A cultural blend of literature and coffee

Yao Minji
Sun Ganlu came to literary stardom as an avant-garde writer in the 1980s. He was confident about launching a book club in 2014, when many said nobody reads books anymore.
Yao Minji

"Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book." – Stephane Mallarme

Sun Ganlu quoted the French poet when Sinan Book Club started in 2014.

Sun, who came to literary stardom as an avant-garde writer in the 1980s, seemed outdated when he became the mastermind behind a book club.

It was a time when bricks-and-mortar bookstores were shutting their doors all over the world. A book club sounded like something from the last century – from 1980s Shanghai – a nostalgic one many remember having rich cultural ambiance.

It was in the 1980s when Sun published books like "I Am a Young Drunkard," which is still reprinted more than 30 years later.

Sun's public persona, like his pioneering writing, is anything but outdated.

To many, he is "that author who walked the runway of Hermes," referring to a 2008 Hermes fashion show when he joined a few other Chinese intellectuals to be guest model.

To his writer friends, Sun is someone straight out of a French New Wave movie or a graceful middle-aged knight straight out of a martial arts novel. He plays piano, sings opera, keeps both classical and rock music on his playlist, and enjoys both eight-hour-long Russian stage dramas and fast-paced American sitcoms.

He was confident about launching a book club in one of Shanghai's most expensive areas back in 2014, when many said nobody reads books anymore.

He was asked to pick the Shanghai he preferred – the nostalgic 1980s one or the current one better known as a center of commerce and fashion – and he defied the choice. Instead, he insisted that culture, fashion and commerce are intertwined in this city.

"If you look at the book club, you will see that cultural ambiance and the tradition of reading never disappeared in this city. Lots of people came and even sat on the floors," Sun said.

"Fashion, if done well, is also a culture. And a book, if written badly, is not. Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book, so in a broader sense with multiple layers, everything can be 'written' into a book."

Now seven years later, the book club has not only survived, it has also become a fashionable cultural center in the city's commercial center.

Long queues are often seen in the compound on weekends, not in front of the trendy shops, coffee bars or restaurants nearby, but outside the book club.

It often takes two hours to queue for the weekly events, while increasingly more bookstores, publishers and cultural product companies join the outdoor fair afterwards.

A pop-up bookstore opened in 2017, featuring a different writer as store manager every day for two months. It was so popular that it returned for two consecutive winters, and later turned into a permanent bookstore in the compound.

Like many bookstores that opened around the city in the past few years, it has a photogenic interior, coffee bar and section for literature-related souvenirs.

In Sun's honor, Shanghai has all kinds of places for coffee. Bistros, bakeries and coffee shops in 1980s and 1990s Shanghai were unique symbols on the city's busiest streets. Since then, that trend has extended to every dimly lit cranny in the city – by longtang (lane), farmland and Metro stations – and become "a common scene in Shanghai's landscape."

It has also extended into bookstores, a trend that Sun celebrates.

"You see more coffee shops coming with book shelves, and more bookstores with coffee bars. That's a natural development catering to the demands of today's lifestyle in a metropolis like Shanghai," Sun said.

"It's one of the recent attempts to bring books and writers closer to your daily life beyond existing readers. We have also experimented with different ideas through Sinan Book Club, trying to bring professional, academic and literary reading into public spaces, closer to the daily lives of the city's residents."

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