Apart from obvious differences in size and layout, all Starbucks are basically the same. On the surface this appears to be the case with the shops in China and Japan as well. The signature decor in various coffee tones, the wooden furniture, the usual line of mugs, thermoses and other paraphernalia – though the Japanese Starbucks offer a wider array of coffee-making devices, about which more later. Some shops come with national or ethnic flavors. The memorable Beijing Starbucks that opened across from People’s University in 1998 (one of the earliest Starbucks in China) featured Ming Dynasty-style hardwood furniture, until the busy shop was shut down ten years later when the space was bought out under clearly shady circumstances. Local architects are stunningly designing some new Starbucks in Japan. These differences are “top-down” in that they are determined or encouraged by the corporation. But then on closer inspection the “bottom-up” differences start proliferating: the culturally contrasting styles of service and the highly varied purposes that bring customers to the store.
Yes, the service. This might be surprising, as one would expect all Starbucks baristas to be trained in the same polite and professional routines. And in fact while some are naturally more attentive or obsequious than others, all baristas I’ve encountered (including in American Starbucks) are more or less cut from the same cookie-cutter mold, anger-proof against the most obnoxious customers, of which the US probably produces the largest share. Like American baristas, Chinese baristas are polite in a down-to-earth way; one is hardly aware of being in a different country. Also worth noting is the much greater exploitation of Chinese baristas; they are all required to speak some English and are therefore typically college-educated, unlike 99% of other restaurant and cafe service workers in Chinese cities who are young migrants from the countryside. And yet the Beijing Starbucks worker I had a fling with back in 2004 told me they only paid her 8 kuai an hour ($1 at the then exchange rate), before she got fired for accidentally damaging the espresso machine. They must be being paid more now, though it can’t be that much more. (How do you come on to an attractive barista? She came on to me, came up to my table and brushed her hip against me. I got lucky; it hasn’t happened again.)
Japanese politeness is a whole different matter. It’s top-down from the corporation known as Japanese Culture and overrides any generic training they get. If one hasn’t encountered it before – say one’s first stop upon arriving in Japan for a quick coffee at a Starbucks – it can be confusing and bewildering. I once lived in Japan, but I had forgotten some of these niceties on my first trip back there in two decades. The incessant smiling at customers can seem plastic at first but they seem to do it with such heart-felt sincerity you might mistakenly fancy the beautiful girl serving you is taking a personal interest in you. Every salesperson in every type of store in Japan does this.
There is also something known as a money tray. You place your money on it so that the amount you have handed over remains in full view during the entire transaction and is never in doubt, only being transferred to the cash register once you receive your change. First the cashier hands back any change in bills, punctiliously counting them out. Then she drops her hands to her sides as if finished and I walk away to my table wait for my order. She calls me back in alarm – she hasn’t returned my change in coins yet. Her body language merely signaled a pause, to spotlight what was about to happen next, the returning of the rest of my change, in order to underscore that even the smallest change is sacred and of the utmost importance to the customer. Now that I am back in place, she counts out my coins with a smile before thanking me in the most oft-uttered phrase in the Japanese language: “Arigatou gozaimashita!” (the phrase would be repeated upon leaving the shop). In a few minutes my order is ready, a coffee and a hot sandwich. As with the money, she proudly makes a point of identifying each of the items on the serving tray, as if having been entirely responsible for creating them herself.
The same routine occurred everywhere. In an elegant teahouse in Nara, I ordered a bowl of matcha and ginger cake. The attractive woman of about 40 who appeared to run the establishment carefully pronounced the names of the tea and cake upon serving them to me. Particularly memorable was her enunciation of “jinjah keiki” for my ginger cake. She wasn’t attempting to say it in English; she didn’t know any English. She was simply pronouncing the words in the standard Japanese transliteration, following the Japanese written on the menu. Thousands of items of foreign origin in Japan were never assigned Japanese (i.e. Chinese) characters but were directly transliterated in the ingenious kana transliteration system. While “keiki” has an extra final syllable, the sound of “jinjah” works out quite nicely, coming off as a convincing British rendition of ginger. But it was the way she did it, slinking right up on the tatami mat on her knees and pointing to the cake while declaiming its name trippingly off the tongue as if she were an actress, or as if reciting a poem she had written for me because she was in love: “JINJAH keiki.” Needless to say, the cake was delicious (it really was; the Japanese have mastered Western cake. The Chinese, on the other hand, haven’t even begun, ignorant of such basics as adding vanilla to the mix or enough cocoa to make chocolate cake not just look but actually taste like chocolate).
