Yesterday I read this article in the Telegraph about everyone’s favourite corporate punching bag. It seems a cranky customer was removed from a Manhattan Starbucks after throwing a hissy fit — because a server asked if she wanted butter or cheese on her bagel.
Shocking stuff. And yet I don’t recall hearing the slightest hue-and-cry back in 2000, when Starbucks opened a store in a 600-year-old World Heritage Site. In fact, the first inkling I had about it was in 2003, when I turned a corner in Beijing’s Forbidden City and, for one confused moment, thought I was being punk’d. There, in the middle of the ancient imperial palace, sat an unprepossessing little villa — built sometime in the 15th century — that would have blended in nicely with its surroundings were it not for the green-lettered STARBUCKS COFFEE sign on the window.
(The English lettering was followed by星巴克, the Starbucks name in Mandarin. The first character, xing, means star. The next two, ba ke, are a phonetic representation of “bucks.” I don’t remember seeing the ubiquitous mermaid-style logo; apparently there had been two such signs when the store opened, but they were removed shortly afterwards because of numerous complaints.)
Chef Boyardee and I peered inside. It was the tiniest of coffee shops, housing a couple of tables and maybe a dozen customers, evenly split between Western and Chinese. It didn’t look like a portal to Hell, but still, I couldn’t bring myself to go inside.
Full disclosure: I’m a card-carrying latte-lover. I think if we’d come upon a Starbucks while strolling down the street in Beijing, it wouldn’t have felt so strange. (No stranger than the Rolls-Royce dealership and Chanel boutique we saw on our wanderings, anyway.) But here, in the Hall of Supreme Harmony, it felt disturbingly like the desecration of a holy site. I had an uneasy image of a giant (excuse me, venti) coffee cup tipping over and washing away 5,000 years of Chinese history.
It would appear I’m not the only one who felt this way. Although this post on the Ask Edgeworth blog is quite supportive of the store, the Chinese people writing in the comments section were not so sanguine.
“Can you see Starbucke in the White House? Can you see Starbucke in the Buckingham Palace? Can you see Starbucke Taj Mahal? Pleaes, go out the Forbidden City,” writes one. Echoing his sentiments, another adds, “Well, the moment the American people welcomes a Panda Express (however chop suey-ish it is) in the White House is the moment that we’ll welcome a Starbucks in the Forbidden City.”
It took a minor Chinese celebrity, Rui Chenggang, to harness that ill-will and turn it into something concrete. After blogging that Starbucks “tramples over Chinese culture,” his online campaign culminated in a petition that was signed by half a million people. Once local newspapers and bloggers picked up the story and the animosity gained strength, the writing was on the wall for Starbucks. The Forbidden City location officially closed its doors in 2007.
Rui, the television anchorman who orchestrated the coup, is quoted in The Guardian as saying, “The Forbidden City is a symbol of China’s cultural heritage…. We need to embrace the world, but we also need to preserve our cultural identity. There is a fine line between globalisation and contamination.”
Crass, insensitive commercialism or a much-needed tourist service: what do you think? Click on Comments below to leave your thoughts. But first, allow me to take a page from Disney’s book, and ask you to “exit through the gift shop” (that is, take a look at some of the non-controversial photos we took at the Forbidden City before arriving at the Comments button.)