Campus caffeine fix brings students together

Updated: 2015-02-20 08:51

By Luo Wangshu(China Daily Europe)

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Western-style cafes are booming around universities as the number of foreigners studying in China rises, and returnees cling to the habits they developed overseas

Isabella Greene, a US student in Beijing, regards Harney & Sons, a coffeehouse near Beijing Language and Culture University, as the definitive cure for homesickness.

"It's very similar to campus cafes back home ... the music, the decorations, and especially the coffee. I can spend the whole day here, doing my homework or seeing friends," the Kentuckian says as she nursed a large cup of cappuccino.

Campus caffeine fix brings students together

Top: A waitress prepares coffee at Sculpting in Time, a popular cafe chain with outlets near Beijing campuses. Above: The 1898 Coffee House near Peking University is a famous meeting place. Photos provided to China Daily

As the number of foreign students rises, especially in mega-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, Western-style cafes are springing up at colleges and universities to cater to their needs.

Demand looks set to continue rising. In 2013, more than 356,000 foreign students studied in China, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Education, a year-on-year increase of 8.6 percent, and last year 56,000 international students attended universities in Shanghai, making the city China's second-most-popular study destination for foreign students, according to the local education commission. Now, the municipal government aims to raise the number of international students at the city's colleges to 15 percent of the total student body by 2020.

Meanwhile, many of the ever-growing number of young Chinese who go overseas for study has seen returnees bring back a range of Western influences, from music to literature, movies to meals, including an addiction to coffee.

According to research conducted by Mintel, a market researcher in the UK, the number of coffeehouses in China doubled from 15,988 in 2007 to 31,783 in 2012.

It is no coincidence that most are close to educational establishments, because ever since the world's first "coffeehouse" opened in Oxford, England, in the early 1650s, they have been associated with universities, the avant-garde and intellectuals.

Campus caffeine fix brings students together

Cactus was the first coffee house at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, where 3,000 international students account for 20 percent of the total student body, when it opened in March 2005. In 2013, UIBE had the second-largest international student body in Beijing, according to Shi Jianjun, the university's president.

The founder of Cactus, Wang Quangang, says he started the shop as a place for students to meet, talk and swap ideas. "When I was at college in Shenyang (Liaoning province) in the 1980s, there was nowhere to meet friends, except for the student canteen. College students are a group of "active brains", with the most passionate and wild ideas. Places like cafes are essential for the spread of ideas and theories. They are irreplaceable."

Although the cafe, on the first floor of the international dorm building, originally only attracted foreign students, it is becoming increasingly popular with Chinese.

"They (international students) have the coffee habit, and we catered solely to their needs at first, but eventually some of the Chinese students started dropping by. Now, professors occasionally host discussion groups here, and students from all over the world hang out," Wang says. "I hope that many years after graduation, the students will say that Cactus provides a faithful snapshot of their college lives, something to look back on fondly."

Zhang Fang, a waitress, says she has noticed many changes in the five years she has worked at Cactus: "The students call it the 'informal study room' because it's pretty much unregulated and very comfortable. I remember two girls who met in the coffee shop because they both liked to sit near the window. One day, they started talking and went from being complete strangers to best friends very quickly, all because of the coffee shop."

Across town, Katerina Galajdova, who studies at Beijing Language and Culture University, described Harney & Sons as "a place to record wonderful moments". The Czech national says: "It will definitely be one of the top five places I'll miss when I leave Beijing."

That sentiment was echoed by Isabella Greene, the US student, who recalled walking into the cafe after a tough day during which she had fallen out with a close friend and started to feel depressed by the university's intense study program. She says the cafe's ambience and soft music helped calm her down.

"Later, I met a friend who told me that he had finally bought a train ticket for a trip during Spring Festival. Tickets are extremely hard to obtain during the holiday rush, so I was quite happy about that piece of good news. Somehow it swept my bad mood away," she says.

Campus caffeine fix brings students together

Chinese who have studied overseas are also drawn to the cafes. Lin Ke, who returned to Beijing from the United Kingdom in February, will shortly take up a post as a lecturer in the education faculty at Beijing Normal University. Lin spent seven years as a student at Beijing Normal University before heading to the UK in 2010, Lin says the biggest change she has noticed at her alma mater is the emergence of the cafes.

"I remember there was only one place on campus that served coffee and tea during my undergraduate years. It attracted very few customers, maybe because it was pretty expensive, about 20 yuan ($3.20) for a regular coffee," says Lin, who developed the coffee habit during her time in the Britain.

As the cafes grow in popularity, their function is beginning to change from the purely social to business oriented, and they are becoming important networking tools for entrepreneurs, who use the gatherings of students and recent alumni to meet and assess young talent. Now one club is hoping to cash in on that trend.

Located at the east gate of Peking University, the 1898 coffee shop is a members-only cafe for PKU alumni that features a number of rooms for small seminars and discussions that allow budding business tycoons the opportunity to outline their products and plans to like-minded individuals. Founder Yang Yong, a PKU graduate, hopes the place will eventually attract the cream of the university's entrepreneurial crop and become an established venue for successive generations of young movers and shakers.

"I hope the coffee shop will become a leading platform for the university's entrepreneurs, and the home of the leading companies and businesspeople of the future."

( China Daily European Weekly 02/20/2015 page28)