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
In 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.