I’m not the bar person or night owl and never have been. My day is structured around coffee. Enabled by coffee, more exactly, good coffee, first in the morning at home and then in the afternoon at one of a number of Beijing coffeehouses I rotate among. It’s important to emphasize good coffee here. I don’t drink coffee for its “kick.” My pet peeve is winding up in some Westerner’s home overnight and having not only to have to compliment my host’s bad coffee in the morning but to have to drink it. Worst of all are those, mostly American, types who seem happier with a cup of coffee the more horrible it is, and if it happens to be instant, the staler the better (in China Nescafe recoups some respect by selling the fancy boxed sets with gold-plated spoons popular as gifts). The peculiar American habit is to treat coffee symbolically: it’s enough that it roughly approximates coffee. More important than the reality is the idea of holding a hot mug of it in your hand. It’s as if good coffee must be avoided because the zing of fresh bean only interferes with one’s symbolic contentedness. I actually prefer those weirdoes who drink Coke or Red Bull for breakfast; theirs at least is a real, exquisite need, not a symbolic one. An addiction. Coffee is also addictive, but despite the stimulant effect of caffeine, your morning enslavement to coffee, contrary to what you might expect, is purely psychological, as most addictions are. And that is perfectly fine with me: I don’t trust a person who can’t boast a host of addictions (if heroin kept the likes of Anthony Burgess going until the end, there might be something to it).
Now, as far as Chinese homes are concerned, I never have this coffee dilemma because I have never stayed overnight in a Chinese home. Chinese families tend not to invite foreigners over since they’re afraid of the gossiping neighbors. In any case, as popular as coffee is now in China, very few Chinese drink either it or tea in the morning, which are regarded as afternoon beverages. They wake up just fine with their bowl of gruel or soup. Of course, until coffee’s widespread introduction in Europe during the Enlightenment, we got along just fine without it for most of our history as well, though the traditional staple breakfast (and lunch and dinner) of beer soup did offer an equally effective morning kick.
I had assumed that Guangzhou (aka. Canton), a city I hadn’t visited in 20 years, would be at the inventive forefront of the Chinese coffeehouse and café. There turned out to be practically none. Strange for China’s second largest city after Chongqing, with population estimates ranging widely from 5-25 million (in the case of Chinese cities, always assume the highest estimate is the most accurate; source in this case is Wikipedia, “Megacity.” Admittedly, a large portion of this population is haplessly shut away in the suburban factories enabling this rapid growth).
“Why would you expect China to satisfy your Eurocentric coffee needs? It’s a tea culture,” I hear the retort.
Not anymore. Over the past decade, Beijing and Shanghai have gotten up to speed with the rest of the world and are now steaming with great cafés, and not only international chains like Starbucks, Costa, Pacific Coffee Company, and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, but many independently run shops, including high-end boutiques that roast their own beans. My Chinese friend and I covered a lot of ground on our four days in Guangzhou and succeeded in finding a grand total of two very crowded Starbucks. We’re talking a 20-minute wait in line to order your drink. The fact they were so crowded suggests they were not only popular among the locals but there was a dearth of them. Meanwhile, teahouses were not in evidence either, though rumors suggested they surely existed. During our two days in nearby Shenzhen, by contrast, we quickly found several impressive teahouses and cafés. On my last trip to Shanghai in 2008, swank coffeehouses flanked almost every corner.
Intrigued about the lack of Starbucks in Guangzhou (Beijing and Shanghai have about a hundred stores each), I contacted the company through the international website to get a complete list of their outlets in all Chinese cities. This was not out of any particular love for the chain but because Starbucks happens to be a useful index of the relative cultural development of different Chinese cities, as McDonald’s and KFC used to be (lower-tier cities are extremely proud of their facing McDonald’s and KFC outlets at their busiest downtown intersection). They got back to me right away but for some unfathomable reason refused to provide such a list. Why in the world would Starbucks not want to inform customers of the number and locations of their stores? I could understand it if they were a domestically owned and run company – the Chinese reflexively like to hoard information from those who don’t have it – but a marketing phenomenon like Starbucks? And then I thought, maybe they’re taking a cue from the Chinese after all and withholding information in order to increase the company’s sense of mystique.
Now, could it really be that Guangzhounese don’t enjoy life as much as Chinese urbanites elsewhere? I think they would strongly beg to differ. Indeed, their food and restaurants are simply the best in China – and better than Hong Kong’s culinary establishments, most of which we were admittedly we priced out of. We tried the reputed Yung Kee Restaurant (Hong Kong Island Central), which specializes in the seasoning of dishes in cognac, and it was okay, but somewhat tired, like the impatient elderly waiters, and hardly competitive with the currently explosive era of Mainland Chinese restaurant creativity, and at much cheaper prices (the same criticism has rightly been leveled at the tired Chinese restaurant scene in the US, and Hong Kong restaurant food tastes oddly like American Chinese restaurant food).
