One to rule them all: Starbucks in China

Starbucks in Forbidden City mock-up

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:

Hangzhou Starbucks

Starbucks in Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou Starbucks signage

Starbucks sign “星巴克咖啡” (xīng bā kè kā fēi)

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:

Starbucks Dragonboat Dumplings

Dragonboat Dumplings (screen shot from Starbucks China website)

Red Bean Green Tea Frappuccino

Red Bean Green Tea Frappuccino (screen shot from Starbucks China website)

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.

23 responses to “One to rule them all: Starbucks in China

  1. I have to say, that green tea latte is pretty yummy, but I don’t even want to know about the calories. And, does it bother you that they always like to throw every pastry you order into the oven to heat it up without even asking? Muffin – heat ’em up – bam! Turkey sandwich – heat ’em up – bam! There’s nothing more disgusting than a warm turkey sandwich.

    • I love the hot muffins! Huge drawback of US Starbucks is reluctance to warm anything. But sandwich … Yuck. I’ve luckily avoided this. Green tea is initially good, but quickly makes me feel ill.

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. I frequently take historical walking tours of Toronto with my local Newcomers Club. The guide, an architectural historian, has praised Starbucks for it’s sympathetic approach to blending in with some of the city’s old buildings. Apparently our Historical Board finds them good corporate citizens in that respect. The one in Hangzhou is just gorgeous!

    • That’s interesting about the Toronto Historical Board. And the more I think about it, I’ve seen a lot of well-sighted Starbucks around. Wonderful that they’re making use of old, interesting buildings when they can!

    • I hadn’t noticed about the chai. It would be interesting to know how they decide what to sell in which countries. Maybe chai is bigger in Singapore and HK because of the larger (relative to the mainland) South Asian populations?

      • Maybe, but I have had colleagues who have traveled and tried it and liked it. It could be a distribution issue as the concentrate is in those cartons which are heavy and likely not widely available.

  3. Nice one! I agree the Hangzhou Starbucks looks amazing! I think you’re on to something about our quest for comfort and predictability when seeking out a coffee in a warm spot, and no one does a better job globally than Starbucks… other than maybe McDonalds. You always know what to expect, every time, anywhere in the world. And therein lies the power of the global brand! Even in Seattle, if I’m cold, wet and desperate, I’m desperate, and so Starbucks it is. I even find that their logo is brilliant (green siren, calling all of us towards certain caffeinated danger in our Odyssean quest for a hot drink!) Ah, so you’re a Herkimer/Fuel type of girl! 🙂 Lovely!

    • I guess we’re all happy to pay a premium coffee price for a comfortable place to sit and a predictable drink! In Hong Kong, the ‘comfortable place to sit’ aspect might be the key to Starbucks’ success.

      These days when I’m in Seattle I mainly just dash into any close by place to grab a coffee before taking my kids to a park, though I sometimes look longingly at the folks camped out with coffee and laptops at Herkimer in Phinney.

    • Ha! Now you must go to “Bucksstar” and “Pizza Huh” and report back. I haven’t been to Nanjing and have mainly visited the more obvious places in the mainland: Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xian, Hainan, Guilin/Yangshuo, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and of course Zhuhai.

      As for taking advantage of Starbucks: I watched a very stealthy homeless man in Seattle retrieve a Starbucks cup from the trash outside, wander into the store with the decoy cup, and enjoy a soft chair/newspaper/toilet break. Can’t say I blame him.

  4. Wow, that is by far the nicest Starbucks I’ve seen. I’m glad that they at least make an attempt to integrate with their surroundings.

  5. Coming from New Zealand, we are (admittedly) huge coffee snobs/addicts. Starbucks isn’t that popular back home and I would hazard a guess to say that the number of them have is pretty small compared to a lot of other places. Hong Kong has, much to our surprise, places that make coffee to an extremely high standard. There are SO many fantastic local places here, like the sort you would go to in Seattle which means Starbucks here isn’t the ‘necessity’ that it can be sometimes in a foreign country. I promise lots of other places have comfy couches too 🙂 I don’t hate Starbucks but do think there is much better coffee to be had in Hong Kong, often cheaper and always more unique. Hong Kong ROCKS.

    • Being out in Taipo, well, let’s say the options are limited… But next time I’m on the Island or in Kowloon I’d love to try someplace special. Share a favorite or two?

      • Ah true that! We totally understand 🙂 Some of our favourites are Barista Jam in Sheung Wan, Cafe Corridor in Causeway Bay and, for something really special, Knockbox in Mongkok. In fact, should you find yourself over these ways sometime, we’d love to have a coffee with you!

  6. I’ve noticed that about Starbucks, too—the way they cater to their locale… Hadn’t really thought about the appearance versus McDonald’s or KFC, but that’s true, too. I really liked some of the pastries/dishes I could get at Starbucks in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But a green tea frappuccino with red beans? Yuck!

  7. Pingback: Land Granny, the Heavenly Bureaucrat and other tiny deities | Expat Lingo·

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