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Giving the Market a Shot: China’s Growing Coffee Culture

In China, the motherland of tea, coffee is rapidly gaining in popularity. Although the market faces some cultural and societal hurdles, China is waking up and smelling the coffee – starting China’s Coffee Culture.

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In China, the motherland of tea, coffee is rapidly gaining in popularity. China’s booming coffee culture is also visible on social media, where coffee companies and netizens collectively discuss and share pictures of their perfect brew. Although the market still faces some cultural and societal hurdles, China is waking up and smelling the coffee.

Whether you are a fan of the beverage or not, it is hard to argue against the fact that the majority of the world is starting to love coffee. Every day millions of people gulp down a cup before running to the office, warm their hands on a hot mug during the chilly winter months, and, now more than ever, photograph, blog and filter their cafe experience until it is primed for the rest of the world to see. Even in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s most prolific tea-drinking nations, coffeehouses far outnumber traditional tea rooms. However in China, the motherland of tea-consumption, coffee is still sprouting as a relatively new and foreign luxury.

 

“Starbucks and Costa are selling the ‘coffee experience’ to Chinese audiences.”

 

Despite China’s long history of tea-drinking, the presence of international coffee chains such as Starbucks and Costa is increasing year on year. The American coffee company Starbucks opened its first China branch in Beijing in 1999. Google maps now lists 35 branches of Starbucks in central Shanghai alone, and even more remote Chinese cities such as Urumqi in Xinjiang province are home to three of the chain’s stores. Starbucks has over 1700 stores in 90 Chinese cities, and plans to expand to 3000 stores by 2019. British coffeehouse Costa has 344 branches in China, and is arranging to have opened a total of 900 stores by 2020.

cofee weibo3

Large international coffee chains such as Costa and Starbucks have adapted their menus to China’s tastes. This, for example, means that coffee is often served at a warm rather than scalding temperature. They also sell products that are specifically appealing to Chinese consumers, such as green tea-flavoured latte or red bean scones.

The design and operations of the cafes are almost indistinguishable from US and European branches. Internationally famous coffeehouses such as Costa and Starbucks sell the ‘coffee experience’ to Chinese audiences, without the need for too much re-packaging.

 

“What you buy in a Korean cafe isn’t coffee, it’s the film-like romance.”

 

The growing popularity of coffee in Chinese society is also reflected in social media. Starbucks has attracted a large social media following in China. The chain has acquired the loving nickname “Papa Star” (星爸爸) on Sina Weibo. On the official Weibo page of Starbucks Xiamen, the moniker was recently used in a marketing post for the chain’s new spring line: “We invite you to get your friends together and come and get to know Papa Star!”

Aside from American and European branches, South Korean chains have also become big players in China’s coffee market. Names such as Cafe Bene, Maan Coffee and Tous les Jours are becoming a staple in China’s shopping districts. South Korean brands, in particular, boast a unique and whimsical style of interior decoration unlike that of Western chains. Usual hallmarks include large, comfortable chairs, bookshelves lined with reading material, and indoor trees. This style is even replicated in domestic independent cafes.

The booming market for South Korean chains largely stems from the success of Korean pop culture in China. Fans of Korean music, film and television seek to recreate the glamour of Seoul by visiting the same chains as their idols, as well as replicating the supposed Seoul lifestyle, almost to the point of ‘Korean’ becoming synonymous with modernity and luxury. As one netizen writes on Weibo: “What you buy in a Korean cafe isn’t coffee, it’s the film-like romance.”

cofee cool

US, UK and Korean coffeehouses have succeeded in making coffee ‘cool’ in China. Netizens on Weibo collectively post pictures of their cup of coffee or of themselves sipping it. The coffee brand is often visible, together with a fashionable smartphone or expensive shopping bag- turning ‘coffee drinking’ in a symbol of a trendy lifestyle.

 

“Hefei is full of cafes, yet 80 per cent of the city’s population is made up of rural villagers who have just stepped foot inside the city – here lies your problem.”

