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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.”

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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

“A Hundred Reasons to Eat Bamboo Rats”: The Story of Two Farmers Who Became Internet Celebrities

Within days, the vlogs of two farmers using ridiculous selecting criteria for animal consumption racked millions of views.

Gabi Verberg

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In the past months, two farmers called “the Magnificent Farm Brothers” (华农兄弟) have become an internet sensation by vlogging their day-to-day life on a bamboo rat breeding farm in southern China, where these rodents are served as a delicacy. Their propensity to always find a pretext, no matter how ridiculous, for eating their own animals, has amused millions of netizens.

They are China’s most popular farmers of the past year: “The Magnificent Farm Brothers” Liu (刘) and Hu (胡).

It all started a few months ago when the two started vlogging about their day-to-day life on a bamboo rat breeding farm in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province. The script hardly changes and is loaded with clickbait potential: Hu films his 29-year-old companion Liu doting on a cute-looking bamboo rat before finding an excuse to mercilessly execute and eat it.

Under the hashtag “A Hundred Reasons to Eat Bamboo Rats,” (#吃竹鼠的一百种理由#), with over 160 million views on Weibo, netizens have compiled countless scenes of the duet’s rat-gobbling.

There is no doubt that the comical value lies in Liu’s excuse-making. In one scene, a rat hasn’t eaten for three days due to a depression – Liu, feigning mercy, hastily concludes that he should put it out of its misery by eating it. Be it heat stroke, internal injuries, or some other health problem, Liu’s diagnosis for every rodent is always the same.

Aside from the gales of laughter incited by such provoking scenes, the duet’s vlog has also provided a business boost. In an interview with a local TV station, the two farmers stated that they started vlogging with the intention of turning the bamboo rat into a popular culinary delicacy.

Since going viral, the two farmers have been receiving orders for their bamboo rats from all over the country. The spike in demand for bamboo rat consumption has also benefited the two farmers’ co-workers – according to an article in the China Daily, the wages of other bamboo rat breeders have also increased thanks to the duet’s online following.

But the vlogs show more than just the farmer’s arbitrarily deciding which rat to kill next. To spare viewers, Liu kills the rodent off-screen, after which he resumes vlogging, explaining how to prepare a succulent meal of bamboo rat –marinate the dead rodent, stuff it with vegetables, then roast until cooked throughout.  The devouring of the meat is not left out, as viewers get to see the two farmers tuck into the so-called delicacies.

The false pretexts for animal-killing apply to anything that moves, not just bamboo rats. In one vlog, Liu catches a chicken, saying he’d better eat it since it might have caught a cold from last night’s rain. Ducks and pigs also receive a similar treatment. In some vlogs, Liu’s dogs make an appearance – but these he doesn’t eat (yet).

Netizens’ Reactions

The video channel of the “Magnificent Farm Brothers” on Bilibili, a Chinese video streaming website, has over 150 million views and 2.1 million subscribers to date.

A series of gags and memes have emerged from these viral vlogs. Some netizens joke that their own lives have a lot in common with the tragic fate of the little rodents that end up in Liu’s belly.

The text next to farmer Liu’s head reads “life” (生活) while the character on the rat reads “me” (我).

Others joke that Liu’s tendency to praise his livestock as “beautiful” or “cute” before devouring them highlights the danger of being deemed attractive, to the point where refusing to accept being complimented as good-looking is a necessary survival measure.

(Image below: “You are very beautiful!”, “No, I’m not, I’m really not, I’m not pretty.”)

One Weibo post with over 64 thousand likes reads “these are the scariest moments of my life,” followed by pictures of farmer Liu saying “you are so cute,” “I heard you got wet in the rain last night,” “I heard you got injured,” etc.

The two farmers may have become one of the biggest internet sensations this past year, but they have reacted calmly to their popularity. During a TV interview, the two commented:

At first, we were somewhat afraid that our popularity would perhaps disturb our quiet life on the farm. But fortunately, this is not the case.”

In any case, the duet has publicly expressed gratitude towards their fans, vowing to continue making videos of their skit-like, countryside life.

With animal activists nowhere to be seen, the success of the “Magnificent Farm Brothers” shows yet again the Chinese Internet’s magnetic attraction to gruesome content and irony-packed humor.

Want to judge for yourself? Check out some vlogs (no English subtitles) on Youtube here, here, or here.

By Gabi Verberg, edited by Eduardo Baptista.

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

BBC: Extreme Eating Trends and the Rise of Eating Disorders in China

The Food Chain by the BBC investigates the rise of eating disorders in China.

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The Food Chain by the BBC investigates the rise of eating disorders in China. What’s on Weibo editor Manya Koetse talks about some of China’s disturbing internet food trends in this recent episode.

The rise of eating disorders in China is the topic of a recent BBC online radio documentary episode (27 min) within the Food Chain series.

The Food Chain investigates the rise of eating disorders in China: is this an inevitable consequence of economic development? And if so, why are eating disorders still all too often seen as a rich white woman’s problem?

In the first of two episodes to explore the rising prevalence of eating disorders outside of the western world, Emily Thomas speaks to women with the illness in China and Hong Kong, who explain how hard it is to access support for binge-eating disorder, bulimia and anorexia, because of attitudes to food and weight, taboos around mental health, and a lack of treatment options. They describe the pressure on women to be ‘small’ and ‘diminutive’, but still take part in the country’s deeply entrenched eating culture.

A psychiatrist working in China’s only closed ward for eating disorders blames an abundance of food in the country, parental attitudes and the competitiveness of Chinese society. She also warns of the dangers of the uncontrolled diet pill industry. From there BBC delves into the sinister world of ‘vomit bars’ with Manya Koetse.

She tells Emily Thomas about the recent craze for live binge-eating among young Chinese women and how some of this is disturbingly followed by ‘purging’. Why do they call themselves ‘rabbits’? And why does no one use the term ‘eating disorder’ when talking about these trends?

BBC also explores the link between the rise of eating disorders and economic development. Does there need to be an abundance of food in a society before these problems develop?

To listen to a short fragment on China’s binge-eating rabbits by Manya Koetse, click here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06mw03b .

To listen to the full documentary, please click here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06mw03b.

Also read: Anorexia in China, and our article on Extreme Eating Trends.

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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