If you want to see this attention to customer service on display in its most extravagant form, visit any expensive place for shopping in the Ginza, or the Isetan department store in Shinjuku, where you can still see the occasional elevator girl, a dying breed, at long last being regarded as perfectly redundant. Immaculate in their makeup and hat and white gloves, they appear to open and close the elevator door with a magic swipe of their hand while declaiming a set speech in lilting tones on what each floor has to offer. But what hasn’t changed is the army of saleswomen at the ready for new customers while discreetly appearing to be occupied with their own business.
Here I’ll backtrack a moment to discuss women’s ankles. On my very first day back in Japan last month after many years, rushing around Tokyo on the JR and subway lines, I was struck by something out of place: so many women on the train platforms and in subway cars standing not straight on two feet but obliquely, gracefully, leaning on one leg while hitching up the other leg on their toes as if to show off their ankles. Coupled with the latest fashion of black nylons and shiny black high heels (dresses and skirts being common in Japan even in wintertime), this forest of gorgeous black ankles was dazzling. But the askew female stance has a functional purpose as well. Japanese women are never standing still but always in motion or about to burst into motion, like sprinters poised at the starting line. Although only noticing me when I look their way, the saleswomen in Isetan have already started gliding toward me, because they were never at a standstill in the first place. Not simply the eyes but their whole body is employed in social connectivity, always already leaning and swooping at just the angle to allow a quick approach. The asymmetrical female stance is always falling into action, and then never coming to a complete halt but only contracting before rebounding like a perpetual dance or ballet, all done with style and aplomb. How they acquire this remains an enigma to me, even as they themselves would never be able to explain it, being an entirely automated and unconscious response. And then if you want to see what happens when you come up to one unaware from behind, she’ll jump to attention with a happy “Hai!” (“Yes!”), sounding suspiciously like a “Heil Hitler!” in the excessive degree of compliance on display.
The culture of the Far East is widely known for prioritizing form over content, display over substance. But this is where Japan starkly differs from China. In China this really is the case, to the extent that the Chinese often seem to evince an outright contempt for content. Japan is all about form and content in equal measure. They’re both important. It’s not just the coffee “experience.” The Japanese take their coffee very seriously. You pay for it all right – $4.40 for a “tall” (i.e. regular) brewed coffee at Japanese Starbucks, compared to $2.40 for the same in China and $1.50 in the US: three times the American price! (Independent coffeehouses in Japan charge $5-$10 per cup.) You are never disappointed with Japanese coffee. It was not hard to find coffeehouses in Japan that served coffee clearly superior to that of Starbucks.
The extent to which they care about the coffee-making process was demonstrated at a coffee shop in an underground shopping concourse at Tokyo station while I was waiting for a train. The fact I need to go into such detail about this simply reflects the time and patience the Japanese themselves devote to it. Here they used the traditional “siphon” (what used to be called a “vacuum” coffee maker decades ago in the US) for hand-made cups of coffee still in use in most independent Japanese coffee venues: an upper glass chamber filled with coarsely ground coffee fits over a lower one filled with water; as the water is heated expanding air pressure forces it into the upper chamber before it falls back down as coffee when the heat is removed. I used a siphon for two years in Japan and still use one occasionally for the unique salty-buttery notes it lends to the coffee. But here the woman was employing a rather different method with the siphon maker. I was shocked. Had they been doing this all along and I was only noticing it for the first time? No way. I’ve watched siphon coffee being made countless times. What she was doing was both outrageous and, I finally realized, utterly logical.
The amount of ground coffee she spooned into the upper chamber was much more than should have been used for a single cup and I feared it would turn out muddy and unpalatable. When the water had bubbled up she added more freshly heated water into the upper chamber from a kettle. How could this be? With twice as much water in the upper chamber than the lower chamber had capacity for, the surplus coffee would have no way of filtering back down. The lower chamber having filled, she poured it into my cup and set the upper chamber in the draining tray, letting the rest of the coffee dribble down the sink. Was she really allowing all that coffee to go to waste? Then it clicked and I understood. It’s well known that the larger a volume of coffee you make in one batch (whatever the coffee maker), the better the taste. This coffee shop had decided to privilege quality over expense, throwing out half the coffee they made in order to push the intensity of flavor up a notch, on the bet they’d win a loyal following of connoisseurs.
From my first days in Japan I had been struck by this uncanny attention to coffee. My initial sojourn was in the Wakayama countryside. In my rural enclave there was an array of elegant little coffeehouses to choose from, and the local coffee and liquor shop even roasted their own coffee beans. That was 23 years ago. Today the variety of coffee establishments anywhere in Japan is ever more extravagant. They prize all coffee-making methods as well. I first discovered the cold-brewed “Dutch” coffee maker in Japan, a huge contraption with glass spirals looking like a chemistry apparatus and producing coffee of a honey-like smoothness. Some techniques and devices are of Japanese invention (e.g., the New York Times pieces, Japan’s Pour-Over Coffee Wins Converts and At Last, A $20,000 Cup of Coffee). In terms of this breadth and depth of devotion to the art of coffee, the Japanese are simply the most sophisticated coffee consumers in the world. Where does Starbucks fit in? As a nice down-market option available for American-style coffee, priced competitively with other popular coffee chains but below the pricier handcrafted establishments.
