younger than he was. Last year, his wife retired and started spending months at a time with their son in Beijing. Chen now dines alone, plays games on the smartphone his son bought for him and spends more than he should on his dog, whom he bought to combat his loneliness.
He may be lonely, but Chen is far from alone in his struggle. For years, China has competed — and in many cases successfully surpassed — Japan in fields ranging from the size of its economy to sports. Now, it’s racing against its traditional rival in an arena unlikely to evoke as much pride as some of its other gains. China is emerging as the new capital of Asia’s loneliness economy, a position long held by Japan.
A joint study in 2017 by two Chinese companies — Momo, a dating app, and Xiaozhu, the country’s answer to Airbnb — found that 67 percent of 10,000 people interviewed under the age of 47 were watching TV or films to combat loneliness. In the survey, 58 percent of participants said they spend money in a bid to feel less lonely: 46 percent went to a bar, 4 out of 10 went to a gym and a quarter performed karaoke.
Chinese and foreign firms smell opportunity. Since 2015, China’s host of karaoke brands, led by Karaoke Television, have opened more than 20,000 minibooths catering to solo singers in supermarkets and shopping centers. Nov. 11, designated Singles Day in China, has emerged as an occasion for companies to target singletons with lucrative offers, similar to Black Friday in the U.S. Alibaba, the e-commerce platform, recorded $25 billion in sales on last year’s Singles Day, the world’s largest shopping value ever recorded in a day.
Microsoft has developed a chatbot called Xiaoice, geared toward Mandarin speakers, that helps lonely users mimic human interaction. To seem more lifelike, it mines the internet for real conversations. Launched in 2014, Xiaoice now boasts 120 million active monthly users in China, who can interact with the bot on 15 different platforms. The waves of this loneliness economy aren’t sparing Hong Kong or Taiwan either. In 2013, Japanese ramen noodle chain Ichiran brought its concept of the “Ramen Focus Booth” — eating at a table for one along a wall of similar tables separated by partitions — to Hong Kong. Since then, the growing demand has led to the company opening a second outlet in the city, and expanding its staff from 90 to 300. When Ichiran opened in Taipei, Taiwan, in June 2017, there was a queue for 240 hours — 10 days — straight.
“[Our layout] helps customers focus on the food without having worries about their surroundings,” says Gigi Chan, public relations and marketing officer for Ichiran Hong Kong.
The loneliness economy took off in Japan in the 1980s, when the country’s population began aging. Businesses built around loneliness in Japan range from agencies that allow people to “rent” family members for company during a meal to devices that allow users solo, private movie screenings.
[Loneliness is] a difficult thing to talk about in China.
Si Wenjiao, a teacher
Some of the ingredients that fueled Japan’s loneliness crisis have grown in China too over the past few decades. Intense urbanization and the migration of working-age men and women from villages to cities have left elders and youth lonely. The one-child rule didn’t help. But that loneliness has found expression in the form of economic opportunities for some only as disposable incomes have grown sharply in recent years. Results of a survey conducted by Zhaopin, a Chinese career options platform, published in May, show that 53 percent of white-collar workers reported feeling lonely every day. Of those surveyed, 40 percent said they believed earning more money would help them overcome loneliness.
Those suffering from loneliness often feel embarrassed to talk to family and friends about it. “I have many friends who live alone, eat out alone, go to the gym or the movies alone,” says Si Wenjiao, a teacher from Hebei province in northern China. “It’s a difficult thing to talk about in China.”
One of the beneficiaries of this loneliness crisis is China’s karaoke industry. Chinese data-mining firm iiMedia Research estimates that in 2018, the country’s karaoke booth industry will expand 120 percent year-over-year to 7 billion yuan ($1 billion). Restaurants designed for single patrons — such as Ichiran — have a ready market too. As everyone in them is eating alone, there’s no stigma.
But some experts believe the industry best placed to gain from China’s loneliness is the online technology sector. A range of artificial intelligence–based products, geared toward mimicking interaction with humans, has become available to consumers in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past two years. Fuli, an AI-powered robot dog that adopts speech and human characteristics to keep its owner company, launched in May. LingLong DingDong, a smart speaker that, similar to Amazon Echo, plays the role of a virtual assistant, launched in December 2016.
“Virtual and augmented reality have gone some way to providing a solution, but if someone were to create a technology that mimicked that sensation of being close to actual people, they’d enjoy massive financial success,” says Amy Orben, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Oxford.
It isn’t clear whether this increase in technologies replacing physical connection is contributing to the problem of loneliness or offering a solution, says Orben. “Technology is now so ingrained in the forming of human relationships that it’s become a bit of a chicken and egg problem,” she says.
But which came first doesn’t matter to companies like Alibaba and Karaoke Television, Microsoft and Ichiran. They’ve tapped a market that’s only going to grow.