If I had to choose between Hong Kong or Guangzhou, all other things being equal, I would have to choose Guangzhou. There is essentially nothing I can buy in Hong Kong I can’t also find in Guangzhou. Except perhaps .001mm-thick versus .002mm condoms on the Mainland, or 90%-cocoa Lindt chocolate in addition to the 85% and 99% varieties I can also get in Beijing (I would actually find a 95% variety most satisfying). Oh, and the import tax on wine is cheaper, so I can get a bottle Yellow Tail wine in Hong Kong for the equivalent of $10 (US), as opposed to an outrageous $18 in Beijing. But if I need these things badly enough, Tsim Sha Tsui is a quick train ride across the border from Guangzhou or Shenzhen. Hong Kong amounts to being not much more than a wealthy suburb of Guangzhou, and if Guangzhou is the New York City of China (Beijing and Shanghai being Washington DC and LA respectively), why would I want to spend all my time on Long Island?
Speaking of condoms, Guangzhou has been called “one big red light district.” I go for massage a lot (seriously, just massage – prostitution intercourse is really very boring), and there was a nice hotel spa in the same building as a McDonald’s at the Changgang subway stop. This was the only place I’d seen in any Mainland city where the masseuses (yes, females) wandered freely around the men’s bath and changing room. It was also the only parlor I’d experienced where I could receive a so-called “prostate maintenance” treatment, as my masseuse called it in all deadpan seriousness, before proceeding to perform not a hand-job but genuine acupressure on the genitals (I should have made a video of it). If you’ve ever had a foot massage, imagine your foot’s heel, arch, ball, and big toe are your rectum, perineum, the shaft, and the glans of your penis respectively, and you get the idea.
It’s instances like these that add up and make Guangzhou more than the sum of its parts. There’s just an extra dimension, or patina of culture and sophistication to this city compared to other first-tier Mainland cities: the care with which the older sections of the city are being preserved by the municipal government (e.g. the Shamian former concessions area); the more stylish dress of the locals; their more expressive faces; the food.
And the complex linguistic situation. It’s well known that places of diverse cultural and linguistic mixing are more vibrant and interesting than monocultures. This has always been the case the world over. Why is Hungary’s folk music one of the world’s liveliest? – converging sounds from the gypsies and the Central Asian Silk Road trade routes; ditto the African influences on American popular music; or Andalusian Spain, where Spanish, Arabic, and Jewish cultures melded into an intellectual ferment that made it the cultural capital of medieval Europe. Likewise Guangdong historically is China’s region with the most extensive ethnolinguistic mixing, not to mention its 400-plus years of contact with the West. Most people in Guangdong Province are bilingual and many are trilingual: native in a local and/or regional dialect (e.g. Hakka) and fluent in both the main regional (Cantonese) and national dialects (Mandarin). Despite the common writing system and grammar, southern Chinese dialects have over time diverged in pronunciation to such an extent that many are mutually incomprehensible, and in purely linguistic (as opposed to cultural-nationalistic) terms count as distinct languages.
While Cantonese speakers have no trouble with Mandarin, because it’s the national language taught in schools and employed in the media, spoken Cantonese is Greek to the typically monolingual Mandarin speakers from northern China, who are helpless in an all-Cantonese environment. I was able to witness this virtuosic trilingualism over dinner with a former graduate student of mine, now back home in Guangzhou as a college English teacher. She said she was not consciously aware of switching between Cantonese, Mandarin, and her native Hakka, since she did it on a daily basis with everyone around her.
Guangdongers are proud of their multilingualism and look down on the monolingual north. Yet this pride conspires to maintain a closed culture. This is the Guangzhou paradox, how this most European-like of Chinese cities is nonetheless immune to outside influences. However fascinating the place is on its own terms, it doesn’t allow in much that is new (though this will inevitably change as the rootless internet generation grows up and replaces more entrenched folk). That is why it is relatively challenging for them to deal with coffee, a delicious tradition directly threatening – and insulting – Guangzhou’s own cherished pastimes.
Postscript 2012: Since writing this essay, I’ve found out about the Kafelaku coffee house chain based in Guangzhou, which uses coffee beans digested and excreted by civet cats before roasting to produce what is reputed to be the best-tasting coffee in the world (I will withhold judgment on this claim), at prices ranging up to USD $1,000/lb (http://www.kafelaku.com.cn/).
The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks (starkly different attitudes toward coffee in these neighboring East Asian countries)
The fine art of securing the staff’s cooperation at China’s culinary establishments (a largely self-explanatory title)
How China works; or, black forest cake blues (a bakery chain with a different set of priorities)