The art of coffee extends to interior design as well. A coffeehouse or cafe may have different functions, with seating arranged accordingly. Japanese Starbucks exemplifies all the variants. While the usual small round tables with two or more chairs on the cafeteria model predominate, most Starbucks also have at least one “living-room hearth,” a cozy couch and matching upholstered chairs surrounding a coffee table or fake fireplace. Increasingly many Starbucks have a “work station” – a long sturdy table with stools and ample power outlets for individual customers to work on their laptops. Some Starbucks also have a European-style “espresso bar,” a standup counter for quaffing a quick coffee on the way to work or back home; sometimes the espresso bar faces the street through a big window for people watching. And then there is something I have only seen in some Japanese Starbucks: a “salaryman” station, a row of fixed chairs each with a small low table strictly for individual use yet serving as a more private, contemplative space than the espresso bar; it was almost exclusively males in business wear I saw occupy these spots, or slots rather. This emphasis in both European espresso bars and Japanese Starbucks (and to a lesser extent American Starbucks) on coffee consumption by individuals underscores the importance of coffee, the intimate need for coffee, the orgasmic coffee encounter, as opposed to mere vulgar caffeine addiction (I have nothing against caffeine; I refer to the people only a step above the cohort that drink Coke for breakfast, namely those for whom flavor distracts from raw caffeine consumption and the worse the coffee is the more relief they derive from it ). In the Japanese case, this is sometimes taken to the extreme, with the hushed atmosphere produced by so many individual customers lost in their little personal bubble as they relax with their hot dose of brew, like heroin addicts splayed out in a methadone clinic. Japanese Starbucks is not only the most expensive Starbucks in the world, it is also the loneliest.
Now let’s have a look at the Chinese Starbucks. Again, on the surface, the same; on closer inspection, not. I only ever drink my coffee black, and the daily brew here is often “off,” sometimes too weak and brackish, sometimes too strong. How in the world they could fuck this up is a mystery to me, as I assume everything like McDonald’s is standardized. All they have to do is empty the contents of the ground coffee bag into the maker and turn it on. The Chinese are notoriously indifferent to detail and if they carelessly fail to pour all of it out of the bag, the resulting coffee will turn out weak. But how could they manage to produce overly strong coffee? How could they accidentally pour more coffee into the machine than exists in the precisely apportioned bag?
Another problem derives from the fact that Starbucks earns the bulk of its profits from sugary concoctions like Frappuccinos and assorted whipped-cream candied lattes. Starbucks is essentially a confectioner’s business, dispensing desserts to profit off people’s sugar addiction in our diabetic age (in this regard it’s actually a good metaphor for the entire American food industry). This is especially the case in China, where few customers drink straight black coffee, so the coffee of the day sits in the machine for hours before being used up, growing stale. I would assume the temperature settings are fixed, but the coffee is never quite hot enough either. This means I have to go through an awkward routine each time of asking the nonplussed baristas 1) to “nuke” my coffee in the microwave for a minute to make it hotter, at the risk of destroying the flavor (they’re not allowed to use the steam wand once the coffee hits my mouth), 2) to heat up my coffee with the steam wand before I’ve tested it, though their annoyed expression shows they cannot for the life of them figure out why I need this done, or 3) to go for a more expensive Americano ($3.35 versus $2.40) and have it steamed really hot from the get-go (“Tebie tang de!“), which typically has the best results, though here again they tend to ruin it by over-steaming or don’t get the proportions right, and to avoid a thin and brackish cup I have to specify 80% water.
One shouldn’t have to go through a complicated routine to get a decent cup of coffee from a so-called high-end coffee business. One should reliably receive an excellent cup every time, as one does in Japan, where this is practically ingrained (a Japanese woman at whose apartment I once stayed over made better coffee than me). But I also have to be sympathetic to the situation of Chinese baristas and show patience. The problem with quality control here is that most Chinese “baristas” themselves don’t drink coffee, would never touch the stuff, so how could they ever get it right? It all comes down to the meticulousness of the training, but people are not machines – some have enough of a knack to “get it,” others don’t or drift away from the standard. Thus they often need re-training by annoying customers like me. Moreover, the Chinese dietary constitution is quite different from the Western. They don’t like their hot drinks as hot as we do (or their cold drinks as cold) and prefer to let their coffee or tea sit for a while until lukewarm before drinking it. Hence their difficulty understanding the importance of temperature; it runs against the grain of their culture (though green teas can indeed be enjoyed at a much lower temperature than coffee; the fine Japanese Gyokuro tea is brewed with water heated to only 50-60 C or 120-140 F). Even soup in China is not always served piping hot.
