A cup of joe in the 'city's living room'

Yao Minji
Traveling, reading and writing are the way Chen Danyan understands the unique identity of Shanghai, as well as the other cities in the world.
Yao Minji

Many people have written about Shanghai, both fiction and non-fiction. But for many Chinese, their understanding of the unique identity of Shanghai – nostalgic, intricate and fashionable – started with Chen Danyan and her "Shanghai Trilogy."

No wonder queues started at Qiao Café, a coffee shop branch of a time-honored Chinese dessert brand, when Chen said last year that she likes coffee with qingtuan, green glutinous rice dumplings usually consumed during the Qingming Festival, or better known as tomb-sweeping day.

"Why not?" Chen finds her seemingly strange choice natural in the city of Shanghai.

"Coffee with Chinese desserts works for me. It's about the city's history of mix and match, and also the city's confidence," she said. "A good friend of mine even loves coffee with chicken feet, often late at night. I've never tried it, but no match would surprise me in Shanghai."

It is the same friend who would save pocket money for days with Chen for a visit to a bistro or dessert shop in the 1970s, when they were in middle school.

Indeed, all kinds of mix and match can be traced in her vast writings about the city's history with imported goods, architecture, design and those who contributed to such trends. It started with "Shanghai Trilogy."

First published in the 1990s, "Shanghai Beauty," "Shanghai Princess" and "Shanghai Memorabilia" deal with personal narratives of a group of Shanghai women who have contributed to the city's gender identity.

The detailed interviews, photos and memories of family members and close friends under Chen's pen silhouetted a vivid city and the lifestyle over different time periods. Its publication coincided with China's rapid development, particularly noticeable in Shanghai.

With strong economic growth and bright future prospects, local residents became more confident and started celebrating the city's past glories and cultural heritage, while those from outside of Shanghai aspired to it.

Chen's books came just in time and have since formed a widely circulated image of Shanghai, while Chen became a writer one can hardly avoid when reading about Shanghai.

Chen's recommendation of coffee with qingtuan occurred at a book event in Qiao Café, when she introduced her latest book "Chen Danyan's Shanghai."

The book throws light on 40 made-in-Shanghai brands across industries from food and beverage to household appliances, all famous brands between the 1960s and 1990s, the three decades when Chen and her peers experienced great cultural and social changes in the city.

"The Shanghai brands created a lifestyle that not only belonged to the local residents but also took the lead in combining fashion and technology," she said of brands popular in her youth. "People from other Chinese cities would envy and look up to them."

Some of these brands disappeared, while others remained popular or were revived in recent years. One notable case is White Rabbit Candy that many now see as a signature gift from Shanghai.

Born in Beijing in the late 1950s, Chen moved to Shanghai with her family as a child. She started writing and translating children's books in the 1980s before moving on to her bestselling Shanghai books and travel books.

Through literary events and book fairs, she started traveling abroad in the early 1990s on business visas before most Chinese had passports or travel visas.

One of her favorite places to visit are coffee shops around the world, especially historical ones with tales related to literary masters. Years later, these visits were turned into a dozen bestselling travel books, including one specialized in coffee shops "Is Coffee Bitter?"

But when she looks back now, the coffee shops she remembers most are the unknown ones near her home in Shanghai where she spent hours conducting interviews, writing or eating Chinese dumplings for breakfast.

"Coffee shops are like the living room in a city," she said. "Everyone's home is like the city's bedroom – invitation only. But a living room is more accessible and what leaves a first impression. There is no right or wrong or orthodox version of a coffee shop, especially in Shanghai."

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