Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 1 November 2007

New cafe opens in place of Forbidden City Starbucks

Peter Neville-Hadley fumed on the Oriental List (his listserv on tourism in China, on which he fumes all the time) about the opening of a new cafe on the spot of the Starbucks that closed in July. The opening was reported in China Daily on September 24:

Forbidden City cafe

A new coffee shop opened last week inside the Palace Museum, located  
exactly at the same place where a controversial Starbucks coffee shop  
was for seven years before shutting down. With wooden tables and  
chairs, and pictures featuring Chinese culture, the “Forbidden City  
Cafe” serves not only caffee, but also traditional Chinese beverages  
such as tea.

“Unlike the Starbucks coffee shop, the Palace Museum is the  
managerial authority of the cafe,” Beijing Daily quoted Li Wenru,  
depute curator fo the Forbidden City, as saying.

End quoted text.

A few days later [writes Peter N-H] I visited the coffee shop while spending a day in  
the Forbidden City. It does indeed serve much the same products as  
Starbuck, less the sillier confections with sillier names, and for  
much the same prices. It also serves assorted teas (but not silly  
things like ‘chai lattes’) at much the same (and therefore vastly  
inflated) prices as the coffees.

So it’s an ‘erosion of Chinese culture’ when the Forbidden City rents  
space to a foreign company to provide a welcome service selling a  
foreign drink, but not when the Forbidden City’s management simply  
sells the same foreign drink directly. One courtyard across from the  
Starbucks is a Japanese (or is it Korean, I don’t have my notes in  
front of me) restaurant. This, apparently, is not ‘inappropriate for  
the world’s impression of the Forbidden City.’

Peter N-H goes on to castigate Rui Chenggang and the other participants in the drama-comedy surrounding the Starbucks closure (see the chapter “Why Don’t They Make Some Foreigners Kneel”) as being interested only in their own popularity and in money, rather than in conservation. Well, to be fair, Rui did say that he was equally opposed to domestic companies “branding” the Forbidden City. Obviously, Western anti-Starbucks campaigners equally see nothing wrong when Cafe Einstein or Gloria Jean’s offers the same drinks. So Rui is not against commercialization but against multinationals. In that sense it is justifiable for the FC’s management to run its own cafe. So N-H is wrong to dismiss it as a specifically Chinese mixture of nationalism and greed. But the argument still doesn’t fly with me, just as I don’t see why, and for whom, Einstein is necessarily better with Starbucks.

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Responses

  1. I’ve just stumbled across this posting, a little late in the day. I’m glad the owners of this blog find The Oriental-List worth reading and perhaps might even consider contributing (http://www.datasinica.com for details), but it should be clear that this is a mechanism for the exchange of views on travel in China and not, like a blog, a medium managed by the moderator for his own pronouncements. Views there do tend to be a little more casually placed and casually expressed than is perhaps quite appropriate for the earnest analysis they are given here.

    However, I do think Rui Chenggang is far from deserving the credit he’s given above, and that there’s a great deal more in the Starbucks issue to be discussed, perhaps along these lines:

    A Storm in a Coffee Cup

    Back in 2000 the Forbidden City management leased a small space to the ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks with little fanfare, although after a few years and following some adverse comment the company reduced its signage to make its presence a little more discreet.

    The Forbidden City had been awash in commercialism for more than a decade, with tacky souvenir stalls and second-rate snack outlets at every turn, so although the presence of the famous foreign brand struck some visitors as incongruous, it was more or less lost amongst a sea of other tackiness, and many foreign visitors in particular were happy to acquire a familiar beverage if not of good then at least of known quality in the middle of a trek through what can sometimes seem an endless sea of flagstones. For more than six years Starbucks happily carried on doing business, and the Forbidden City management ignored any negative comment and was equally happy to pocket the rent.

    But in early 2007 a self-important anchor-man for CCTV’s English service called Ruì Chénggāng (芮成钢) made an entry on his blog complaining about Starbucks’ presence in the Forbidden City, describing it as an erosion (a trashing is another translation) of Chinese culture, and claiming to fret about the mixed reactions of foreign visitors. He reported that he had personally told the CEO of Starbucks that the company should move out.

    The post was featured on the home page of one of China’s most popular Internet portals, then published in English by a Hong Kongblogger whose torrent of translations from Chinese domestic media sometimes drives the direction of foreign commentary on the country. When the foreign press then picked up the story this caused further comment in the Chinese media which then drove readers to sign an on-line petition against Starbucks.

    There was much trumpeting of the power of ‘citizen blogging’, which must have pleased authorities more used to scathing criticism that the Internet in China is heavily controlled and thoroughly censored, and tickled the self-importance of the bloggers themselves. Since Ruì, a media star and globe-trotter with a correspondingly large audience was anything but an ordinary ‘citizen blogger’ this amounted to nothing more than hubris, although some foreign media were foolish enough to run stories that ridiculously overestimated the power of Chinese bloggers.

    Very many of those commenting on Chinese blogs displayed the aggressive and ill-informed nationalism common in both school books and the media in China, and others a distressing xenophobia equally common particularly amongst fènqīng (愤青) or ‘angry youth’, and to such a degree that Ruì felt compelled to backpedal and state that he wished merely to complain about commercialism at national monuments.

    Some foreign commentators then rather naively supported this self-assessment although it was belied both by the tone and content of his original statements and by other posts on his blog revealing an obsession with events ‘humiliating’ China up to 150 years in the past. He effectively provided a button marked, ‘If you don’t like foreigners, click here,’ to which jingoistic media coverage drove hundreds of thousands who would previously have had no opinion whatsoever on Starbucks’ Forbidden City presence.