What this boils down to is that in Chinese coffee shops and cafes, the coffee is not the point. There is another cultural aspect to this. I can imagine the moment of sardonic silence in response to my pointing out that there is such a thing as distinction and excellence in coffee, before the expected reply: “Coffee? What’s that?! Your Western coffee cannot even begin to compare with the varieties and vintages of Chinese tea!” Here they have a point, considering the world’s most expensive tea is found in China and is valued at $36,000/lb., compared with $500-$600/lb. for the world’s most expensive coffees (namely coffee beans digested through the dung of civet cats or elephants to remove their acidity). Not to mention that Westerners’ knowledge of tea is quite primitive and limited to such crappy black teas as Twinings or Lipton and sour herbal teas. Nonetheless, coffee remains largely misunderstood in China. Before Starbucks began educating urban Chinese about the difference between brewed and instant coffee, coffee was equated entirely with Nescafe, sold in fancy boxed sets with powdered creamer and gold-rimmed coffee cups and tiny golden spoons, whose sole function was to be passed around unopened from family to family as generic gifts and in fact still are, since this educational process is going to take another decade or two.
The idea that this harsh black substance, so reminiscent of traditional Chinese medicinal potions, could exist in gradations of quality and intensity of flavor still remains beyond Chinese conception. Many Chinese have indeed grown to like coffee (once the bitterness has been drowned out with enough cream and sugar) but only in the same way that they’ve grown to like Coca-Cola, as a satisfying but simple drink. Curiously similar to coffee in color and hard patina, Coke has the advantage of having gotten a big head start here in the 1980s and is thus more widely imbibed. All these Western concoctions, from the Chinese standpoint, are likable enough once one adapts to their bitterness, but they simply do not have the complexity of tea nor a storied tradition like a tea culture behind them.
The big irony here, however, is that most Chinese don’t much like tea. They prefer hot water as their comfort drink (and gruel for breakfast). “Tea” is one among a number of repetitive tropes or cliches, like “Confucius,” whose overwhelming importance to their culture and society the Chinese are quick to remind you of, while hardly figuring in their actual lives.
So the idea of seeking out a coffeehouse or cafe for the quality of its coffee makes about as much sense to the Chinese as trying out a restaurant merely to sample their Coke. Still, they do enjoy the atmosphere of cafes and they are often crowded. Starbucks can expect to see brisk business in China as more and more shops are opened in second and third-tier cities across the country. The company needn’t worry much about the quality or freshness of the bean, as it’s the sociable environment that counts.
The interior design of Chinese Starbucks, in contrast to Japanese Starbucks, accordingly prioritizes group over individual seating. Chinese individuals do frequent Starbucks – only to grab seating intended for four or more people as their own luxurious personal space, sometimes without buying a drink (you can impose on this space if there is no other seating but you are otherwise being out of form). Note the conspicuous trash container in the picture of this Starbucks in Beijing. Japanese Starbucks would never leave something so unseemly in plain sight; they have a recycling counter discreetly placed in the back with holes for plastic and paper products and a chute for dumping spent ice.
Starbucks can also expect to see many imitators and copycats in China, including shops that try to confuse customers by passing as real Starbucks, like this shop that I saw in Dalian, with just enough of a name change to avoid (they hope?) being sued for trademark infringement:
No effort was made to make the interior resemble Starbucks; it was vintage Chinese-style “cafe,” replete with booze:
The coffee wasn’t genuine either, they admitted, but a (fake?) “Italian” brand whose beans had gone stale, at 25 yuan a demitasse:
To be fair, a good word must be put in for the growing number of coffeehouses in China that care about ambience and coffee quality. In Shanghai, for example, there is the exquisite Santa Cecilia Music Cafe (茜茜莉亞, No. 64-2 Fengyang Rd). In Beijing there is the Coffee Salon (咖啡沙龙, Pipe Street No. 3, Houhai), the Sandglass Cafe (沙漏咖啡, Maoer Hutong No. 1, Nanluoguxiang), and most notably, Ocean Grounds Organic Coffee & Tea (Chaoyangmenwai), one of the most spectacular artisanal coffee roasters and cafes of its kind in any country (www.oceangroundscoffee.com). Let’s hope the trend continues in the longterm.
The Guangzhou coffee paradox (why coffee is hard to find in this major Chinese city)
Theatrics of Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and the mixed-bathing Onsen (the puzzle of Japan’s public bathing retreats)