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For All the Co ffee in China


Text by Sean Silbert

The popular shopping street of Qianmen Dajie, directly south of Tian’anmen Square, has been a marketplace for centuries. Even now, the street is still bustling: popular international clothing brands, high-end restaurants, and cultural knick-knacks vigorously compete for new customers. At the street’s mouth, a tea shop proudly displays a sign claiming it is a “time-honored brand” of China, a title awarded to organizations with a long cultural shadow over China and deep history. The store is nearly empty. It’s not for lack of thirst: you’ll have to wait for a table at the three-story Starbucks across the street.

China’s dramatic growth has manifested in the palates of its youth. It was not long ago that tea was the drink of choice for all Chinese, a common sight at nearly every social occasion. Today, it appears as if coffee is making a challenge to the old stalwart, at least among trendsetting youth.

Parvel Su, an interior designer in Beijing, frequents coffee shops on a regular basis. “I’ve stayed in a coffee shop for up to a day before,” he said while relaxing in a wicker chair. He notes that a lot of young people use coffee shops as a meeting place, sitting with iPads and read or converse with friends. The actual drink isn’t important.

“People think coffee is fashionable,” he explained. “It’s a new culture. Outside of here, they just drink tea, not coffee.”

Tea is integral to Chinese society and has been for centuries. It’s hard to think of China without tea; countless meals, business deals, or afternoon chats have been done over steaming cups of oolong, pu’er, or jasmine tea. Tang Dynasty (618-907) poets sang ballads to the joy of drinking it, and even today a cup of tea is offered as a sign of respect.

Coffee, on the other hand, is a formidable newcomer. Yet it wasn’t long ago that coffee was unattainable to the masses. Despite being grown naturally in Yunnan Province, it was previously seen as a drink for Westerners. A French missionary introduced the dark, murky drink in the 1930s, leading to some popularity in the swinging days of old Shanghai. While another attempt to grow the bean was briefly restored in the 1960s, quality problems forced the crop to be abandoned.

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