Feet and fingers aching from Beijing’s winter air, I once went in search of the Forbidden City’s much-maligned Starbucks. As a former “friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks” anti-corporate Seattle-dweller, I’d read all the tut-tutting over the cultural inappropriateness of the coffee chain’s location within China’s former Imperial Palace.
After a 2003 conference in Beijing, I took a few extra days to see the sights. In the heart of the city, I wandered solo through huge, impersonal expanses of crushed ice and snow. Entering the Forbidden City, I passed through an unending series of unheated squares, palaces, gardens and halls until my bones ached with cold. I needed something hot. I wanted a coffee. I remembered the newspaper articles about the out-of-place Starbucks and started looking for it. It was not in any of the obvious places I had already passed through. I started circling through side halls and garden corners.
I could not find it. Despite the hand-wringing over its location being an ugly mark on historic China, I could not find it.
With red cheeks and a running nose I called it quits and ducked into one of the many shops selling pots of instant noodles. It was warm-ish inside and the walls were lined with rows of Big Gulp-sized buckets of noodles. I chose the “red” flavor and a woman peeled back the top and filled it with hot water. Carrying it to a long communal table, I sat on a metal stool and waited for the boiling water to soften the noodles and shards of dehydrated carrots. It was filling and warming, but a soft chair, newspaper and hot coffee would have been nice.
After seven years in operation, the Forbidden City Starbucks branch closed in 2007 because of a disagreement with the landlord over branding. Despite leaving the Forbidden City, Starbucks has only kept expanding throughout China and there are currently over 3,000 branches in “greater China,” that is including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Starbucks, unlike KFC or McDonald’s, tries to blend into the local area. For example, in Hangzhou last autumn I saw what is probably the most beautiful Starbucks in the world. Tucked away among the gardens and other tea houses, it’s a rather lovely sight:
Starbucks is ever-keen to suit its products to the local market. Looking at the current seasonal offerings in China, one might wonder whether Starbucks is changing China or China is changing Starbucks:
In Seattle, with its wealth of coffee shops, I’m still more likely to visit small stores like Herkimer or Fuel, but there have been many times in China, Macau and Hong Kong, when a soft chair and a Starbucks coffee have been exactly what I wanted. And from the growth figures, it’s exactly what many Chinese want too.