How Shanghai’s Coffee Culture Brewed Up a Revolution

The characters in the 2021 film “B for Busy” — one of last year’s sleeper hits — are far from overworked. They spend their days flirting, taking art lessons, and drinking coffee as members of Shanghai’s idle rentier class. Even street cobblers in this fantasy Shanghai regard coffee breaks as sacred, grinding their own beans and reprimanding the protagonist in Shanghai-accented English for interrupting “coffee time.”

Shanghai’s obsession with coffee has become a shorthand for what distinguishes the city from the rest of the country: Coffee is viewed as a symbol denoting the city’s tolerant, Westernized culture — or, depending on your perspective, its petit bourgeois affectations.

As evidenced by the louche lifestyles of the “B for Busy” set, it is a stereotype Shanghainese embrace. While it is true that coffee epitomises the bourgeois Shanghai lifestyle, the early history of the city’s coffee culture is surprisingly complex. Coffee houses were not only symbols of modern, Westernized lifestyles and aspirational middle-class living during the colonial period; they were also clandestine meeting places where proletarian figures brewed revolutionary ideas.

The history of coffee in Shanghai dates all the way back to 1843, when the city was opened to foreign trade. However, it was not until the Republican period (1912–1949) that the beverage became ingrained in the majority of residents’ daily lives. In the 1930s, the ruling Nationalist party promoted what it called the “New Life Movement,” which aimed to teach Chinese how to live a more modern, healthier lifestyle. Although the New Life Movement’s impact varied by region, it contributed to the adoption of coffee as the final course of a formal, filling Western meal by many middle-class Chinese families.

The rise of coffee culture altered more than just consumption patterns. Coffee drinking as a post-meal ritual became ingrained in China’s “new family lifestyle” ideal. Women were not permitted to eat at the same table as men in traditional Chinese culture. However, they were invited to join the table and converse with their male counterparts during the coffee course. This facilitated the development of a new archetype of womanhood, as women were expected to entertain their guests with witty and intelligent conversation in addition to brewing coffee.

However, it was in the city’s numerous cafés and coffee shops that the beverage made the most indelible mark on Chinese society. In the 1920s and 1930s, an influx of international immigrants resulted in an explosion of cafés throughout the city. Initially, Russian emigrants fleeing the October Revolution congregated along then-Avenue Joffre in newly opened cafés such as the legendary Tkachenko Bros., DD’s, Renaissance Café, Constantine, and The Balkan. Shanghai then began receiving tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany and German-occupied areas of Europe in the 1930s. They established their own temples, schools, and businesses in the Hongkou neighbourhood, including the Delikat Café, Europe Café, Bataan Café, and Weiner Café.

In the 1920s and 1930s, an influx of international immigrants resulted in an explosion of cafés throughout the city.

These cafés served as meeting places for local intellectuals, members of the middle class, and the occasional proletarian revolutionary. For instance, the Coffee Café, also known as the Gongfei Coffee Hall, opened in October 1929 and was Shanghai’s first bookstore to include a café. It quickly became a popular hangout spot for left-wing writers. The playwright Xia Yan recalls the League of Left-Wing Writers’ meetings at the Gongfei in his memoir: “Meetings were generally held once a week, occasionally every two or three days, in a small room on the second floor of the Gongfei Coffee Hall that could accommodate twelve or thirteen people.” Numerous playwrights have set their works in cafés, for example, Tian Han’s one-act “A Night in a Café” and Xu Mo’s “Temptation of a Gypsy.”

The conflict between these cafés’ middle-class trappings and the proletarian aspirations of the writers who congregated within their walls was not overlooked. Lu Xun’s 1928 essay “Revolutionary Café” satirised another left-wing clique: the Creation Society. The Creation Society was composed of a group of Chinese literary figures, including Guo Moruo, Yu Dafu, and Tian Han, who, like Lu Xun, had studied in Japan. The essay depicts its members sitting in a lovely café, conversing and sipping “proletarian coffee” — their lives worlds apart from the peasants and workers of the country. Lu Xun concludes the essay by suggesting that guns may be more useful than pens in times of revolution and urging practical contact with the masses.

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