The Coffee/Café-Scape in Chinese Urban Cities




coffee, cafe, China

How to Cite

Wang, J. (2012). The Coffee/Café-Scape in Chinese Urban Cities. M/C Journal, 15(2).
Vol. 15 No. 2 (2012): coffee
Published 2012-05-02


In this article, I set out to accomplish two tasks. The first is to map coffee and cafés in Mainland China in different historical periods. The second is to focus on coffee and cafés in the socio-cultural milieu of contemporary China in order to understand the symbolic value of the emerging coffee/café-scape. Cafés, rather than coffee, are at the centre of this current trend in contemporary Chinese cities. With instant coffee dominating as a drink, the Chinese have developed a cultural and social demand for cafés, but have not yet developed coffee palates.

Historical Coffee Map

In 1901, coffee was served in a restaurant in the city of Tianjin. This restaurant, named Kiessling, was run by a German chef, a former solider who came to China with the eight-nation alliance. At that time, coffee was reserved mostly for foreign politicians and military officials as well as wealthy businessmen—very few ordinary Chinese drank it. (For more history of Kiessling, including pictures and videos, see Kiessling). Another group of coffee consumers were from the cultural elites—the young revolutionary intellectuals and writers with overseas experience. It was almost a fashion among the literary elite to spend time in cafés. However, this was negatively judged as “Western” and “bourgeois.” For example, in 1932, Lu Xun, one of the most important twentieth century Chinese writers, commented on the café fashion during 1920s (133-36), and listed the reasons why he would not visit one. He did not drink coffee because it was “foreigners’ food”, and he was too busy writing for the kind of leisure enjoyed in cafés. Moreover, he did not, he wrote, have the nerve to go to a café, and particularly not the Revolutionary Café that was popular among cultural celebrities at that time. He claimed that the “paradise” of the café was for genius, and for handsome revolutionary writers (who he described as having red lips and white teeth, whereas his teeth were yellow). His final complaint was that even if he went to the Revolutionary Café, he would hesitate going in (Lu Xun 133-36). From Lu Xun’s list, we can recognise his nationalism and resistance to what were identified as Western foods and lifestyles. It is easy to also feel his dissatisfaction with those dilettante revolutionary intellectuals who spent time in cafés, talking and enjoying Western food, rather than working.

In contrast to Lu Xun’s resistance to coffee and café culture, another well-known writer, Zhang Ailing, frequented cafés when she lived in Shanghai from the 1920s to 1950s. She wrote about the smell of cakes and bread sold in Kiessling’s branch store located right next to her parents’ house (Yuyue). Born into a wealthy family, exposed to Western culture and food at a very young age, Zhang Ailing liked to spend her social and writing time in cafés, ordering her favourite cakes, hot chocolate, and coffee. When she left Shanghai and immigrated to the USA, coffee was an important part of her writing life: the smell and taste reminding her of old friends and Shanghai (Chunzi). However, during Zhang’s time, it was still a privileged and elite practice to patronise a café when these were located in foreign settlements with foreign chefs, and served mainly foreigners, wealthy businessmen, and cultural celebrities.

After 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China, until the late 1970s, there were no coffee shops in Mainland China. It was only when Deng Xiaoping suggested neo-liberalism as a so-called “reform-and-open-up” economic policy that foreign commerce and products were again seen in China. In 1988, ten years after the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s policy, the Nestlé coffee company made the first inroads into the mainland market, featuring homegrown coffee beans in Yunnan province (China Beverage News; Dong; ITC). Nestlé’s bottled instant coffee found its way into the Chinese market, avoiding a direct challenge to the tea culture. Nestlé packaged its coffee to resemble health food products and marketed it as a holiday gift suitable for friends and relatives. As a symbol of modernity and “the West”, coffee-as-gift meshed with the traditional Chinese cultural custom that values gift giving. It also satisfied a collective desire for foreign products (and contact with foreign cultures) during the economic reform era. Even today, with its competitively low price, instant coffee dominates coffee consumption at home, in the workplace, and on Chinese airlines.

While Nestlé aimed their product at native Chinese consumers, the multinational companies who later entered China’s coffee market, such as Sara Lee, mainly targeted international hotels such as IHG, Marriott, and Hyatt. The multinationals also favoured coffee shops like Kommune in Shanghai that offered more sophisticated kinds of coffee to foreign consumers and China’s upper class (Byers).

If Nestlé introduced coffee to ordinary Chinese families, it was Starbucks who introduced the coffee-based “third space” to urban life in contemporary China on a signficant scale. Differing from the cafés before 1949, Starbucks stores are accessible to ordinary Chinese citizens. The first in Mainland China opened in Beijing’s China World Trade Center in January 1999, targeting mainly white-collar workers and foreigners. Starbucks coffee shops provide a space for informal business meetings, chatting with friends, and relaxing and, with its 500th store opened in 2011, dominate the field in China. Starbucks are located mainly in the central business districts and airports, and the company plans to have 1,500 sites by 2015 (Starbucks).

