I never really drank coffee before coming to Hong Kong.
That’s ironic, because I come from Melbourne, which prides itself on (a) being the cultural capital of Australia and (b) purveying the finest coffee in the country (the world?) from abundant, comfortable and stylish cafes. And let me tell you, even as a non-coffee drinker, I say to Sydney that THIS IS TRUTH. Ooh aah, you’ve got a big-arse bridge. But do you have a cafe on every corner? (Probably. I know they’re not as good as Melbourne’s though.)
To put it in perspective, Starbucks once tried to open two stores in Melbourne which were shut down within two weeks by skivvy-wearing purists. There’s are numerous cafes sprinkled through Melbourne’s iconic laneways that don’t even have addresses (viz. this joint, but don’t bother clicking, it’s just a front page with a name and a link to their tumblr. This particular operation only offers three choices: black, white, or filter.) Brunswick Street institution Mario’s only just started offering soy milk after 25 years. This is a cafe that turned away Jerry Seinfeld (unsure if it was because of the jeans/runners, or a predilection for the non-dairy creamer). Asked about finally offering soy, its proprietor said “some traditionalists were shattered the cafe had joined the modern era”. You can see now why Starbucks had no place in Melbourne*.
*I believe they’re since opened a few stores there. Puritan fail.
When we arrived here in Hong Kong, Zadie was an 11-month-old babe in arms, still breastfeeding, and had never slept through the night. I started work immediately (a minor technical requirement for my work visa). The first few months are a fog of days of engorged confusion, and nights adjusting to the humidity and tiny living space, while Zadie continued to not sleep.
I thought I’d been tired in Australia!
So, I turned to coffee. Mainly because if you drink it with skim milk, although you’ll get laughed out of Mario’s, it has less calories than Coke. It wasn’t a difficult decision because there are over 100 Starbucks stores in Hong Kong. To put it in perspective, only 7 million people live here. There’s only 584,000 cars on the road. That’s some good market saturation.
The coffee isn’t good at Starbucks. Take it from me, someone who only started drinking coffee two years ago – I clearly know what I’m talking about. It’s kind of bitter. Before you say I don’t in fact know what I’m talking about and all coffee is bitter, I fall in with the general consensus that Pacific Coffee, the other big chain here, is a far superior cup. It’s just that there’s only about three Pacific Coffees in every block, and when you’re used to the obese proliferation of the big chains like Watsons and 7/11, that’s just not convenient enough.
So. Starbucks isn’t that nice, but I and I venture to say a huge proportion of my Western cohorts visit one every single day.
MaryJane, our helper, asked me why Westerners love Starbucks so much (one day after one of my rants about how Starbucks is so expensive and doesn’t even taste good, right before going in there for a
delicious creamy cheap cappuccino). Apart from the convenience, there’s one simple reason: ARMCHAIRS. Hongkongers don’t do cafes. They don’t know how to make sandwiches for one, and they don’t like to belabour the dining experience in general. What “cafes” they do open tend to be crammed with tiny, flimsy outdoor settings, and menu-d with things like spaghetti with pork chop, and yuanyang (a unique mixture of coffee and HK-style milk tea to be avoided in all circumstances, regardless of parched-ness).
That’s why we like Starbucks. Big armchairs, coffee and tea in separate cups, and food items served in discrete and logical combinations. We like it enough to pay HK$32 for a crap drink that buys us 30 minutes in a big chair with the South China Morning Post.
The Sai Kung Starbucks is a huge affair located right in the middle of town pretty much between a 7/11 and a Maccas (it’s a really authentically local part of town…)
Because it’s Sai Kung, half the customers are dogs. You can see in this photo, taken yesterday, the outside seating section contains no less than five dogs for the eight human patrons. The retriever on the left is sitting on a quilted rug. The group in the middle are feeding muffins to a kelpie and a lab. And that sad lady on the right is nursing some sort of spoodle like a baby, while his co-spoodle sits sadly neglected on an opposite chair. On the other chair is the rip-off Gucci “dog carrier” that she’ll use to transport the ridiculous beasts back to their balcony after they’ve enjoyed their day out. Because they wouldn’t want to get their shoes dirty.
Dogs aren’t allowed inside (they are in most restaurants in Hong Kong, but Starbucks keeps it real civilised). Instead you’ll find the place filled with nervous expat grandparents trying to avoid any local experience, 714 students on laptops, and, on Sunday mornings, the entire population of Western kids under 5 running amok as their parents pretend they’re having a relaxing weekend. Here are my own two engaging in some no-holds-barred wrestling (in a BIG ARMCHAIR though!):
Doesn’t it sound amazing? And yet, this is respite from the madding crowd. An absolute necessity when the place containing those 7 million people is only 426 square miles “big”.
Next Sunday: Mushroom Bakery or Galden Chariat Cake Shap…