Coffee Shops and Capitalist Culture

iphone 12.18.2012 532Before I left for Shanghai, there was one thing I knew that I would miss about the US:  coffee.  Most of my friends and family recognize by now that I am an irrevocable coffee addict, so when my parents ask me on Skype if I’m suffering from coffee withdrawals, they probably aren’t kidding.  But even though Shanghai does not lack coffee itself, I have come to realize that what it really lacks is a coffee culture.

The idea of coffee culture may sound ridiculous or elusive, but I do think it exists.  Coffee shops are not just places of consumption; they are often intellectual hubs and venues of expression for both shopkeepers and customers alike.  While I was meeting up with Shefong in Taipei, we hopped to about four or five different coffee shops, and she pointed out that coffee shops in Taiwan are more than just businesses to the owners; a lot of young people actually aspire to open up their own coffee shops so that they can not only experience the joys and benefits of owning one’s own small business, but so that they can also express themselves while simultaneously finding a way to contribute to the Taipei’s culture.

Indeed, as we all sat in Ecole near the Shi da night market, I noticed the eco-friendly menus crafted from recycled cardboard, the local artwork on the walls, and the youth string quartet thanking the owner for allowing them a public place to perform.  Each shop had its own coffee and cake selection, its own artwork, its own personality, and its own purpose.  Additionally, the average cup of coffee (even the flavored, spiffed up one) was within an affordable price range, meaning that coffee and coffee shop culture can realistically exist in everyday life for the common Taipei-er.

In comparison to Taiwan’s coffee venues, the coffee shops in Shanghai are usually over-priced, costing anywhere from 18 yuan to 40 yuan, which subsequently means a lot of coffee shops intend to attract a wealthier clientele.  Additionally, a lot of the coffee menus are practically duplicates of each other; almost every Shanghai coffee shop I’ve visited offers the same selection of coffee:  Americano, Caramel Macchiato, Tiramisu/Hazelnut Cafe Latte, and Espresso.  Each place seems to have elevator-like music playing in the background.  I’ve noticed that a lot of places even have a novelty pet kitten or cat for customers to play with.

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In short, Shanghai coffee shops are strictly run as commercial businesses rather than seen as personal pursuits or as a Shanghai subculture.  And now that I think about it, it seems like a lot of small businesses are run in the same profit-driven manner in Shanghai.  Growing up in a family-run restaurant, I love the idea of having a business—not just for the independence and money, but for the ability to personalize my own venue and have a role (or at least tell myself that I do) in the community.  I often wonder if a lot of small business owners in Shanghai feel the same way, and if Shanghai’s profit-driven small businesses are just a result of a less close-knit urban culture or of decades of demonized capitalist culture.

Dr. Pan mentioned in class the other day that businessmen and entrepreneurs were seen as somewhat lowly members of society, even in traditional Confucian society.  The main logic behind this evaluation pointed to businessmen as being profit-driven individuals who privilege money over morals.  To add to Pan’s interpretation, I imagine that many evaluated the fluidity of businessmen’s roles in society as potentially unstable and too individualistic for Confucian traditions.  While the Shanxi merchants were seen as philanthropic, the choice that businessmen wield and enjoy in terms of where they set up shop, how they do it, who they hire, what they do with their money, etc. can easily be reason to villain-ize entrepreneurs.

With this in mind, it seems that China’s capitalist culture still has yet to bloom.