A common joke in the ex-pat communities of mainland China is that the most important phrase of Mandarin you need to know in order to survive relocation to the People’s Republic is, “Wǒ yào yī bēi kāfēi” (“I want a cup of coffee”). In the 1980s and 1990s, as China gradually opened-up to the West, it was reportedly easier to learn how to ask for a cup of coffee than it was to actually find one, especially if you were expecting a beverage of reasonable quality. Even in the era of globalisation, with branches of Costa and Starbucks opening up all around the world, the citizens of China have been largely resistant to the buzz of caffeine, as fashionable urbanites often prefer to order one of the many varieties of tea or a milk drink over a cappuccino or espresso. Limited shelf space is allocated for coffee in supermarkets, where Maxwell House and Nescafe compete for market supremacy with the generic blends that are usually found in discount stores in the West, while a few minor brands try their luck in a market that could be very lucrative if grocery shoppers would spend less time in the tea aisle. However, while coffee may not represent shelf value, it certainly has social value: recent years have seen the rise of café culture in China, with a range of outlets from the aforementioned international chains to local businesses, seeking to cater to bohemians, professionals, ex-pats, and dislocated tourists in the major cities.
Café culture is not new to China, but it is relatively new to the China of the reform era. The history of coffee in China can be traced back to the 19th Century, when it arrived in the country via the port of Shanghai in the luggage of businessmen, missionaries, and other adventurous travellers from the West. In the 1920s and 1930s, the consumption of coffee and the enjoyment of café culture contributed to Shanghai being referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’, due to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of such establishments and the stylish manner of the patrons who would regularly frequent them. Once the Communist Party took control of the country in 1949, these ‘decadent’ cafés were closed down, and largely forgotten. However, they are now back in abundance, not only in the international centre of Shanghai or other top-tier cities, but in most urban areas that have experienced rapid development during China’s economic acceleration and relentless drive towards modernisation. Starbucks opened its first Shanghai outlet in 2001 at the tourist zone Cheng Huang Miao, and now has more than 400 branches across 42 cities. According to a 2011 study conducted by the Global Coffee Review, tea still accounts for 70% of the hot drinks market, but coffee consumption is growing steadily by 25% each year. Yet the appropriation of café culture by China is more indicative of assimilation of status symbols by its ‘new money’ social class than it is of a yearning for a laid-back continental lifestyle.
Some of the cultural tensions between the lazy atmosphere of café culture and the sheer pace of life in modern China are illustrated by a scene in Zhang Yibai’s modern relationship drama Spring Subway (2002). Beijing design firm employee Xiaohui (Xu Jinglei) visits one of her clients, café owner Lao Hu (Zhang Yang). Although she needs to go straight back to the office after delivering some advertising materials, Xiaohui is convinced to stay for a cup of coffee by Lao Hu, who points out, “Coffee is a process. People like you don’t realise that.” Lao Hu certainly understands coffee and acknowledges the uphill struggle that he will face convincing busy urbanites like Xiaohui that it is worth making time for. In the decade since the release of Spring Subway, attitudes towards café culture in China have certainly shifted. Many upwardly mobile citizens now like to spend time at a central kāfēi guan (coffee house), although they will often state that coffee is “kǔ” (bitter) and add copious amounts of milk and sugar to make the beverage more to their taste. China is famous for its tobacco consumption, so the no-smoking policy that is strictly enforced by Costa and Starbucks means that many of the customers sit outside, with the interiors of such establishments often strangely empty, despite their increased popularity. Yet branches of these chains have become valuable meeting places in a society where there is no such thing as a casual conversation when every contact represents a potential business avenue.
