Brewing happiness in China's capital of coffee

Aleksandra Antonenko| China Daily| January 10, 2024


Aleksandra Antonenko likes visiting coffee shops in Shanghai to immerse herself in the warm atmosphere. [Photo provided to China Daily]

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of exploring diverse cultures is observing how ordinary and sometimes even trivial things can vary from place to place. The coffee culture is a great example. I love sharing with people how Shanghai is a perfect match for me for many reasons, and coffee is one of them.

When I first came here in March 2019, I had no idea that Shanghai has the title of the "capital of coffee" in China, which was a pleasant surprise for me. Moreover, Shanghai has the potential to become the global capital for coffee admirers, boasting nearly 8,000 coffee shops, a number that surpasses any other city in the world.

People in Shanghai visit coffee shops to genuinely enjoy a cup of coffee, even when they are having business meetings, dates, or work sessions. You can see them savoring their brew, creating a small moment, which is a personal treat that you can enjoy even during a hectic day in Shanghai.

Before coming to China, I spent several years living in Seoul, South Korea, which also has its own well-developed coffee culture. However, I would describe coffee in Seoul as a "stressful" drink, more of a survival tool than a pleasurable experience.

Koreans don't seem to visit coffee shops just for the sake of coffee; instead, they seek out a space, which just happens to be a coffee shop. When people in Seoul do have coffee to enjoy it, it seems to carry an undertone of inner tension, which they try to ease by holding something warm in their hands.

Yet, it is amusing to admit that I developed a taste for coffee back in Seoul. In Russia, I never had the chance to develop a taste for coffee since our daily drink is hot black tea. After arriving in Seoul in 2013, I discovered there were extremely limited options available for tea drinkers. So, slowly, I started drinking coffee instead, and over the years, I grew fond of the beverage.

However, it's worth noting that I barely enjoyed it back then, unlike how I do today, because the stressful coffee culture in South Korea influenced my perception of the drink. In comparison, when I think about having my coffee in Shanghai now, I reminisce about all the wonderful memories and feelings it brings. The city has turned coffee into a happy drink for me.

This is how it happened. After I returned to China in September 2022 to study at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, I soon developed a routine with two other international students. During the lunch break, we would have a cup of coffee at the campus cafe every day. What we noticed was that people did not work during that coffee break; instead, they purely savored their conversations with coffee. So, for us too, it felt wrong to continue our studies at the coffee shop and thereby disrupt the atmosphere.

Perhaps drawn by this positive energy, more students joined us day by day, and our group of three became a big party. Coffee united us as we greeted newcomers and got acquainted with other local students. I feel this is how the coffee culture works here — to make people a little bit happier, and to warm you up when you feel cold or lonely.

The scene is the same at coffee shops outside of campus. There is always a lively discussion going on. People come to share their own happy moments or to get cheered up. You can always see them smiling in a relaxed mood or peacefully scrolling on their phones while sipping their coffee. Even with coffee-to-go, you take that little piece of the warm atmosphere with you.

Later, I discovered that the coffee culture in other places of China is somewhat similar to that in Shanghai. People say that "Shanghai sets trends in coffee" and other cities simply follow suit. I have visited coffee shops in Beijing, Ningbo and Hangzhou (both in East China's Zhejiang province), as well as Sanya (in South China's Hainan province). All of them had that special heartwarming atmosphere I admire, which further contributes to China's coffee culture.

Interestingly, some of my international friends avoided coffee before coming to China, but they are now among the biggest coffee lovers, all because that having coffee here genuinely lights them up.

That's why I always prefer to get my coffee in person instead of ordering online — for the sake of experiencing the general mood of the place. It is not something tangible; it's a feeling in the air that makes you want to come, breathe it in, and be nourished by the good energy. It's like an upbeat song from your childhood — once you hear it, you start smiling.

Written by Aleksandra Antonenko, 30, a Russian student who holds a master's degree in Chinese Politics from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She is preparing for PhD studies in China. She has started her social media channel where she shares everyday cultural discoveries and insights about life in China.