Foreign scribes weigh in on city's ubiquitous coffee

Yao Minji
When we put the responses of foreign and Chinese writers side by side, various insights about Shanghai clash or coincide through the lens of coffee.
Yao Minji

"Culture shock is often felt sharply at the borders between countries, but sometimes it doesn't hit fully until you've been in a place for a long time."

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Osmanthus plum Ameriteano

Blue-and-white porcelain latte / Oolong & osmanthus

Rooibos Capputeano

Mandarin duck Americano

What are these? Tea or coffee?

The photographer who calmly caught the image of the last surviving eunuchs in 1950 China would probably be shocked by the menu in Shanghai's coffee shops and tea houses.

Staying in a foreign city for a long time and leaving a familiar city seem to create the same effect – shock.

What if you put natives and transplants together for a dialogue about the same city? What if, say, we choose the most observant of them all – writers?

When Shanghai became the city with the most coffee shops in the world, we asked a dozen foreign writers, as part of Shanghai Daily's iDEAL Café project, about their time in Shanghai and encounters with coffee here.

Not just any foreign writers who have been to Shanghai, but those who stayed here for at least two months. Many talked about tea and the intricate tea etiquette they saw in tea houses.

Mexican writer Alberto Villarreal saw tea cups from the clouds when enjoying a sunset with coffee on the Bund.

Swedish author Zac O'Yeah brought 2 kilograms of coffee with him, because he thought people in China drink nothing but tea.

By the end of his stay, O'Yeah discovered Old Film Café on the heritage street Duolun Road, where Chinese writers like Lu Xun used to meander nearly 100 years ago.

Last year, Villarreal found a video of a robot making coffee in Shanghai, and thought the robot "is a smart, complex and wonderful cup of coffee. It is not surprising that the Chinese people, creators of those beautiful cups of tea, are now the creators of robot-cups that prepare coffee to pour in an elegant way into small cups of Italian design."

If he were seated with Chinese sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan, Chen would tell him artificial intelligence can take this further very quickly. In the near future, AI will understand individual coffee habits and tailor-make your coffee.

Chen, a native of Chaoshan, a region in Guangdong Province famous for its tea etiquette, keeps a full tea set in his Shanghai office, and coffee shops are among his favorite places for meetings, book events or just to enjoy coffee.

For the dozen Shanghai-based writers like Chen, coffee has long been a common part of the urban landscape in Shanghai. For Sun Ganlu and Chen Danyan, born in the 1950s, coffee used to have only one brand called "Shanghai," and in the city of Shanghai, coffee can be mixed and matched in many ways, including with Chinese desserts.

For Xiao Bai, born in 1970s Shanghai, whose youth coincided with the reform and opening-up after 1979, coffee shops were unique symbols in his university years and a place only certain groups of people went where strange plots in a novel could take place.

For Zhang Yiwei, born in 1980s Shanghai, her first memories of coffee come from instant coffee her sailor father brought home from all over the world.

When we put the responses of foreign and Chinese writers side by side, various insights about the city of Shanghai clash or coincide through the lens of coffee, leading to a Shanghai Daily-produced video series and an anthology – "Shanghai: Writers in Café."

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