After the death of Matthew Perry at the age of 54, Chinese fans are mourning the loss of a star who felt more like an old friend than a distant celebrity.

A memorial event held on Wednesday in a cafe in Shenzhen, a bustling city on the border with Hong Kong, was one of several held across the country in honor of the actor who played Chandler Bing and passed away in Los Angeles on Saturday. The cafe, styled as a tribute to the 10-season sitcom "Friends," from its name "Smelly Cat" to the Central Perk sign on the glass wall, was packed with people and floral arrangements. A television in the corner played episodes of "Friends."

"More people came than we expected," said the cafe manager, Ne Yangsha. "People shared their memories of Chandler and the friends, and many were in tears."

A large poster in the bar displayed photos of Perry from different years. "We love you, friend," read the message at the bottom.

Although "Friends" officially debuted in China only in 2012 (via Sohu, a streaming platform), the show had become widely known in the country long before that. It gained popularity more than a decade ago thanks to pirated DVDs and hard disk copies. Once Chinese fans added Chinese subtitles to the show that originally aired in the U.S. from 1994 to 2004, it quickly gained a following.

"At the time, China was undergoing radical historical changes marked by consumption growth, as well as individualism and urbanization," said Siyuan Wang, a professor of contemporary Chinese literature and popular culture at the University of Notre Dame. "This TV show actually offered a way to imagine a so-called metropolitan utopia."

Many Chinese fans learned English by watching the show and became acquainted with American life and culture. The uncensored underground version of "Friends" also opened a window to topics that were not typically discussed on Chinese television, such as LGBTQ+ themes and sexual content. (Although "Friends" originally wasn't censored on Sohu, the platform—and other platforms that later officially distributed the show in China—increasingly cut scenes.)

Wang noted that many young people in China identify with Perry's character and his fictional friends as they navigate life independently and develop their individuality in a big city.

"It's like losing one of your friends," Wang said. "So it's emotional because it felt like reminiscing about childhood or youth, a sense of nostalgia."

In the bustling neon city of Shanghai on Wednesday evening, more than 30 people gathered at a miniature Central Perk cafe. There was barely enough space to stand, and only room for three to sit on a replica of the iconic orange couch. Those who couldn't fit inside spilled out the door and peered in, while others sat on chairs outside. Inside, fans took turns reading articles about Perry. Some choked up.

Nilufar Arkin, who lives in Tianjin, said her friends described her and her boyfriend as the real-life Monica and Chandler. Two years ago, the couple even got matching tattoos with lyrics from the "I'll Be There For You" theme song by The Rembrandts. The tattoos also feature the classic Thanksgiving scene where Monica dances in front of Chandler with a turkey on her head. It was the moment Chandler first told Monica that he loved her.

"I think Chandler and Monica are the perfect couple," said Arkin, who is 27. "That's what I admire about the couple; I love both of them. He's my type of husband."

Arkin learned about Perry's death when she woke up at her friend's house in Xinjiang and burst into tears.

"I couldn't believe it, and I had to check it again and again until I was convinced it was true, then I just cried," Arkin said. "He is my favorite character in the series."

Fu Xuejin has watched the series multiple times, and with each viewing, it touches her even more deeply. The 20-year-old student has visited three Central Perk-themed cafes in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, where she felt like she was a part of the show.

"Friends has been a refuge for my whole life," Fu said. "Every time when I'm stressed by school or unhappy, I watch it and forget everything that happened to me."

For mechanical engineer Zhang Fenguan and his fiancée Sun Tian Tian, both 30, Perry and the show will always be a part of their lives. In September, Zhang recreated Chandler's proposal scene, and Sun said yes.

"I used his scene and his lines," Zhang said. "It feels like I just met this long-lost friend, but he's just not here."