Café culture blossoms as Chinese youths seek homes away from home
In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” a lonely waiter reflects that he is one “of those who like to stay late at the café…with those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.” In the late 1990s, Starbucks rose with its vision of being a “third place,” somewhere between home and work, a pleasant environment where customers can surf the web, caffeinate, and take refuge from the maddening crowds.
Today, the crowds are in Starbucks, whose second-largest market is China, home also to Korean and Chinese chains—but also an expanding coterie of independent coffeehouses in major cities and tourist sites. The latter, especially, are fast becoming a true third place in Chinese society.
For young workers in first-tier cities, who live with family or in shared housing, sacrifice their social life for overtime, and can’t afford traditional cultural activities, cafés offer an impressive assemblage of happenings: film screenings and salons, live music, arcade and board games, mini-libraries, art exhibitions. There are cozy nooks for a romantic rendezvous, comfy cushions for a nap, photogenic latte art and desserts, and, of course, free Wi-Fi. Sometimes, café culture even gets off the couch and makes a social impact, as shop owners transform the historic neighborhoods they move into, or sell coffee to support side-businesses like indie bookstores and antique shops—even cinemas.
“We’re just improvising; we started this business because we like to have fun,” says Mr. Lin, a bed-and-breakfast owner in rural Zhejiang, who added a café downstairs when guests requested a space for socializing. Whether they’re just popping in to snap a photo of the décor, or are bunkered down for a day of sipping, snoozing, and nursing the next great start-up idea, the cast of characters in China’s cafés help create their unique ambience. Pull up a chair—there’s always room for one more in this “clean, well-lighted place.”
Bean Scenes is a story from our issue, “Vital Signs.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.