 

Despite the success of foreign coffee chains, China is not shying away from home-grown coffee brands. Anhui province in Eastern China is home to numerous branches of Habitat Coffee (栖巢咖啡), a company that offers the comforts of Korean coffee chains but with a menu and playlist more suited to Chinese consumers.

Other brands closer to home have not fared so well in the past. A recent Weibo post by user ‘Coffee and Book‘ discussed the closure of one of the Hong Kong Pacific Coffee chain stores: “Pacific Coffee, known as Hong Kong’s best-tasting coffee, has fallen under Starbucks’s shadow, and up until now hasn’t enjoyed much success in Hefei city.”

Chinacofee

One of the reasons China’s coffee market is still budding is the prevalence of cafes in urban cities in comparison to their absence in rural areas of China. Location and subsequent exposure to international brands and flavors affect the tastes and preferences of people within the Chinese coffee market. Many people from China’s rural areas are simply still unfamiliar with coffee. In response to Pacific Coffee’s poor performance in Hefei, one netizen writes: “Hefei is full of cafes, yet 80 percent of the city’s population is made up of rural villagers who have just stepped foot inside the city…here lies your problem.”

 

“The price of a single cup of coffee in China is equal to a month’s worth of home broadband internet.”

 

A long history of tea-drinking may not be the only obstacle for coffeehouses longing for popularity in China. With the average prices ranging between 18 and 40RMB (±3-6US$), the price of a single cup of coffee in China is equal to an entire takeout meal or a month’s worth of home broadband internet – a price many can seldom afford to fit into their daily routines.

Aside from the price of the coffee itself, branded products such as flasks, mugs and cups are all heavily marketed online and on social media, further promoting the luxurious and expensive lifestyle that comes hand in hand with visiting the stores.

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Despite cultural and societal hurdles, further growth of China’s coffee culture is unstoppable. It is expected that competition for the nation’s top spot between brands and individual establishments will only become more fierce and multi-faceted. With some chains opting for high prices, others appealing to local tastes and domestic salaries, and a growing desire for a more authentic experience involving traditional brewing, the challenge for brands is to decide which road they will take in their quest to win over the Chinese market.

By Cat Hanson

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Cat Hanson is a U.K. graduate of Chinese Studies now teaching and living in China. She swapped Beijing for Anhui, and runs her own blog on China life: Putong Press.

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China Food & Drinks

American Randy’s Illegal Changzhou Food Booth Sparks Discussion over “Double Standards for Foreigners”

Some accuse city authorities of double standards for allowing Randy to run his hamburger stall.

Luka de Boni

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When Chinese local authorities reacted leniently to the improvised breakfast food stall of ‘grandpa’ Randy in Changzhou, debates erupted on Weibo about double standards for foreigners in China.

A hot topic that has been included among Weibo’s top posts this week involves the American ‘Randy’, nicknamed ‘grandpa,’ who has set up an improvised and unlicensed breakfast food stall in the city of Changzou, Jiangsu province.

The post was shared by popular Weibo account Meishi Shijie (@美食视界, ‘Food Horizons’), which has 2.25 million followers. Within 72 hours, the post was liked more than 8000 times, shared over a 1000 times and received 2600 comments.

The topic was also widely discussed elsewhere on Weibo.

The post said:

American grandpa Randy recently opened a breakfast stall on a street in Changzhou, Jiangsu, selling hamburgers, hot-dogs, and mineral water. Because the food is so delicious and the stall so hygienic, his business has become very popular. This has come to the attention of city law enforcement, but they’ve not bothered him at all. In fact, they simply shook hands with him as they talked about matters regarding his license.”

Photo placed with the post.

According to People’s Daily, Randy is a 62-year-old American who has been living in Changzhou for seven years. He reportedly received permission from the local market to set up his stall there. He sells his hamburgers for 15 RMB (±$2).

The apparent lenient reaction of the city authorities towards Randy’s illicit food stall did not go down too well with some Chinese netizens. Many expressed that they felt the treatment was unfair, arguing that the leniency shown was based on the fact that the man is a white foreigner.

