Shaoshuminzu

Girls doing shopping in Xining, Qinghai

Girls doing shopping in Xining, Qinghai

Man selling freshly baked "mo"

Man selling freshly baked "mo"

Salar men chilling

Salar men chilling

Husband and wife grinding qingke, a type of highland barley

Husband and wife grinding qingke, a type of highland barley

Street butchers

Street butchers

Salar man preparing lamb chuars

Salar man preparing lamb chuars

Hui woman shopping for fruits

Hui woman shopping for fruits

Tu children playing in their village next to Regong

Tu children playing in their village next to Regong

Tibetan friends chatting on the street in Tongren, Qinghai

Tibetan friends chatting on the street in Tongren, Qinghai

Salar women outside of their home in Tongren, Qinghai

Salar women outside of their home in Tongren, Qinghai

In demolition

Shanghai's longtangs are communities of narrow interconnected lanes that made up most of Shanghai until a couple of decades ago are quickly disappearing. According to Shanghai's Fudan university, the number of lingtang houses fell by 60% between 2000 and 2008. 

Abandoned mobile food stands 

Abandoned mobile food stands 

Older residents sit and chat in their outside communal areas

Older residents sit and chat in their outside communal areas

Tall modern buildings rising behind half gone longtangs

Tall modern buildings rising behind half gone longtangs

Younger residents cook soup for family and neighbours 

Younger residents cook soup for family and neighbours 

A woman washes dishes in the basin outside her house

A woman washes dishes in the basin outside her house

A woman cooking dinner

A woman cooking dinner

Family dinner

Family dinner

A resident selling fresh fish to the community residents 

A resident selling fresh fish to the community residents 

The coffee shops of Tier 4 cities

If you are familiar with the large metropolis of China such as Tier 1 cities like Shanghai or Beijing, then you will also be familiar with the many coffee shops around, easier to find and more accessible than tea houses. If you have lived in any of these cities for a while then you'll also have noticed the sheer variety of coffee shop types, each communicating a different story to its customers. You can find the Korean type, the bean expert type, the one-fits-all Starbucks type to the Italian or Kawaii type.

Twosome is a coffee shop chain from Seoul that fits the "Korean type"  

Twosome is a coffee shop chain from Seoul that fits the "Korean type"  

But have you been to a coffee shop in lower Tier cities? 

I'm not thinking about Tier 2 like Hangzhou or Chengdu, but the Tier 3s and 4s. These are rapidly expanding cities such as Mianyang in Sichuan or Taixing in Jiangsu. If you have never been to a Tier 4 city then it looks a bit like this: 

The Rui'An skyline, I was told it was "fog" 

The Rui'An skyline, I was told it was "fog" 

Rui'An is a city of 1,125,000 people on the Eastern coast of Zhejiang, located between hills and mountains that like its neighbour cities, it has experienced tremendous economic growth in the past couple of decades and has seen a boom in construction and real estate, which have completely transformed the city.

Traffic is hectic here, the roads are often blocked by black SUVs parked in the middle of the roads and a lot of the middle class you meet here will tell you they have at least one car per household despite the ease with which one could cycle around given the small size of the city. I'm here for Chunjie and having to work between a banquet and another, I spend most of my week in local coffee shops, they are extremely convenient as I can find one at nearly every block, with open access to wifi and usually open about 15 hours a day.

Their outside signs usually say coffee, cafe & wine or cafe & books, but one step inside and you will realise their menus go beyond and serve from Chinese snacks to pizzas, mocktails and cigarettes. The interior decoration  is often dark with extravagant elements, golden colour chandeliers and Victorian style chairs. Other times, it feels like sitting in what could be a cross decoration between a Gucci store and a Hello Kitty store that exploded in meantime. 

The classier one

The classier one

Working at different coffee shops at different hours gave me the best opportunity to take a peek into people's lives here and offer insights on what it is like to live in a Tier 4 city. 

Coffee shops in lower tier cities provide, in fact, not coffee, but freedom and a space in which strangers and friends can have the most intimate conversations. The curtains and walls that divide the "private" tables allow people to speak loudly and freely whilst in the open lounges, the cloud of whispers covers secrets, blind date awkwardness and mianzi losses. 

It's the creation of a private space in a public one and a public space in a private one. There simply aren't other places that provide this in a Tier 4 city like Rui'An. Here, restaurants and KTVs only offer a social space for big party groups, meeting at someone's house requires formality and hosting whilst tea houses are stuck in their traditional conventions.

A coffee shop that uses curtains to separate tables

A coffee shop that uses curtains to separate tables

So what do people talk about? 

Marriage deals

Blind dates or mothers arranging one for daughters and sons who are approaching or well beyond that crucial marriage age, I encounter at least one of the two in every coffee shop I go in. I overhear mothers complaining about their daughters' "unrealistic" expectations for a boyfriend (or husband in the mothers' mind) to "couples" getting to know each other for the first time. Chunjie is particularly the time for parents to pressure for marriage and therefore blind dates as the young and single come back home from the big cities. 

Going abroad

Sending kids to schools "outside". Borrowing money to migrate and work "outside". Shopping "outside". "Going outside" is a common term to describe travelling to countries outside of China, whether for holiday or for a more permanent move. In a city like Rui'An, those that are rich want the best for their kids and themselves and do so by searching outside of China whilst those that aren't, strive to become so by "going outside". 

Losing mianzi

Talks related to losing face, or mianzi, go up the roof during national holidays when people travel back to their hometowns to participate in banquets, weddings and important birthdays. Perhaps a friend gifted a hongbao with the wrong amount of money or perhaps a family member hosted a banquet in an unsuitable restaurant, but chances are that gossiping is always related to losing face here. 

Blind date, perhaps

Blind date, perhaps

Fake Harry Potter books and Thai elephant models

Fake Harry Potter books and Thai elephant models

Private room

Private room