As an academic, I only ‘do business’ in cafés in the loose sense of the term: they are a convenient place to meet fellow scholars or filmmakers, and offer a more sociable environment for the supervision of students than the impersonal facilities provided by my department at Nanjing University. Although I am based in a major city and very much enjoy urban wandering, it actually took some time to find nice places to go for coffee following my arrival in September 2010. My on-the-go caffeine fix initially came from a branch of McDonalds located within a ten minute walk of my first rented apartment at Zhangfuyuan, a central area of the city. For just 6 Yuan, the Golden Arches provided a surprisingly decent cup of coffee, with free re-fill option, although the price has since increased. I largely avoided Costa and Starbucks based on a general dislike of the former, and the fact that both are quite expensive in relation to local living cost (25-35 Yuan per beverage). However, after moving to the downtown district of Gulou in March 2011 to be closer to the main university campus, I discovered a number of independent outlets and local chains which were not only worthy of casual investigation, but soon became regular hang-outs. The best of these establishments succeed in balancing the transferable décor of the international chains with more individual touches, not to mention comparatively reasonable pricing policies and varied drinks menus that appeal to the taste of ex-pats and locals alike.
Links between coffee culture and film appreciation are evident in two of the districts most popular cafés. Sculpting in Time is a chain that started in Beijing and takes its name from a book by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s the kind of chain that has become successful because it is whatever the patron wants it to be (café, restaurant, or late bar), while maintaining a consistent identity due to its pared-down yet stylish design. Located at Hankou Lu, near the main gate of the university campus, Sculpting in Time courts film fans with walls adorned with classic movie posters including A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), and In the Mood for Love (2000). This is also a place of much social activity during the China Independent Film Festival, usually held in October or November, with academics, critics, directors, and distributors using the comfortable surroundings to discuss the developments of the underground scene. A similar vibe is offered nearby at Guangzhou Lu by the book store Librarie Avant-Garde, which was established fifteen years ago and also has a café. It stocks an impressive range of film studies texts, alongside other art-related subjects and works of fiction, with film clubs often being held here at weekends. Sculpting in Time and Librarie Avant-Garde provide a relaxed sit-down experience, serving coffee that is satisfying if never quite transcendent, while offering a suitably mellow music selection (Tom Waits is often playing in the former, while the latter favours the angst-ridden albums of Damien Rice).
Other cafés of note around Gulou are Lotus Café and Godot’s Home. When I first moved to Gulou district, the unit that is now used for Lotus Bakery & Café was a DVD store, which closed during an anti-piracy crackdown, then became a fruit stall. Lotus Bakery & Café is better at making cakes than caffeinated beverages, although the owner deserves credit for creating a mellow environment considering that the establishment is located on Shanghai Lu, a busy main road. A café that strives for laid-back European authenticity is Godot’s Home, which is found on a side street near the end of Hankou Lu. Also small, but with outside seating, Godot’s Home exudes quirky charm without any eccentric trimmings, and also serves an excellent cappuccino. Lotus Café and Godot’s Home both take advantage of being located near the language school and attract overseas students who crave a sense of familiarity after four hours of intensive classes. However, the best coffee in Gulou district can arguably be found at Anna Bevande, a small take-away enterprise around the corner from Sculpting in Time which has a range of beverages at very reasonable prices, friendly staff, fast service, and a distinctive design on their paper cups. Most importantly, it serves the most heavenly cappuccino in the area. Such ‘hole in the wall’ operations are so common in China that it is easy to overlook a vendor such as Anna Bevande, but to do so in this case would be a major error for any coffee connoisseur.
The café business is certainly booming in China. As I write this article, a previously vacant commercial unit in the street below is being converted into a café, which means that I will soon have ten options within a few minutes of my apartment building. Whether there is enough demand to support so many cafés in one area is debatable, but local enterprisers clearly believe that such businesses represent a worthwhile venture. Recently, while accompanying a friend on a bureaucratic errand, I ended up back in my old neighbourhood of Zhangfuyuan, where I had failed to find a good café – or any café, for that matter – during my six month tenancy two years earlier. On a tip from the local ex-pat publication The Nanjinger, we visited the Fish Tank Café, which opened earlier in 2012. In-keeping with its name, the interior of the café aims to make you feel as if you are inside a fish tank, an offbeat idea that works due to a nice blend of colours and design elements that add character without making the place feel unnecessarily cluttered. It’s also a blissfully calm space which, in the tradition of café culture, provides a nice break from the hectic world outside. The café owner of Spring Subway may have bemoaned the fact that Chinese people do not understand the process that is coffee. While that may still be the case, they have certainly come to appreciate the café scene, even if most prefer to order a milk tea.
Librarie Avant-Garde @ China Daily
Sculpting in Time