Chang Wan-ji’s Instagram post about his 84th birthday in mid-January drew hundreds of comments from Taiwanese youngsters. “Thanks for all the joy you bring with your feed,” even foreigners wrote in. Wrote another: “Happy Birthday and more years of good health and dressing smartly.”
In the picture, Wan-ji, and his wife Hsu Sho-er, are sitting on a couch in their home in the town of Houli, in central Taiwan, smiling happily with a cake in the foreground, freshly dry-cleaned laundry hanging above their heads in the back.
The couple, both in their 80s, are household names in Taiwan. This quickly became apparent when I posted a picture posing with them on my Instagram a few days later. My Taiwanese friends left enthusiastic comments. “Love them!!!!!” “Omg I love 萬秀and 秀娥!” “Whattttt, the super stylish grandparents!!!!”
They have been viral sensations since June 2020, when cheered on by their 32-year-old grandson Reef, the couple started stylishly posing in various attires: shirts, shorts, vintage skirts and blouses, holding purses, wearing hats and sunglasses. Everything they wore were unclaimed clothes abandoned for years at the Wansho Laundry service they run in Houli. Wan-ji started the laundry store in 1951 under a different name but renamed it after he married Sho-er.
These were clothes, “maybe 1,000-2,000”, said Wan-ji that people had left behind because they moved or died – or just forgot to pick up.
The pandemic had caught up with the couple who had worked hard their entire life. “Grandson just can’t bear to see them overwhelmed with boredom every day,” read an early post from June 2020. “So, ask them to reinterpret fashion, hoping to let everyone know that age is not a barrier to have fun in fashion and even old clothing can transform into trendy outfits!”
As the BBC described it at the time, Reef “took fashion magazine-worthy pictures” of his grandparents “posing in front of the washers and dryers in their old shop”.
Reef always made sure to reveal little quirks about his grandparents’ personalities under each post. Those early posts burst with comments:
“This is the coolest couple on IG rn [right now].”
“European vacation ready”
“Amazing…I hope I look this cool when I’m in my 80s”
“I LOVE these two! What a joy!! Thank you!”
Wan-ji and Sho-er inadvertently became fashion icons for people stressed under punishing lockdowns. Their fans were eager to learn what new outfit the couple were going to flaunt from halfway across the world.
“Love the grandma’s hat, do you know by chance the brand? <fire emojis>”
“I am obsessed with the pattern combo of the men’s shirts…High fashion!”
Instagram users called the octogenarians chic and stylish and said they had swag. The couple were featured in leading fashion magazines Vogue, GQ and Marie Claire. They even walked the red carpet at the Taipei Fashion Week in October 2020. Subsequently, Reef ran a crowdfunding campaign to promote “circular fashion” to help laundry stores with piles of unclaimed clothes to be cleaned and repurposed to be shipped out to buyers. At the time, he raised over 700,000 Taiwanese dollars – approximately Rs 19 lakhs.
Meanwhile, their Instagram page @wantshowasyoung, a play on the Wansho laundry store and a combination of their own names, steadily clocked up more followers. Today, they have 662,000 followers. In millennial speak, they are influencers, a term that makes very little sense to the senior citizens.
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon when I met them at their store, an establishment built during Japanese colonial rule. Wan-ji and Sho-er narrated their story in a mix of Taiwanese and Mandarin, sincerely translated for my benefit by their grandsons, Reef and 19-year-old Paul.
Everyone yelled a little for Sho-er’s benefit, off late her ears were being uncooperative. She moved slowly towards a chair with the help of a walker. The “it girl” from 2020 who appeared on fashion magazines with a “swag attitude” had unfortunately bruised her left leg from a bad fall in May while trying to hang laundry.
In 1959, Wan-ji was 21 when he visited Sho-er’s home for a “blind date” orchestrated by her aunt and older sister. She was grumpy that he did not stay long. He was in a rush to do some thinking: would he be able to support a family?
He had been working in a laundry store from the time he was 14. “I only studied till I was 12 years old,” he said. “I wanted to go to junior high but my parents couldn’t afford it.”
He took six months to decide to get married to her. She didn’t go on any more “blind dates” at that time. Later, when her husband was conscripted into the army for two years, Sho-er would leave her job as a civil servant in the revenue service to run the laundry store.
Reef said his grandfather returned from military service to rename the store “Wansho” to include his wife’s name. Instagram picked up on their adoration for each other: “I love how they always hold hands!” wrote one user.
“A lot changed over the years at the laundry store,” Reef translated. “Earlier they washed clothes by using soap and hot water and letting the soap melt, hand washing the clothes, twisting and wringing it, now they use washing powder and a machine.”
He said with a laugh, “The orange washer over there is even older than me.”
Outside the store, Wan-ji’s 125cc scooter was parked, under a line of what seemed like biker jackets. “My grandfather still goes out to deliver and collect laundry every day,” said Paul. “He didn’t go today because it is raining.”
When the couple were younger and business was brisk, Wansho Laundry only closed its doors at midnight every day. Nowadays, they pack up at 9 pm. “Before noon, grandpa sits at the counter and waits for customers,” said Reef. “Sometimes Grandpa’s friends come and chat with him but because of Covid that has reduced. Earlier his friends will come to the shop to play xīyáng qí [chess], but he now plays on his phone….with strangers.”
About those photoshoots, Sho-er said she didn’t know what her grandson was up to and did not expect to become famous. “We thought he was taking regular photos, we just posed to satisfy his wish, and acted like regular people…” she said.
Reef laughed and admitted he didn’t say much to them at first. “I just said we must take some photos; you have to wear these old clothes,” he said. “They thought I was so strange to ask them to wear other people’s clothes. After I started posting [on social media] and some media and friends started showing interest, they understood I was up to something.”
The Chang family have lived in Houli for years and Wan-ji has washed the town’s laundry for over seven decades. With the cost of living steadily climbing, dry-cleaning a shirt at Wansho has gone from 1 Taiwanese dollar (Rs 3) to 70 Taiwanese dollars (Rs 190) over the years.
The couple have two daughters, two sons, five grandsons and one granddaughter. If they had their wish, they’d like all their grandchildren to stay in Houli, but the younger generation is bursting with ambition. “My grandma hopes I stay here in Houli, but I think it is a very small place. I know that if we have the opportunity to go to Taipei or Beijing, they will miss us,” Reef said, in between apologising for being on his phone a lot. “Sorry, it’s a workday for me.”
He had a book signing event that evening in a popular mall in Taichung. He had written an autobiography, he said, as he showed me the book. It has a picture of him posing with his grandparents on the front cover. In English, the title means “My Growth Story with Wansho.”
Wan-ji pointed out the bookmarks. “I am halfway through the book,” he smiled. “Working here [at Wansho] is working very hard. I want my grandchildren to study, and get better jobs.”
In the last post for 2021, Wan-ji looks dapper in a black suit posing as The King’s Man. “Our family is ordinary, and Wan-ji even only graduated elementary school,” reads part of the post. “But Wan-ji’s wisdom and dress and etiquette is what he insists on passing down from generation to generation.” I noticed that when I visited the store, Wan-ji was impeccably dressed in a vest, tie and coat. “As I often tell everyone, the reason for this IG is actually the many ideas…from the education of Wan-ji and Sho-er,” the post concluded.
Consistent with all posts, this last one too ended with: “A friendly reminder. Don’t forget to pick up your laundry.”
Sowmiya Ashok is a journalist and a Chinese language student based in Taipei, Taiwan.