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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.

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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.”

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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.

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 Brands & Marketing

About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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China and Covid19

Happiest Lockdown in China: Guests Undergo Mandatory Quarantine at Shanghai Disneyland Hotel

“I wish I could be quarantined at Disney too!” The Shanghai Disney hotel apparently is the happiest place to get locked in.

Manya Koetse

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While many cities across China are experiencing new (partial) lockdowns and millions of people are confined to their homes, there was also a group of people that had to undergo mandatory quarantine at a very special place: the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel.

On September 7, social media posts started surfacing online from people who said they were required to quarantine while they were at the Shanghai Disneyland hotel. Disneyland reportedly had received a notification from the local health authorities that a visitor who previously stayed at the Disneyland hotel was found to be a close contact of a newly confirmed Covid case.

In line with the Center for Disease Control requirements, Disney created a ‘closed loop system’ by locking in all hotel residents and staff members and doing daily Covid tests. While the Disneyland theme park was open as usual, the hotel became a temporary isolation site where people’s health would be monitored for the next few days while all staff members would also be screened.

During their mandatory quarantine, guests stayed at the hotel for free and did not need to pay for their rooms. Room prices at the Shanghai Disneyland hotel start at around 3000 yuan/night ($433).

Some guests shared photos of their Disneyland quarantine stay on social media, showing how Disney staff provided them with free breakfast, lunch, a surprise afternoon tea, delicious dinner, fun snacks, and Disney toys and stickers.

On the Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) app, one Shanghai Disney visitor (nickname @恶霸小提莫) wrote: “We have three meals a day, there is both Chinese and Western-style breakfast, we also get afternoon tea and desserts, they have shrimp, beef, scallops, drinks, French macarons, yogurt, ice cream, and much more. We watched so many Disney movies for free. We are given so many little gifts, they brought us gifts twice today as they also brought us toy figures at night. We watch the fireworks from our windows every night at 8.30 pm. Although we weren’t allowed to go out, we really had a pleasant stay.”

Another Disney guest named Zoea (Xiaohongshu ID: yiya0313) also shared many photos of the mandatory quarantine and wrote: “When the staff knocked on the door to tell me they were bringing dinner, I even wondered how it was possible that they brought food again. Afternoon tea during quarantine, can you believe it? And fruit before dinner? And midnight snacks brought to us after dinner? And it was so nice to watch all the Disney movies on tv. Disney really is the most magical place.”

“I’m just so happy,” another locked-in Disney guest posted on social media, sharing pictures of Mickey Mouse cakes.

Other guests also posted about their experiences on social media. “They probably feared we would get bored so they brought us glue, stickers, and painting brushes, the kids loved it and so did we!”

Reading about the happy quarantine at Disney, many Weibo users responded that they envied the guests, writing: “I wish I could be quarantined at Disney too.”

“I need to find a way to get in, too,” others wrote.

Earlier this year, one Chinese woman shared her story of being quarantined inside a hotpot restaurant for three days. Although many people also envied the woman, who could eat all she wanted during her stay, she later said she felt like she had enough hotpot for the rest of her life.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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