A Taste of Central Perk in Shanghai

Central Perk is a small coffee shop hidden behind a plain white storefront on Ha’erbin Road in the Hongkuo district. Some customers may instantly recognize the café’s logo from the hit series Friends, a popular American television sitcom (1994-2004). As a long-time fan of the show, I enthusiastically accepted my roommate’s invitation to visit Shanghai’s Central Perk this weekend.

Shanghai’s Central Perk is a replica of the Central Perk café featured in almost every episode of Friends. Although Jennifer Anniston isn’t the barista on staff, this café has the ambiance of Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Rachel and Joey’s favorite hangout spot. The signature orange couch, green marble café counter and black-and-white tiled floors made me feel like an extra on set. On the wall is a television playing commercial-free Friends episodes, with Mandarin subtitles of course. Additionally, drinks are served in plain mugs decorated with the show’s most famous quotations and sayings.

Before entering Central Perk, I was expecting a coffee shop full of westerners sipping lattes and cappuccinos. But, the café was packed with youthful Chinese locals socializing, reading and watching the screening episode. The café was completely full, and we had to wait around twenty minutes to find an empty table. Despite the unexpected wait, the time we spent in Central Perk was cozy and enjoyable.

Later during our stay, Ali, Charlotte and I asked the manager, Steven, what day of the week we should return. We were hoping to avoid the large crowd during our next visit. He informed us that Shanghai’s Central Perk has only been opened for about a month and has yet to experience a slow business day.

So, what makes Central Perk so appealing to Chinese consumers? Is it the Friends inspiration or delicious coffee attracting customers? Have the customers even watched an episode of Friends before visiting this western influenced café? These were just a few of the questions running through my mind as I sipped my iced mocha and observed the bustling shop.

During a lecture I attended at the Harvard Career Discovery program in 2010, one architect credited Friends for making setting an important trend for urban living. According to her, the hit series made moving to the city “cool and hip” in the eyes of America’s young adult population. Along the same lines, young adults, college graduates, and minorities in China are moving to large cities, like Shanghai, with hopes for economic success and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. China’s population is in the midst of a massive rural-to-urban migration. It is estimated that “more than 120 million internal migrants have headed into Chinese cities” in the last twenty years (Wasserstrom 2010: 122). It would not surprise me to learn that Chinese mass media and popular culture promote the ideal big city life.

Additionally, Central Perk displayed the young urban generation’s obsession of technology, social networks and communication. Although western social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, have yet to permeate through the “Great Firewall of China,” the continuous sounds of IPhone cameras snapping photos suggested that the Chinese customers were, indeed, recording and sharing their daily events online. Of the ten tables inside, at least one picture was taken at every table during my stay. Customers happily posed with their drinks, desserts and a duplicate of Joey’s favorite stuffed animal, a penguin named Hugsy.

As the world’s people, information and ideas become more connected through globalization, the east and west will continue to share cultural sensations. One example of this exchange is PSY’s hit song and music video “Gangam style.” This Korean pop song gained international fame through YouTube, and PSY appearance on last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live is a clear illustration of eastern and western world interactions.

As for Friends in Shanghai, I will be back to Central Perk before the end of the semester. I was envious of the customers seated at the iconic orange couch this weekend. In my opinion, that seat is symbolic of living the city life with your best friends.  I just hope “the” orange couch is open during my next visit.

Wisdom, Wrinkles and Workouts

Lu Xun Park is a green space located in the middle of residential high rises in the Hongkou area. Katie and I arrived in this neighborhood early on Saturday morning, hoping to capture some photos of the older residents practicing t’ai chi in Lu Xun. Getting to Lu Xun Park proved challenging. After walking around the neighborhood block for half an hour and asking the locals for directions, we managed to find a smaller park hidden behind cement walls. We walked down the park’s path following the music playing close by. With each turn, I observed people peacefully practicing their morning exercise routines within the enclaves of the garden. In the main opening a large group was following the instructional voice of the loud music. The older men and women of the group massaged their temples, patted their legs and swung their limbs in unison. Seeing as it was only 6:30 in the morning, I was thoroughly impressed by the group’s energy and movement.

Without wanting to interrupt their routines or show disrespect, Katie and I asked for permission to shoot photos of the individuals nearby. Our one question quickly evolved into introductions with over ten exercising participants. Our new friends were eager for a photo shoot and a conversation. What struck me the most during our exchanges and conversations was the reoccurring subject of age. As I attempted to chat in Mandarin with three older women, each one voluntarily and proudly stated her age without being asked.

“I am seventy-five,” said the first woman gazing up at me.

“I am eighty-eight,” stated the next in line.

Lastly, “And I am ninety!” the last woman exclaimed.

Their age transparency was refreshing and, in my opinion, contrasts the majority of American women who intentionally try to mask and hide their age. The elderly exercising in the park and on the streets of Shanghai represent the importance of longevity in Chinese culture. Nonetheless, the American and Western concerns for youthful beauty and sexuality are visible in Shanghai.

According to Suzanne Z. Gottschang, “the importance of sexuality and interest in bodily appearance are increasingly a concern that urban Chinese women must contend with as a part of their identity” (2001: Kindle Location 1173). Gottschang observes new mothers in urban China and their reactions to commercialized breastfeeding campaigns versus formula company advertisements. Both the government’s posters and the formula company’s brochures emphasize the prepregancy, fit body. This strategic tactic is ideal for reaching a generation of women who strive against the signs of aging, including motherhood. I question whether this advertising approach would have been appealing to the elderly women of the park when they were beginning their journey as mothers.

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