Despite this massive presence, Starbucks constitutes only part of the café-scape in contemporary Chinese cities. There are two other kinds of cafés. One type is usually located in universities or residential areas and is frequented mainly by students or locals working in cultural professions. A representative of this kind is Sculpting in Time Café. In November 1997, two years before the opening of the first Starbucks in Beijing, two newlywed college graduates opened the first small Sculpting in Time Café near Beijing University’s East Gate. This has been expanded into a chain, and boasts 18 branches on the Mainland. (For more about its history, see Sculpting in Time Café).

Interestingly, both Starbucks and Sculpting in Time Café acquired their names from literature, Starbucks from Moby Dick, and Sculpting in Time from the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s film diary of the same name. For Chinese students of literature and the arts, drinking coffee is less about acquiring more energy to accomplish their work, and more about entering a sensual world, where the aroma of coffee mixes with the sounds from the coffee machine and music, as well as the lighting of the space. More importantly, cafés with this ambience become, in themselves, cultural sites associated with literature, films, and music. Owners of this kind of café are often lovers of foreign literatures, films, and cultures, and their cafés host various cultural events, including forums, book clubs, movie screenings, and music clubs. Generally speaking, coffee served in this kind of café is simpler than in the kind discussed below.

This third type of café includes those located in tourist and entertainment sites such as art districts, bar areas, and historical sites, and which are frequented by foreign and native tourists, artists and other cultural workers. If Starbucks cultivates a fast-paced business/professional atmosphere, and Sculpting in Time Cafés an artsy and literary atmosphere, this third kind of café is more like an upscale “bar” with trained baristas serving complicated coffees and emphasising their flavour. These coffee shops are more expensive than the other kinds, with an average price three times that of Starbucks. Currently, cafés of this type are found only in “first-tier” cities and usually located in art districts and tourist areas—such as Beijing’s 798 Art District and Nanluo Guxiang, Shanghai’s Tai Kang Road (a.k.a. “the art street”), and Hangzhou’s Westlake area. While Nestlé and Starbucks use coffee beans grown in Yunnan provinces, these “art cafés” are more inclined to use imported coffee beans from suppliers like Sara Lee.

Coffee and Cafés in Contemporary China

After just ten years, there are hundreds of cafés in Chinese cities. Why has there been such a demand for coffee or, more accurately, cafés, in such a short period of time?

The first reason is the lack of “third space” environments in Mainland China. Before cafés appeared in the late 1990s, stores like KFC (which opened its first store in 1987) and McDonald’s (with its first store opened in 1990) filled this role for urban residents, providing locations where customers could experience Western food, meet friends, work, or read. In fact, KFC and McDonald’s were once very popular with college students looking for a place to study. Both stores had relatively clean food environments and good lighting. They also had air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter, which are not provided in most Chinese university dormitories. However, since neither chain was set up to be a café and customers occupying seats for long periods while ordering minimal amounts of food or drink affected profits, staff members began to indirectly ask customers to leave after dining. At the same time, as more people were able to afford to eat at KFC and McDonald’s, their fast foods were also becoming more and more popular, especially among young people. As a consequence, both types of chain restaurant were becoming noisy and crowded and, thus, no longer ideal for reading, studying, or meeting with friends.

Although tea has been a traditional drink in Chinese culture, traditional teahouses were expensive places more suitable for business meetings or for the cultural or intellectual elite. Since almost every family owns a tea set and can readily purchase tea, friends and family would usually make and consume tea at home. In recent years, however, new kinds of teahouses have emerged, similar in style to cafés, targeting the younger generation with more affordable prices and a wider range of choices, so the lack of a “third space” does not fully explain the café boom.

Another factor affecting the popularity of cafés has been the development and uptake of Internet technology, including the increasing use of laptops and wireless Internet in recent years. The Internet has been available in China since the late 1990s, while computers and then laptops entered ordinary Chinese homes in the early twenty-first century. The IT industry has created not only a new field of research and production, but has also fostered new professions and demands. Particularly, in recent years in Mainland China, a new socially acceptable profession—freelancing in such areas as graphic design, photography, writing, film, music, and the fashion industry—has emerged. Most freelancers’ work is computer- and Internet-based. Cafés provide suitable working space, with wireless service, and the bonus of coffee that is, first of all, somatically stimulating. In addition, the emergence of the creative and cultural industries (which are supported by the Chinese government) has created work for these freelancers and, arguably, an increasing demand for café-based third spaces where such people can meet, talk and work.

Furthermore, the flourishing of cafés in first-tier cities is part of the “aesthetic economy” (Lloyd 24) that caters to the making and selling of lifestyle experience. Alongside foreign restaurants, bars, galleries, and design firms, cafés contribute to city branding, and link a city to the global urban network. Cafés, like restaurants, galleries and bars, provide a space for the flow of global commodities, as well as for the human flow of tourists, travelling artists, freelancers, and cultural specialists.

