Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture

Yang Jian
A unique blend of art and a popular beverage is the focus of event shining a spotlight on the city's history, modern global trends, and its reputation as a burgeoning coffee hub.
Yang Jian

Shot by Yan Jingyang, Hu Jun. Edited by Yu Wenhao. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou.

Shot by Yang Jian. Edited by Yang Jian. Reported by Yang Jian. Subtitles by Yang Jian.

Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture
Ti Gong

Global coffee brands' stalls along the West Bund waterfront for the 2024 Shanghai International Coffee Culture Festival.

Amid the tranquil grounds of historic Sunke Villa, a heated exchange unfolded between an actress in a tank top and an actor in shorts and slippers. It was a performance captivating dozens of coffee-clutching spectators.

As the actors wove through their emotional volleys, each sip of coffee seemed to draw the audience deeper into the drama.

This unique blend of arts and the aroma of coffee is part of the ongoing 2024 Shanghai International Coffee Culture Festival which continues citywide throughout the five-day Labor Day holiday.

Shanghai has now brewed a new identity as a burgeoning coffee hub. The festival, part of the broader Double Five Shopping Festival, was launched on the West Bund waterfront in Xuhui on Wednesday to celebrate global coffee culture across the city.

This year's theme, "Taste the World in Shanghai," reflects the festival's goal: to blend international flavors with local traditions, fostering a unique coffee culture that resonates with both residents and visitors alike.

Like other international events such as the London Coffee Festival and the Melbourne International Coffee Expo, the Shanghai festival gathers coffee enthusiasts and industry experts to explore the latest trends, showcase global roasters, and host barista competitions.

The festival spreads across 16 districts through June, each hosting unique events that include Huangpu's Bund Beverage Festival and Changning's coffee theater festival.

Putuo offers a trendy wave of domestic coffee brands, while Minhang takes a global leap with the Global Coffee Industry Forum at Hongqiao.

The largest coffee, culture and tourism carnival in the city takes place on the Xuhui Riverside, blending coffee tasting with floral displays, athletic performances and artistic installations, creating a multi-sensory experience for visitors.

Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture
Ti Gong

A coffee and reading bazaar at Sinan Mansions drew many visitors on the first day of the Labor Day holiday.

Adding to the dynamic scene, Sinan Mansions launched a special coffee and reading carnival.

It features stalls set up by popular local bookstores, a lifestyle market, a jazz concert and literary exhibitions celebrating writers such as Kafka, Murakami and Borges.

The blend of bookstore, coffee, music, literature, exhibitions, lectures and art shines a spotlight on the tangible joys of brick-and-mortar bookshops.

A whimsical street theater performance, "Giraffes, Wait for Me" from Spain, features two giraffes and their young strolling leisurely through the coffee stalls at the mansions, their path accompanied by lively music, creating a savannah-like landscape in the heart of the city.

"This very special festival makes me feel like at home because in April we have a very nice festival around books," said Daniel Carreras Ruiz from Barcelona, leader of the troupe.

"Here I discovered it exists also in Shanghai, but not only books also coffee," he told Shanghai Daily.

This year's event also aims to explore coffee's cultural significance while bringing in new ideas.

Shanghai Mental Health Center, for instance, has introduced the "Spirit Coffee Bean." This special coffee aims to be therapeutic and comes in creative packaging designed to resemble a prescription, appealing to young people looking to "cure internal friction."

Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture
Ti Gong

Street performers put on a show during the coffee and reading carnival at Sinan Mansions.

Qiaojiashan, a well-known local food brand, showcased its coffee culture through its "Qiao Coffee" at the festival. They also introduced a pure gold coffee bean pendant to attract younger customers.

Coffee's journey to Shanghai is as rich and aromatic as the beverage itself. Traced back to the 13th century, coffee made its way from Ethiopia across the Arabian Peninsula and eventually reached the bustling trade routes of Shanghai in the mid-19th century.

By 1843, as Shanghai opened its port, coffee was among the myriad of foreign goods that flowed into the city.

Initially sold in foreign-run pharmacies as a "cough syrup," coffee became fashionable with the spread of Western dining practices.

The establishment of Shanghai's first dedicated coffee house, the "Hongkou Coffee House," in 1886, introduced a unique blend of Eastern and Western cultures to the local populace.

By 1946, over 500 venues in Shanghai served coffee, embedding it deeply into the city's burgeoning café culture.

Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture
Ti Gong

A band performs for visitors to the coffee festival at Sinan Mansions.

In May 2000, global coffee chain Starbucks opened its first Shanghai store on Huaihai Road, marking a new chapter in the city's coffee journey.

Howard Schultz, the then CEO, attended the opening, wearing a black suit and standing alongside Chinese baristas in green aprons.

At that time, a single latte cost 19 yuan (US$2.6), a substantial sum compared to the average monthly salary of 1,285 yuan.

However, Shanghai's acceptance of coffee exceeded expectations, with the initial stores achieving profitability in just 21 months – a first in the company's global history. Now, the city is home to more than 1,000 Starbucks stores, the highest number of any city worldwide.

Other international coffee brands were equally optimistic about Shanghai. The American heritage brand Peet's Coffee, for instance, entered the Chinese market in 2017, opening its first overseas outlet store on Donghu Road in Xuhui.

The brand has opened over 50 stores in Shanghai. It even maintains a special café truck on the West Bund riverside, providing freshly brewed coffee all year round.

"The site has attracted a large number of customers. The scenic riverside and excellent coffee ambiance are key reasons for choosing this location," Mia Yang, an official with the brand told Shanghai Daily.

As the years passed, Shanghai's coffee culture continued to evolve, with brands such as Bear Paw gaining in popularity. Coffee served by a fur-covered arm reaching out from a hole in the wall. Its wacky service was created to accommodate disabled staff too timid to face customers.

Through the annual China International Import Expo, global brands like the Esseqaro from Ethiopia, East Timor Kopi Luwak, Jamaica Blue Mountain, and many others found their way into the city's expanding coffee market.

The Hongqiao International Coffee Port aims to establish a complete coffee industry chain, from seed to cup, with a vision to achieve a billion-dollar industry by 2025.

Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture
Ti Gong

Visitors can taste all kinds of coffee on the West Bund.

Xu Jian, vice dean of the China Institute of Urban Governance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, says Shanghai's ability to keep up with global consumption patterns, such as drinking coffee, is partly due to its long-standing international commerce.

"These habits, often portrayed in movies and literature, have become ingrained in Shanghai's cultural memory, making coffee a significant part of the city's DNA," Xu said.

Today, Shanghai leads China's coffee scene. According to the "2024 China City Coffee Development Report" released at the festival, China's coffee market reached a whopping 265.4 billion yuan last year, with a 17.14 percent compound annual growth rate over the past three years.

The average annual coffee consumption per person in China has nearly doubled, soaring from nine cups in 2016 to about 17 cups currently.

Shanghai itself boasts over 9,553 coffee shops, the highest number nationwide, underscoring the city's deep-rooted love for coffee.

The annual Shanghai coffee festival, inaugurated in 2021 merely as a "coffee culture week," reflected the city's aspiration to let coffee serve as a window into Shanghai's lifestyle, as well as a symbol of its haipai culture and spirit, Xu said.

"Coffee's gentle influence allows people from Shanghai and beyond to embrace the city's unique lifestyle and enjoy its culture," he added.

Shanghai coffee festival brews rich history and vibrant culture
Ti Gong

Customers pose in front of a coffee and food truck on the West Bund.

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