Having lived a number of years in Central Europe, I developed an acquired taste for coffee houses. Long gloomy winters make them the ideal place to spend a nice afternoon in Budapest, Prague, Vienna and many other cities. They are the place to meet friends and chat for hours. Coming to Shanghai in 2004, a nice coffee house is what I missed the most. My first coffee place was Starbucks in Xin Tian Di, which was one of the few available then. Other coffee chains had not yet entered the market and there was little alternatives apart from hotels. The opening of Vienna Cafe in late 2004 was just what the doctor ordered. This Viennese coffee house was just like a smaller version of the Budapest coffee houses that I used to go to, making me feel instantly familiar and in love with this place. 5 years later, it is still one of my favorite coffee place in Shanghai (update 2023: Vienna Café closed around 2016 has sadly never been replaced).
Old Shanghai had numerous cafes and coffee houses. Many of them where located on or near Avenue Joffre (today Huaihai Lu), operated by French or Russian immigrants, often coupled with bakeries. One of the well known place for coffee was the Bianchi Store (See post Bianchi Pastry and Chocolate for more info). About the only surviving coffee house of old Shanghai is Deda Cafe.
Coffee drinking was brought by foreigners and started to become a symbol of fashion and modernity among Shanghainese. Just like in Europe with Parisian writers meeting and working in cafes, the new groups of Shanghai writers would meet in coffee houses to live the Bohemian live of artists. Cafes were much warmer than the small tinzidians during the arch winters and groups of friends would just make the coffee last long hours to save money.
I really became interested in Shanghai coffee houses when I found the document on the left side in an flee market. This is a advertising for the Royal Cafe, that was probably standing on the tables just like in many Shanghai cafes today. Maxwell Coffee was already very famous in the USA and made it to Shanghai from America. The most interesting is the name of the coffee house in Chinese: Jing An Coffee house. Like there are many modern coffee houses in Shanghai located around JingAn Temple, there must have been a few of them in old Shanghai, probably on Bubbling Well Road (today Nanjing Xi Lu) or the surrounding streets. I have searched for the precise location of the Royal Cafe in old directories, but could not find it. The ad is both in Chinese and in English, so I guess this coffee house was mostly frequented by Chinese people.
In 1938 Shanghai had 60 foreign cafes listed in the phone book. 9 companies were importing coffee including German trading firm Melchers and 11 companies where selling coffee in retail including Lane Crawford on Nanking Road (today Nanjing Dong Lu). Our friends at Mobfa wrote a great article about the biggest local coffee brand in Old Shanghai.
Coffee was also imported in large quantity. “The trade of China” 1934 shows that 186,095 Gold Units of Coffee was imported to China in 1933, and 170978 in 1934. Nearly 40% was imported from America and I guess a lot of if was Maxwell coffee that is advertised above. About 20% came form “Netherlands India” i.e. today’s Indonesia, being the famous Java Coffee. About 8% from “Straits Settlements” i.e. Malaysia where the tradition of white coffee drinking is still very strong.
Just like today, coffee drinking was the symbol of western habits and of modernity. Starbucks and the coffee chains of today found the right location to start operations here. No wonder Shanghainese took coffee and coffee house by storm… they already had experienced it in Old Shanghai.
Update 2023: Independant coffee shop have sprung all over Shanghai in the last few years. It’s a long was from the time when long gone Boona coffee was about the only one in town. One of my favorite in Shanghailander coffee store. Nothing to do with this blog but nice owner, great coffee and a love for Old Shanghai.