Sipping Starbucks, From Bloomington, Indiana to Shanghai, China

Speaker's Corner: Westerners often assume that a Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks, but are they right? Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom recalls the big green coffee machine's arrival in two very different cities.

01.30.08 | 11:00 AM ET

Starbucks Shanghai ChinaIn 2000, I made one of my periodic visits to Shanghai. I lived there for a year in the mid-1980s. Back then, it was a much slower-paced metropolis than it is today. When I arrived, I noticed two changes to the urban landscape. One was the appearance of countless new skyscrapers and stretches of elevated freeway, which had shot up seemingly from nowhere. The other was that the city had gotten its first branches of Starbucks. This interested me for practical reasons. I was jet-lagged, and any place I could get a caffeine fix drew my attention. It also interested me because it was in that same year that Starbucks had gotten its first foothold in Bloomington, Indiana, the college town I then called home.

Located across the street from Indiana University, the Bloomington Starbucks had become a lightening rod for protest during the months before I set off for Shanghai. Protesters had smashed its windows; they decried it as a symbol of all that was wrong with American capitalism. They also claimed that the big green coffee machine would trigger the demise of beloved local cafés. Indeed, some struggled to stay afloat. A couple soon went out of business.

These days, Starbucks’ impact on “mom and pop”  coffee operations is an open question, with some arguing that independents are thriving now more than ever. Back then, the protests set me wondering, as I sipped my first cappuccino in the Starbucks that had opened on Huaihai Road (a once and now again fashionable Shanghai shopping street), whether the Seattle-based chain was inspiring similar reactions in Chinese cities.

Striking up a conversation with the manager, I discovered an intriguing aspect to the Shanghai Starbucks story: The company in charge of day-to-day operations was the Taiwanese firm Presidential Coffee. The logic behind Starbucks partnering with Presidential was that the latter—a company that had previously helped introduce 7-Eleven stores to the Philippines—would be able to ensure that any necessary cultural accommodations to an Asian setting would be made.

As I walked the streets of Shanghai and frequented its bookstores (the shelves of which often contained multiple books on topics relating to coffee), I learned that, far from undermining the viability of independent cafés, the arrival of Starbucks in Shanghai contributed to the proliferation of new coffee houses, some of which used signs that mimicked the color scheme or at least the circular motif of the Seattle-based firm. And local Chinese language guidebooks did not present Starbucks as an “American” establishment, but rather referred to it as a “European-style” one, in order to contrast it with Manabe, the high-priced Japanese chain that had made its mark on Shanghai in the late 1990s.

Westerners often assume that a Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks—and the menus and decor of the Chinese branches are very like those of their American counterparts. Yet Starbucks branches occupy very different niches in China, and even among Chinese cities. For example, a controversy broke out in Beijing when a Starbucks branch opened at the edge of the Forbidden City, the former palace that is now a museum—a controversy that recently led to the closing of the shop.

But Shanghai citizens took it in stride when one opened in Xin Tiandi (New Heaven and Earth), an upscale dining and shopping quarter, even though that outlet is right around the corner from the hallowed site of the Communist Party’s founding congress. In addition, the Beijing and Shanghai stores vie for clients with different sorts of new Chinese-owned establishments. In the capital, some of the main competitors are old—or old-style—teahouses of the sort in which, at least in the popular imagination, Confucian scholars once gathered to discuss poetry and the classics.

Shanghai, on the other hand, offers a different mix. There are some old-style teahouses, to be sure, but they seem less important competitors to Starbucks than other sorts of establishments: teahouses with walls devoted to displays of experimental art, for instance; Japanese-style coffeehouses; and, above all, cafés designed to evoke memories of the 1920s and 1930s, remembered as a time when the metropolis was the fashionable and heavily Westernized Paris of the East.

When strolling Shanghai’s streets today, tourists and residents alike are invited to enter places with tacky names such as “The Real Shanghai Café,” and inside these venues—as well as establishments that try in subtler and more graceful ways to cash in on the local nostalgia craze—the walls are often plastered with black-and-white or sepia-toned photographs of the city in its pre-communist heyday as an international metropolis. One of the nicest of the new cafés to use its interior décor to encourage visitors to think they have traveled back in time is even located inside one of the most important architectural landmarks dating from that period, the one-time headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank.

In Shanghai, in other words, the arrival of Starbucks was both a novelty and a resumption of an old cosmopolitan trajectory that was interrupted for a time.

As for Bloomington, I haven’t been back in more than a year. But when I departed, the Starbucks outlets were doing a brisk business (though they’re still no match for Shanghai), the protesters had long since moved on to other causes, and the windows of all the stores were intact.

This essay was adapted from “All the Coffee In China,” a chapter in China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times.

Photo by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom teaches Chinese and world history at the University of California, Irvine. He writes for academic journals, and his travel writing, reviews and commentaries in general interest periodicals such as the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Outlook India and Hemispheres. He is the author of China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times.

13 Comments for Sipping Starbucks, From Bloomington, Indiana to Shanghai, China

AppetiteforChina 01.31.08 | 12:24 PM ET

While I’m no fan of Starbucks and hardly ever visit them, I have to say the ones overseas are much less wasteful than the ones in the States. In Asia, they are marketed as leisurely places to sit and relax, and will serve you drinks in reusable cups and plates. Good luck getting anything besides a paper cup in the US, even if you plan on sitting down for hours.

John D 02.01.08 | 5:40 PM ET

Your right!!
i never thought about Starbucks not giving a Coffee mug?

Also a paper cup no matter what!