    Starbucks’ vice-president for greater China, one Eden Woon, told the Reuters news agency that, ‘Starbucks appreciates the deep history and culture of the Forbidden City and has operated in a respectful manner that fits within the environment,’ a statement also rather economical with the truth since the company had originally demonstrated a lack of tact with its overly prominent signage and been forced to reduce it.

    The Forbidden City authorities were reported to have taken fright, although since no Chinese institution willingly pays any attention to public opinion whatsoever that seemed unlikely. Nevertheless, it asked Starbucks to consider selling its products under a different brand, which the company declined to do. No doubt with future expansion in China and the continued prosperity of 200 existing stores there in mind, Woon made emollient noises. Denials of any plans to leave turned overnight into a respectful withdrawal and the kind of compromise kow-tow and cutting of losses to which many foreign companies in China feel compelled when ‘taking the long-term view’.

    Ruì succeeded in garnering publicity for himself and triumphed in his petty victory as Starbucks was replaced with very suspicious swiftness by a wholly Forbidden City-owned company called China Tea (中茶). Although China Tea sells tea, it also sells coffee in more or less the same range of styles as Starbucks less some of that company’s more gooey and only distantly coffee-related inventions, and it’s these, not tea, that lead its menu. How substitution of one coffee shop for another could be a victory for Ruì’s supposed drive to reduce commercialism at national monuments wasn’t clear.

    Ruì felt compelled to comment that non-Forbidden City brands were not being excluded to form a monopoly, which of course caused even greater suspicion that this was precisely what was happening. Some years ago, in order to try and drive out the American Acoustiguide company only partway through its contract and to replace it with a Chinese system and thus make more profit, the authorities simply shut down the electricity to the company’s sales points within the palace. Was this coffee coup also opportunism on their part?

    The coffee and the manner in which it is made and sold remain every bit as foreign as in Ruì’s original comment to Starbucks’ CEO and as when Starbucks sold it (although some beans are now bought from Yúnnán Province where, ironically, coffee was first planted in China by the French). But now, of course, all the profits are going to the Forbidden City directly. As in so many cases in China a foreign company has introduced a new service and developed a market only to find its products copied and itself manoeuvred out of business. The sight of foreigners making money in China is very often inimical to Chinese peace of mind.

    Furthermore, Ruì has said his next target is American Express, complaining about the appearance of the banking company’s logos on signage it has sponsored within the palace. In remarks to The Guardian newspaper he compared these to labelling the Mona Lisa as ‘Sponsored by the Bank of China.’

    But setting aside that the parallel would actually be if the Chinese bank sponsored a sign explaining something useful about the Mona Lisa, no one in the West would turn a hair at such a thing, and (if possible human rights protests were set aside) sponsorship by a Chinese bank would be as welcome as that from a bank of any other nationality. Although Ruì says Chinese pride is hurt when foreign companies have a presence in the Forbidden City, no one would feel pride in their European heritage reduced in the reverse case. This is a point the xenophobic Ruì is unable to appreciate, and before ramming his foot even deeper into his mouth, he might have noted that the Louvre not only has the Mona Lisa but a Starbucks, too.

    Furthermore, if word leaked out that a Chinese-run tea concession was being kicked out of the Louvre because it wasn’t French and so that the French themselves could sell the very same product, the same fènqīng would be expressing outrage (and some of them hacking the museum’s web pages and launching denial of service attacks). And the shouting from the West in defence of the Chinese tea operation would probably be louder still.

    The World Monuments Fund has organised principally American funding for a twelve-year major restoration of the Qiánlōng emperor’s garden, now partly completed. Would Ruì care to object to that, and find Chinese sources for the US$18 million of sponsorship instead? Or is it fine as long as there are no signs pointing out the origin of the funding?

    What truly ‘undermines the solemnity’ of the Forbidden City is seeing air-conditioners studding ancient buildings now converted into gift shops, and finding yourself beckoned into one with the promise of access to a bed used by the Qiánlōng emperor if you’re willing to spend a large enough sum on overpriced trinkets.

    Under the circumstances the coffee from China Tea ought perhaps to have a bitter aftertaste.

    Would you like some hazelnut syrup with that? Or perhaps a dollop of humbug?

  2. Peter: Thank you for this contribution and the invitation to The Oriental-List. Sure, there is a much broader context to this issue — the whole relationship between nationalism and consumerism in China that is one of the subjects of this blog. I am not sure if you read the main text in Starbucks in the “Why Don’t They Make Some Foreigners Kneel” chapter (https://chinasaysno.wordpress.com/chapters/foreigners-kneel/).

    What I was saying in the post quoting your comments was simply that I do not believe Rui was, in this instance, expressing views very differently from those of Western anti-globalists (or “alter-globalists”) or heritage conservationists, among whom I would rank yourself. The Starbucks at the Louvre is in the new underground passage, not in the palace — that would be unimaginable, as would, in my opinion, a sponsorship sign under the Mona Lisa. As I am sure you know, a lot of Western academics and other leftist types love to hate Starbucks, and would never visit one, but feel free to go to Gloria Jean’s because it’s “Australian,” despite its sponsorship of (to my mind) sinister religious activities, or to Einstein because it is “German.”

    In sum, my point is that in this instance, Rui deftly positioned himself in a discourse that is broadly acceptable in the West (and that is partly why it got picked up), even though the background dynamics — I agree on this with you — are quite different.


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