From Coffee To Kafei: An introduction to my interest in China’s cafe culture

2015-10-29 23.43.25Sipping a smooth latte with floaty guitar music trilling in the background sounds like the staple of any trendy café on Britain’s streets. But as my eyes travel outside, I notice a steamy noodle restaurant lying further across the street coming into focus. Thousands of intricate Mandarin characters start to take shape on buses, street signs and shop windows. Then the frantic chorus of car horns starts to permeate the guitar music. This is because I’m not in Britain. I am in fact in China, one of the world’s largest and most heavily populated developing nations. More specifically, I’m deep in Eastern China’s bustling network of first, second and third-tier cities.

You might guess that I slipped into a Western chain for a slice of home comforts, but I am in fact sat in Qichao Coffee (栖巢咖啡), a large chain in China’s Anhui province that prides itself on its fusion of European café culture and Chinese tastes. Their website emphasises a focus on physical leisure as well as the drinks in question.* Not just a quick coffee it seems, but a full-body experience.

We may not think of China as the coffee capital of the world. When our mind conjures up images of China’s beverages our gaze tends to turn towards traditional dried leaves and fruits on intricate tea sets. However even in China’s smaller developing cities, café culture appears to be a rapidly expanding industry, particularly on the East coast.

While Western brands such as Costa and Starbucks are widening their presence in China’s café scene, there is certainly space for local businesses and business owners to flex their creative muscle. Hidden amongst China’s ubiquitous food stalls and supermarkets, commuters can stumble upon quirky independent cafes stacked with books, artistic collages and various other aesthetics all designed to be as trendy and as unique as possible. Even now, a toy panda sits in front of me as a marker for my table number, a little different to Europe’s usual wait-and-collect system. No longer a venture of overseas conglomerates, café culture is taking on a life of its own as more and more establishments begin to sprout up across the country.

That is not to say that China’s café scene is completely independent of foreign influences. Coffee itself is mainly an import in itself, rarely seen a few decades ago. Furthermore, large South Korean brands such as Maan Coffee and Café Bene have no doubt helped pave the way for luxury coffee culture in China. These brands boast unique styles of fantasy-libraries, mellow lighting, k-pop and homely stuffed toys that have no doubt spurred on the passions of those opening their own cafes, as well as perhaps providing a benchmark of a glamorous coffee experience that is a little closer to home. Indeed in a Forbes article by Yue Wang, Maan Coffee is highlighted as a success-story: a Korean-owned brand designed specifically for the Chinese market, commanding a chunk of the coffee market’s billions of yuan.**

As Qichao Coffee claims, local brands also cater to some local styles and trends rather than producing carbon copies of American and European brands. An example would be the beverages on offer, including a range of sweet dessert drinks, green tea, matcha and an almost alarming amount of waffles, originally European, but with seemingly special popularity here. Meals such as noodles and fried rice are also on the menu. Coffees tend to arrive pleasantly warm rather than satisfyingly scalding, and readily available wifi and sockets almost seem to be an industry-wide regulation.

Though certain standards may be developing throughout the business, there is also artistic flexibility that is also expressed through the owner’s choice of decoration, music and seating. Regular trends include but are not limited to bookshelves jam-packed with novels, walls of post-it notes scrawled on by young couples and friends, romantic Mandarin-language ballads on repeat, stuffed toys of sometimes gigantic proportions, as well as a jumble of vintage and modern artworks and photographs. It can be argued that these cafes can also represent some of China’s newly emerging design tastes and artistic flare. Whether these tastes may have been different without expansion of Western brands into Asia remains to be seen, but one thing that is certain is that the emerging styles show evidence of local historical influences (for example, earlier 20th century postcards).

Nevertheless, it’s important for us not to take these so-called ‘tastes’ as an all-encompassing representation of China. Cafes on China’s East coast represent only a fraction of the cultural influences at play in the country today. The pursuit of the perfect coffee can in itself be argued to mainly be an activity of China’s expanding middle class who earn enough disposable income to spend on pricier café beverages.

It will certainly be interesting to see how China’s coffee industry expands, how China’s various cultures and cuisines may be incorporated, and whether the larger chains will one day pose a threat to independent businesses as now happens in Europe and the United States. Furthermore, with the ever-evolving competition for the most photogenic foods and drinks, it isn’t too outlandish to speculate on whether Chinese and Korean tastes will influence the demands of the consumer on the other side of the world. I’m certainly starting to reflect on the distinct lack of stuffed toys in my home town’s local tea rooms.

For now? I still hope to explore further into China’s growing café culture, and discuss the motivations and influences of independent business owners. I’ve also started reading excerpts of Coffee Culture, Destinations and Tourism by Lee Jolliffe as I begin further research into this field (reference below). For those café-enthusiasts who have further questions and ideas, don’t hesitate to comment below.

Links and references:

* Qichao Coffee Brand Introduction: http://www.qichaocoffee.com/about/&columnsId=66&FrontColumns_navigation01-1396576394515FirstColumnId=66.html (page in Mandarin Chinese)

** Forbes article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ywang/2015/02/25/mocha-migration/

Book: Jolliffee, Lee. Coffee Culture, Destinations and Tourism. (Channel View Publications, 2010).

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