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.
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:
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.
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.
So what do people talk about?
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.
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".
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.