Finally, cafés provide a type of service that contributes to friendly owner/waiter-customer relations. During the planned-economy era, most stores and hotels in China were State-owned, staff salaries were not related to individual performance, and indifferent (and even unfriendly)  service was common. During the economic reform era, privately owned stores and shops began to replace State-owned ones. At the same time, a large number of people from the countryside flowed into the cities seeking opportunities. Most had little if any professional training and so could only find work in factories or in the service industry. However, most café employees are urban, with better educational backgrounds, and many were already familiar with coffee culture. In addition, café owners, particularly those of places like Sculpting in Time Cafe, often invest in creating a positive, community atmosphere, learning about their customers and sharing personal experiences with their regular clients. This leads to my next point—the generation of the 1980s’ need for a social community.

Cafés’ Symbolic Value—Community

A demand for a sense of community among the generation of the 1980s is a unique socio-cultural phenomenon in China, which paradoxically co-exists with their desire for individualism. Mao Zedong started the “One Child Policy” in 1979 to slow the rapid population growth in China, and the generations born under this policy are often called “the lonely generations,” with both parents working full-time. At the same time, they are “the generation of me,” labelled as spoiled, self-centred, and obsessed with consumption (de Kloet; Liu; Rofel; Wang). The individuals of this generation, now aged in their 20s and 30s, constitute the primary consumers of coffee in China. Whereas individualism is an important value to them, a sense of community is also desirable in order to compensate for their lack of siblings. Furthermore, the 1980s’ generation has also benefitted from the university expansion policy implemented in 1999. Since then, China has witnessed a surge of university students and graduates who not only received scientific and other course-based knowledge, but also had a better chance to be exposed to foreign cultures through their books, music, and movies. With this interesting tension between individualism and collectivism, the atmosphere provided by cafés has fostered a series of curious temporary communities built on cultural and culinary taste.  

Interestingly, it has become an aspiration of many young college students and graduates to open a community-space style café in a city. One of the best examples is the new Henduoren’s (Many People’s) Café. This was a project initiated by Wen Erniu, a recent college graduate who wanted to open a café in Beijing but did not have sufficient funds to do so. She posted a message on the Internet, asking people to invest a minimum of US$316 to open a café with her. With 78 investors, the café opened in September 2011 in Beijing (see pictures of Henduoren’s Café). In an interview with the China Daily, Wen Erniu stated that, “To open a cafe was a dream of mine, but I could not afford it […] We thought opening a cafe might be many people’s dream […] and we could get together via the Internet to make it come true” (quoted in Liu 2011).

Conclusion: Café Culture and (Instant) Coffee in China

There is a Chinese saying that, if you hate someone—just persuade him or her to open a coffee shop. Since cafés provide spaces where one can spend a relatively long time for little financial outlay, owners have to increase prices to cover their expenses. This can result in fewer customers. In retaliation, cafés—particularly those with cultural and literary ambience—host cultural events to attract people, and/or they offer food and wine along with coffee. The high prices, however, remain. In fact, the average price of coffee in China is often higher than in Europe and North America. For example, a medium Starbucks’ caffè latte in China averaged around US$4.40 in 2010, according to the price list of a Starbucks outlet in Shanghai—and the prices has recently increased again (Xinhua 2012). This partially explains why instant coffee is still so popular in China. A bag of instant Nestlé coffee cost only some US$0.25 in a Beijing supermarket in 2010, and requires only hot water, which is accessible free almost everywhere in China, in any restaurant, office building, or household.

As an habitual, addictive treat, however, coffee has not yet become a customary, let alone necessary, drink for most Chinese. Moreover, while many, especially those of the older generations, could discern the quality and varieties of tea, very few can judge the quality of the coffee served in cafés. As a result, few Mainland Chinese coffee consumers have a purely somatic demand for coffee—craving its smell or taste—and the highly sweetened and creamed instant coffee offered by companies like Nestlé or Maxwell has largely shaped the current Chinese palate for coffee.

Ben Highmore has proposed that “food spaces (shops, restaurants and so on) can be seen, for some social agents, as a potential space where new ‘not-me’ worlds are encountered” (396) He continues to expand that “how these potential spaces are negotiated—the various affective registers of experience (joy, aggression, fear)—reflect the multicultural shapes of a culture (its racism, its openness, its acceptance of difference)” (396). Cafés in contemporary China provide spaces where one encounters and constructs new “not-me” worlds, and more importantly, new “with-me” worlds. While café-going communicates an appreciation and desire for new lifestyles and new selves, it can be hoped that in the near future, coffee will also be appreciated for its smell, taste, and other benefits. Of course, it is also necessary that future Chinese coffee consumers also recognise the rich and complex cultural, political, and social issues behind the coffee economy in the era of globalisation.


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Author Biography

Jing Wang

Jing (Adel) Wang receives her Ph.D in Interdisciplinary Arts from Ohio University in the U.S. in 2012. Her dissertation "Making and Unmaking Freedom: Sound, Affect, and Beijing" examines China’s sound art and experimental music practices in relation to concepts of freedom, affect, and the global city.