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.

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