Bruce Anderson 02.01.08 | 10:08 PM ET

Recently Marines in Iraq wrote to Starbucks because they wanted to let
> them know how much they liked their coffees and to request that they
> send some of it to the troops there. Starbucks replied, telling the
> Marines
> thank you for their support of their business, but that Starbucks does
> not support the war, nor anyone in it, and that they would not send
> the troops their brand of coffee.
> So as not to offend Starbucks, maybe we should not support them by
> buying any of their products! I feel we should get this out in the
> open. I know this war might not be very popular with some folks, but
> that doesn’t mean we don’t support the boys on the ground fighting
> street -to-street and house-to-house.
> If you feel the same as I do then pass this along, or you can discard
> it and no one will never know.
> Thanks very much for your support. I know you’ll all be there again
> when I deploy once more.
> Semper Fidelis.
> Sgt. Howard C. Wright
> 1st Force Recon Co
> 1st Plt PLT
> Also, don’t forget that when the Twin Trade Towers were hit the fire
> fighters and rescue workers went to Starbucks because it was close by
> for water for the survivors and workers and Starbucks charged them! !
> !
> I checked this out on (snopes) and it’s true!

I agree with email I got from a freind that is why I posted it here , and it is true to say fine, if they wish or Do not out rightly want to support those that protect us,(fine), God Bless them to, but I guess they forget it those like these men and women of the Core that enable free trade to be so they can make money.but that does not mean we have to buy any thing from there company, I think this is a great Idea for any company in the U.S.A that does not want to support our troops and there families and there sacrifices.


Email all starbucks to boycott

Support your troops and those in blue start locking up crooked politicians
to end Corruption.

God Bless all that stand to uphold Common Defence, Amen


Wall street has been emailed,
© Copyright 2008 Anderson B. M. {Nauck} (UN: epistemology at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.

John D 02.02.08 | 11:42 AM ET

Sure thing!!!

I’m also supporting our troops at Walter Reed Hospital

Check out my site

Julia Ross 02.02.08 | 6:30 PM ET

The Starbucks in Xintiandi is probably my favorite Starbucks anywhere. When I lived in Shanghai in 2002, I spent many an afternoon on the patio watching the Chinese creative class hold business meetings while typing away on their laptops. For me, it really crystallized the city’s energy.

JB 02.03.08 | 9:16 AM ET

John D.:  I’m not huge Starbucks booster, and avoid it when better caffeination options are available to me, but jeez, check out your facts before posting defamatory stuff like that.

Just because someone told you they checked it out on doesn’t mean they did, and 30 seconds of online research would have been a generous amount of time to spend to discover you’d been had. It only took me 12 seconds:

The “Starbucks does not support the war, or anyone in it” rumor is patently false, and the charge for the rescue workers’ water is considerably more complicated, but well explained.

Shame on you!


JB 02.03.08 | 9:20 AM ET

Oops. Sorry John D!  The above was in response to Bruce Anderson’s post above yours. (So much for checking MY facts… doh!)


PeggyCoonley at Serendipity Traveler 02.03.08 | 9:38 PM ET

The issue is the Americanization of the world and as a traveler i would much prefer to sip my coffee in a locally run establishment and support the local economy not a large corporation. “Sustainable tourism supports integrity of place. Destination-savvy travelers seek out businesses that emphasize the character of the locale in terms of architecture, cuisine, heritage, aesthetics, and ecology. Tourism revenues in turn raise local perceived value of those assets.” source Natl Geo

Sophie 02.04.08 | 8:30 PM ET

I admit: I sometimes suffer mid-trip ennui and I just want to go someplace where I know what to order and what it will contain and roughly what it will cost. That’s when places like Starbucks and generic fast food joints call me, though I do at least try to frequent local fast food chains.
I have very fond memories of the McDonald’s in Moscow when I visited in 1993. Finding a meal was not all that easy and this was food without complications. (Globalization notwithstanding.)

Dan 02.10.08 | 9:42 PM ET

I am always happy when I travel to places with no Starbucks, or any Americanized places for that matter.  However, you can’t blame them for shutting down mom and pop shops.  That blame falls strictly on consumers.  If people just continued going to local places, the Starbucks would go out of business.  And they really are an enigma.  Many fast food places you can kind of understand because they are usually a low-cost option, however, Starbucks has prices for a cup of coffee that put it right up there with luxury goods, especially in countries like China and Central and South America, where prices are usually much lower.

Peter Davison 02.24.08 | 7:48 AM ET

I remember the big “to do” with Starbucks in Toronto during the mid-late 1990’s when people were on the verge of protesting Starbucks for opening in the Annex on Bloor Street. There are now 2 shops within 100 metres of each other. Albeit, they do compete with the local shops rather than take over the area completely. 

I am happy to travel to places that don’t have starbucks readily available but at the same time it sure can be a handy “go to” when you need it. Ya, like it is an emergency situation but when we arrived way too early for a flight from Shenzhen to Shanghai it was great!!

Not only were we able to order a recognizable coffee of the week but we scored with being able to get free wifi which is invaluable when writing freelance and telling family what is going on.

Starbucks in Shanghai seems to also drive the quality of the other coffee houses so that it has a beneficial element to it. I also think supporting local in China means having a certain flexibility in that the employees of the starbucks in China are part of the equation.

Great article,


Maternity Wedding Dress 03.17.08 | 8:18 AM ET

Gr8 site

Nice post

Lee 03.27.08 | 3:52 AM ET

We just got our first starbucks in wuhan a few weeks ago and I wrote this article to talk about it.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.