Bar's 66-year-old DJ puts new spin on youthfulness
She is 66 years old, but she's the queen of midnight rock at the 12 Beast Lab bar in Changsha, Hunan province.
Dong Shuntao, a DJ with golden hair, a bright green fur coat and sunglasses, waves her arms and shakes her body to the reverberating thump of the drumbeat in unison with the flickering lights of the dance floor.
From time to time, she picks up headphones and expertly operates the complex DJ equipment. Her partner, a man in his 20s, holds his microphone high to capture the cheers of the excited crowd below the stage.
The video Grandma DJ amassed more than 2.9 million views and 40,000 likes after its release on Sina Weibo in late January, triggering a buzz among young people and smashing the stereotype of Chinese women in their 60s who often stay at home to care for grandchildren.
"I felt I was looking at myself dancing disco in old age," said an online comment. Another netizen said: "So Cool! She definitely lives a more unrestrained life than me." Yet another said: "Age is not important. What matters is the attitude."
This unrestrained life didn't come easily, Dong will tell you.
Before her retirement in 2005, she worked at a factory that made machines to mold rubber products.
That was in the daytime. At night she cooked what's affectionately known as stinky tofu along the street. She needed the extra money to feed her son and daughter.
In the 1990s, her monthly salary at the factory was about 600 yuan ($93). Selling tofu on the side brought in another 100 to 200 yuan a day, she said.
After retirement, she opened her first tofu restaurant and focused on expanding the business. Now she has three restaurants in the city.
When her husband died early last year, Dong was immersed in grief for months. She had never set foot in a bar, but she strode into one with a few of her young employees in July "to find out how young people amuse themselves nowadays".
Dong found a new lease on life at the bar.
She played games at first and simply jumped in time with the music. Then she noticed the DJ and wanted to feel the fiery atmosphere of the elevated stage. Finding a mentor, Fu Qiang, who had been a DJ for 20 years, she set off down an unlikely path.
Over the past six months, she memorized the functions of all the DJ gear, learned to maintain a rhythm and came to appreciate different styles of music.
Now she is able to operate two sets of DJ equipment and an audio mixing machine simultaneously. She made her 30-minute stage debut on Jan 13.
"I had a sense of joy and achievement as I indulged myself in the music and successfully followed all the rhythms," she said, adding that her confidence grew as she found she could do something new and challenging.
The stage was not her only challenge. Another one came before her second performance on Jan 23. After finishing work at her tofu restaurant, she was rushing to meet her teacher and hailed a motorbike. Once Dong was aboard, the driver took off quickly and Dong came off the seat. She hit the pavement hard, striking her head as she landed. An ambulance took her to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion.
"In the hospital for three days, I asked myself, would it be better to just stay home? But I also thought that if I gave up, all my effort would be for nothing, and I may never try anything again."
When she was a child, Dong had developed an interest in singing and dancing, and she once performed on a school stage. For decades, she had no time to pursue her dream because of her heavy workload.
"Now I think it's not too late," she said.
Returning to the stage as a DJ, she played songs her mentor had written for her－a combination of rock and local nursery rhymes, folk songs and flower drum opera. The enthusiastic applause, flowers and high spirits of her audience confirmed her success.
Liu Yazhu, the bar manager, said most customers didn't realize the performer was a 66-year-old grandmother until she stepped down from the stage.
The bar, located in the city's Kaifu district, can accommodate 800 people and was packed on the night of Dong's DJ performance. Everybody seemed surprised by the unique DJ, she said. Most of the customers were 20 to 30 years old. People over 60 were rarely seen.
Liu had been impressed by Dong's passion and agreed to give her a try at the bar－without pay.
"Changsha is a city with a colorful nightlife and a well-developed entertainment industry. People here are very open-minded," she said.
Changsha's bars have operated normally despite the coronavirus pandemic. The city reported no new local infections during the recent sporadic outbreaks across China. Strict epidemic control measures are taken in Liu's bar.
Luo Ying, 39, Dong's daughter, said the family supports their mother's ambitious pursuits but worries about her physical condition.
"After the motorbike accident, I didn't want her to visit bars again, but my mother said she was confident because she exercises a lot－playing basketball and dancing in public squares. And so we wanted to make her happy."
'Being happy' important
Unlike many grandparents in China, Dong doesn't spend much time caring for her four grandchildren. She's too busy with tofu and being a DJ. It was easier to hire a nanny.
"I receive full support from my family. I think I'm a responsible person for both family and work," she said, adding that she had read some negative comments online about her age, but they had no impact on her.
"It's not so weird for people like me to do young things. There is nothing more important than being happy. Besides, I don't feel old."
He Jialin, 29, a colleague, said Dong became interested in having fun with younger people after losing her husband. DJ work has cheered her up. He said he thinks of his own mother, who also has devoted her life to her family. He said he will support whatever his mother wants to do.
Dong said she plans to continue performing at the bar once a week.
"I tested my blood pressure before and after performances. It was all normal, although some youngsters said theirs rose," she said with a laugh.