“What if the old man was Chinese? Surely the outcome would be different …” read the most popular comment, which was liked 4500 times.

“Wouldn’t they (the authorities) have confiscated the stall if he were Chinese?”, others wondered.

Many cities across China have seen crackdowns on unlicensed food stalls over the past year.

In the city center of Beijing, for example, many street food stalls have disappeared over the last years due to “civilized Beijing” campaign; street food is often seen as an indication of underdevelopment, but pollution caused by street barbecues and food safety issues are also said to be reasons for crackdowns.

Double standard for foreigners?

In the case of Randy, some netizens point out that had the street vendor been Chinese, authorities may have even resorted to violence to close down the food stall.

Confrontations between local officers and street vendors have turned into physical altercations before.

One popular comment, with more than 2000 likes, read: “Foreigners are
‘friendly’, but you wouldn’t hesitate to hit your own people..”

It is not the first time Chinese netizens complain about state authorities putting foreigners’ rights ahead of their own. Earlier this year, a video that showed the differences in dorms across China between foreign students and Chinese went viral. Many Chinese netizens felt outraged that the living conditions for foreigners were better than those of Chinese students.

In this case, there were also those netizens who came to the defense of the city authorities, saying they are generally good people and had been lenient with the American ‘grandpa’ because of their good will.

“Our city authorities here in Changzhou can be very helpful to the street merchants. Once, I saw with my own eyes as they helped some merchants move their watermelons back into their houses … do all people really think that they are monsters?,” said one commenter, gathering over 1700 likes.

Randy’s food stall is popular in Changzhou.

“There are many examples of local officers helping old grandpas and grandmas sell their vegetables. But you wouldn’t mention those, would you? To put it bluntly, you are being narrow-minded. How sad.”

But there are also those commenters who apparently only have one thing in mind: Randy’s hamburgers. They write: “I just want to go to Grandpa’s food stall..”

If they’re lucky, they’ll have a chance to taste Randy’s hamburgers soon; according to business media account @Avirex, Randy has now started to apply for an official license to run his hamburger stall, and is planning to open up his own fast food shop in the near future.

Note: It has come to our attention that Randy’s food stall generated media attention in 2014. The state media article referred to in this article also is from 2014. Nevertheless, this topic (again) became trending this week, along with the aforementioned discussions. All comments quoted in this article are from this week. If you have any updates as to how Randy is doing now and if he in fact has started up his restaurant, we’d like to know for a follow-up!

By Luka de Boni

This article has been edited and modified for clarity

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Food & Drinks

‘Baozi Burgers’ as ‘Insult’? Global Times Editorial Attacks Western-Chinese Fusion Food

“It combines Western with Chinese fast food while ridiculing both food traditions for the sake of a marketing gag for expats with little or no culinary background.”

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“A new fad has flooded expat-oriented restaurants in Beijing,” author Lilian Hamilton writes for Chinese state media outlet Global Times in a recent video news feature. The video criticizes fusion foods such as the ‘Baozi burger’ or ‘Baozza’ (baozi + pizza) that mix popular Western and Chinese fast foods.

The feature was covered by Beijing blogger Jim Boyce on Beijingboyce.com, where he writes that “state-owned medium Global Times just cooked up a heaping serving of culinary cultural appropriation shade with a side dish of WTF. In this slide show, it takes aim at “baozza”, the tasty pizza-baozi combos I have covered here, here and here.”

Culinary ‘cultural appropriation’ has been an online issue of debate for some time now. In this Huffington Post article, for example, the author expresses that she finds it “painful” when, among other examples, the New York Times issues a recipe that features ‘pho’ (a type of Vietnamese soup) with broccoli and quinoa, or when 7Up releases a self-invented kimchi recipe.

 

It combines Western with Chinese fast food while ridiculing both food traditions for the sake of a marketing gag for expats with little or no culinary background.”

