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Forbidden Coffee

Feb
12
2007

For over six years, in case you hadn’t heard, the Forbidden City’s had a Starbucks.

But, as you also might have heard the coffee chain’s days inside the palace may be numbered. It won’t go quietly. The Western press – from The Christian Science Monitor, to the Chicago Tribune, and the Wall Street Journal (video!) have all weighed in.

This was already among the most infamous, yet inconspicuous, Starbucks in the world. Its latest trouble began when Rui Chengang, a dapper English-language news anchor on Chinese state TV, picked a bone on his blog (here’s a partial English translation). The 29-year-old, by his own admission, is a Starbucks regular. He’s lapped up the brew everywhere from Michigan Avenue to Yale; from Tokyo to – during his trip to Davos last week – Zurich. But not in the Forbidden City. Never. Rui called on Starbucks to move out. “It’s not about globalization,” he specified. “It’s about trampling on Chinese culture.”

Not since “Last Emperor” Puyi was evicted, in 1924, has talk of banishment from the Imperial Palace generated such hoopla. The last eviction was a self-conscious and necessary rupture in China’s march toward modernity, but for its people a delusional one. So this one may prove to be too. Puyi was booted by a warlord general. Expect the fate of the Starbucks to be decided by senior cadres.

As a member of the repressed majority of Westerners out there who drink Starbucks almost as often as they curse it, I sympathize fully with Rui’s objections. Go on and board up the joint, I say, and lay the matter to rest. And I’ll take one last Tall Americano while I’m at it. To go. All the same, though, the whole fuss leaves a very strange aftertaste in my mouth, and I’ve been doing some soul-searching in recent days to determine why. Herewith I present my findings.

It’s not because I and hundred of thousands of foreign tourists a year may truly miss the pick-me-up a double shot expresso provides mid-tour. Or that for many of those visitors, struggling to make some sort of sense of contemporary China, the Starbucks in the Forbidden City has helped. Love it or hate it, it probably has.

And I’m not bugged that this Starbucks is already one of the hardest in the world to find, sidelined on the eastern flank of the site next to a gift shop. Or that it’s housed in a rebuilt annex – not a relic per se. Or that it’s neighbors with the public toilets. Yum.

My perturbance also has nothing to do with the fact that coverage of the “controversy” dates to 2000, when first the Starbucks moved in and 70 percent of Beijingers, according to one newspaper survey, were opposed. Or the fact the location’s Chinese licensees promptly responded to the flap at the time, by taking their perverted logo inside. The star-crowned mermaid of Starbucks was not to outdo the simpler signage of the concubines quarters. They had reason to believe that the concession would be enough.

And I got no problem with the fact that it wasn’t enough of a bow to trediation. As in the West, the Chinese blogging community makes the consumer environs a much different ballgame. Or that because of the mood of the media, anybody here purveying a Western good in the wrong time, place, or fashion is susceptible to just the same sort of P.R. pitfalls and posses.

The real reason for my hang-up, I think, is that I personally feel susceptible. That’s right, me, or at least our little family business.

This is no place for me to advertise exactly what and where I’m talking about. For reasons I’ll explained, that would be far too risky at the moment. But let’s just say that serendipitously and quite guiltily, I also have come to learn a thing or two about selling cappuccino and espresso on the ritual stepping grounds of emperors past, from a mock relic with windows trimmed all shiny and pig’s-liver red, no less, and struts painted with flowery motifs, beneath flying eaves, etc, etc.

This place I describe is not a Starbucks and not in the Forbidden City, mind you. It’s much different, better situated, more Sinicized, and far less profitable. But the institutional forces at play would appear to be somewhat similar to those within the Forbidden City. Because the issues at play are not just the dignity of Chinese culture, or the solemnity of the Forbidden City. They involve market regulation, city planning and public space. All of which are sorely flawed in China.

Like the Starbucks in the Forbidden City, we, too, have willing landlords and superintendents in quasi-official corners of local government. They wield market access to run-down old courtyards and other faux antique structures around the capital. They do not, however, have the cash or the wherewithal to come up with creative solutions that will help them turn historic structures into profitable enterprises. So for many years, they have been renting to people who do. But they still call a lot of the shots, and usually do their nosiest best to make sure that you preserve and respect the premises. In our case, for instance, that means no barbeque.

And the locations of most of these structures, camouflaged in Beijing parks, courtyards, and hutong? They’re scenic, yes, but nearly not nearly as good for business as they would seem. The target consumer, bohemian or bourgeois (or Bo-bo-both), is a minority among the passing traffic. And the less convenient the venue, the more prone it is to being sold out by state managers to the demands of the market.

It took Beijing’s Capital Airport five years longer than the Forbidden City to open its doors to a (very visible) Starbucks. Now is it among the first signs the international traveler sees on emerging from Baggage Claim, and the last before one heads home.

And soon, Starbucks will rear its siren’s head between the Bell and Drum Towers in central Xi’an as well, a journalist buddy tells me. It is “Coming Soon”, according to a sign in the packed tourist heart of the Silk Road hub. As a dynastic capital it was known as Chang’an, incidentally, and considered – well, more than 1,000 years ago – China’s most cosmopolitan city.

Funny thing is, I used to hypothesize – in a joking kind of way – that Starbucks would soon push out our little family biz, with a better offer, say, behind our backs to our sponsors. Doubt that would happen now. Now I wonder whether the threat to our legal contract may come less from bigger businesses in China than from the little people on the state payroll.

So how seriously should we – those of us living in China who share a respect for local culture – really take this threat? Quite seriously, says Hu Xingdou, outspoken cultural critic and economics professor at Beijing Institute of Technology? On his blog, he lays it thick: “As China’s economy rises, Chinese culture is rising too. Chinese people’s self-confidence is uplifted like never before. But at this moment in time especially, the Chinese people must maintain a broad-minded, generous, and peaceful mindset. Otherwise, the Forbidden City of the future might not even permit tourists to wear Western suits and ties.”

But not to fret, another Chinese friend of mine tells me. “Chinese people are very pragmatic. [Their protests] are not as heartfelt as they seem. One person rips into something and the rest just join in for the hell of it.”

Icons of Western capitalism have always been piƱatas in the struggle sessions over China’s modern identity. Ultimately, such debates are an exercise in psychological projection: a lot more about Chinese culture than they are about ours. If the Starbucks goes, it will be remembered as a pockmark surgically removed from Beijing’s porcelain Olympic face. Here’s to powdered Nescafe and hot water tanks instead.

Share  Posted by jansfield at 3:13 AM | Permalink

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