 

In the thousands of restaurants in cities such as Beijing or Shanghai there will be new food trends popping up every day. The ‘baozza’ is one of them; it is a steamed bun, called baozi (包子) in Chinese, filled with pizza ingredients.

By whatsonweibo.com.

The full text of the Global Times feature, which was also published as an editorial, is as follows:

A new fad has flooded expat-oriented restaurants in Beijing: BAOZZA (Baozi + pizza). Baozi is a common Chinese breakfast dish or snack. A fluffy steamed white bun with a vegetable or ground meat filling.”

Global Times.

Pizza is brought to life by the Italian thin crust dough and the right sugo (tomato sauce), mozzarella cheese and fresh toppings.”

Baozza claims to be ‘Pizza with Chinese characteristics.’ Instead, it combines Western with Chinese fast food while ridiculing both food traditions for the sake of a marketing gag for expats with little or no culinary background.”

There must be at least a temporary demand. Otherwise, a newly-opened bar in Sanlitun would not offer ‘Burger Baozi’ on their menu. With the bamboo steamer basket being a mere decoration, these grilled ‘baozi’ halves come with beef, chicken, Beijing duck or mushroom filling. While a boazi at your regular street vendor costs 2 yuan, you pay around 50 yuan for a ‘Baozi Burger.’

Luckily, these fusion food fads are usually gone faster than you can flush the remnants of your latest food poisening down the toilet.”

The article text by Lilian Hamilton also says that the ‘baozza’ “seems like an insult,” and is “wrong on just so many more levels.”

 

A growing movement of people call out ‘white people who profit off the culinary ideas and dishes swiped from other cultures’.”

 

At a time when cultural appropriation, in general, is a hot topic, the idea of the cultural appropriation of food has also become more of an issue of debate.

Defining the term and idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ itself is not easy. While the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” the Urban Dictionary says it is “the ridiculous notion that being of a different culture or race (especially white) means that you are not allowed to adopt things from other cultures.”

A recent example is that of the American girl who wore a Chinese-style dress to her prom – something people in US seemed to take offense to, while most commenters on Weibo deemed the critique was silly.

The ‘cultural appropriation’ of food suggests that certain foods can be ‘confiscated’ when people from a dominant culture start to commercialize it.

A 2017 BBC article featured the views of Filipino-American food and travel photographer Celeste Noche, who finds it problematic that food bloggers will posts photos of, for example, Filipino short ribs with chopsticks (“even though Filipinos traditionally eat with spoons and forks or their hands”), or the stylization of Asian dishes on bamboo mats or banana leaves.

A Washington Post article from 2017 also addressed a growing movement of people who call out “white people who profit off the culinary ideas and dishes swiped from other cultures,” one of the names mentioned being Fuchsia Dunlop, a UK-born cook and food-writer who specializes in Sichuan cooking.

 

A “marketing gag”? More like genius and truly innovative..”

 

So are the ‘baozza’ or the ‘baozi burgers’ the next targets in the campaign against the ‘cultural appropriation’ of food?

The American inventer of the ‘baozza’, Alex Cree, evidently does not see anything wrong with it. He came up with the idea of stuffing a Chinese steamed bun with cheese, tomato, or other pizza toppings, during a trip with clients in southern China.

On Weibo, the only comments relating to Baozza are those of people who are curious to try out the ‘fad’ food. New or original food items such as these are often (temporarily) popular; another recent food item that attracted the attention of Chinese netizens was the Zang Baobao, a Chinese-French chocolate croissant product.

On Twitter, the attack on fusion snacks is also does not receive much understanding. “A “marketing gag”? More like genius and truly innovative! Way more tasty than traditional baozi,” @XiaoLan17 writes.

Damien Ma (@damienics) is already thinking of the next food fad; a ‘moonut’ that mixes Chinese moon cake with donut products.

Although Global Times‘s Lilian Hamilton and others might object, the rise of fusion food trends shows that snacks such as the Baozi Burger, the Baozza, or the potential ‘Moonut’ will not disappear from China’s big-city restaurant scene anytime soon.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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