As you may or may not be aware, there is a Central Perk café in Beijing, and now there are also ones in Shanghai and Guangzhou. I was first exposed to the American sitcom Friends in early high school, when my math teacher urged me to watch it. Although I was never very enthusiastic of television show series, I liked it for its positivity and casual humor.
I found that, like many other sitcoms, it seems uninteresting at the outset, making the newcomer wonder, “what’s so interesting about this?” but then could succeed to entangle you later on. In the case of Friends, I believe the key to its method of entanglement is that it portrays a world in which it feels like nothing very truly awful could ever happen. There are ups and downs, as is necessary to keep any sort of audience entertained, but nothing disastrous befalls the six. It gives us, in the form of laughter and weightless jokes, what so many of us want in life—safety, love, and a sense of permanence. Don’t people always say friendship lasts forever? Ideally, anyways.
I was first made aware of this café last winter when my little sister excitedly suggested that we go there. She knows that I like the show, and like the great sister she is, wanted to give me a surprise. Indeed, upon our arrival inside the Chaowai SOHO building, there is a startling incongruence between the surroundings and interior of the café. The café itself is a faithful replica of the set of the show, while the building outside was standard, with muted colors of grey and reflective surfaces of shop fronts unrented or closed. It was like a little made-up world inside an indifferent reality.
This summer, I decided to call up the owner and have a chat—ask him about the café: the idea, the business…the café has been covered, but this time I wanted to cover the man behind the café, so I called up the café’s number that I pulled from the internet and dialed on my cellphone. An employee of the café picked up and gave me the owner Du Xin 杜鑫’s number. After calling once or twice, he picked up. His voice was open and friendly, seemingly very comfortable with speaking to a complete stranger. “I’m cooking dinner for my children, could you call back later?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied (please note that our conversation took place in Chinese, and that the relevant parts included in this article are translated for accuracy of content and meaning, instead of word-for-word translations of the dialogue, which is why there are many attributions but not quotations, as a lot of the relayed information are paraphrased in the process of translation, and not quoted verbatim).
Du Xin said that he finished watching Friends in 2004, and that ever since then it has been a personal dream to recreate the setting of the show in real life. He opened the café in Beijing in 2009 when he returned from the Netherlands. According to Du Xin’s weibo page, he studied at the Amsterdam School of Business and obtained an MBA. He said when he first started he didn’t think it would be a business. To him, it was a hobby, something like a pet project. “It was just something I really, really liked, and I wanted to create this feeling that you were a part of the show. It was a very pure idea,” Du Xin said. He said a lot of fans of the show came to the coffee shop, and it surprised him that there were so many people who liked the show even more than he did. His customers named him Gunther.
In 2012, he opened a café in Shanghai, and in 2014, another in Guangzhou. Gunther is thinking about further expansion, but there’s nothing definite yet. He said he has been approached by people in various other cities in China, wanting to open Central Perk coffee shops and hoping for his help and advice. He’s been trying to work with these people. There was one prospective café opener who asked him why they serve free water to the customers. “If they get full on water, doesn’t that mean they won’t order anymore coffee?” he asked, and Gunther replied, “If you are still asking such a question, it means you still haven’t fully understood the point of these cafés.”
To Gunther, this started out not as something he planned as a concrete source of income. He did it more for his love of the show than for the business, he said. He wanted people to know about the show, and explained that the relationship between those of his generation with the series is more emotionally complex than one might think at first thought. Yes, there are many other television series, and many American shows to watch, but that this show evokes more emotion than the others because it feels like looking in a mirror, he said.
“A lot of younger people don’t watch this anymore, but for people from the 70’s and 80’s it is something irreplaceable. It has accompanied many of us through our youth, through our college years, in those really tough years right after graduation, and the days when we felt lonely. I feel this more and more as I grow older. The feelings we have towards the show are complex. It’s different from how we feel towards other American shows. It feels like we are watching our own life, like the characters are a part of our life. They feel like they are very close, because none of them are so high up that they’re unreachable. They’ve all had hard times, and we’ve shared the same difficulties. When we watch it again and again we feel like we are watching ourselves,” said Gunther.
Gunther further commented that another appeal of the show is the dynamic between the characters, and the healthy standards they set for both friendships and romantic relationships. It is indeed interesting that this particular sitcom should find such a special place in the hearts of a particular generation of people in China. I am reminded of when once, sitting in another café in Beijing, I was asked by an American “why do Chinese people like Friends so much?” I did not have the answer then. He asked as if this was a phenomenon, and a well-known, well-established one at that. I could not answer because this I was unaware of at the time. I suppose now, I have some explanation on hand.
Gunther’s explanations to why this series is important to him took on almost an expressive, poetic lilt as he spoke to me in Chinese. It seems that through watching this show is manifested a certain aspiration for a particular kind of happiness, a particular desire of a specific generation of China. The generation born in the 70’s and 80’s were subject to clear expectations and duties, and in many ways did not have an abundance of foolishness and very much of the giddy type of fun. Hard work may not always have been accompanied by breathless laughter, but at the same time there is a very pure, clean desire for the kind of happiness that comes from close and meaningful relationships with others. All of this imposed as a slightly colored but almost imperceptible filter onto the gentle adversities and innocent happiness of an American series such as Friends produced a cultural impact that is very unique, quite niche-specific, and intriguing at least to some extent.
Gunther said that he and the customers were friends, and that’s the kind of relationships he wants his business to foster. Although he didn’t in the beginning, he now works on this business full-time, and is personally based in Guangzhou now instead of Beijing. In Beijing, about 20-30% of his customers are foreigners, and there are a lot of tourists, according to Gunther. It is now a tourist destination or pit stop that has found its way onto people’s travel itineraries for Beijing, and has been in some kind of ranking for the top weird places in Beijing, Gunther said. “I’ve been in Guangzhou for 2 years, and I don’t go back to Beijing as much anymore, but the other day when I was in my café in Beijing I saw someone who came two years ago and he’s kept coming,” said Gunther. He guesses the café has become some kind of icon or symbol for people, and apparently some visitors actually cry when they come in because they’re so excited.
Gunther commented that he believes the café is thriving more in Beijing because after all the capital is a cultural center. “Everything city has a different personality,” Gunther said, and even though the business is technically more profitable just by the numbers in Guangzhou, he still doesn’t feel like he’s fostered the kind of atmosphere that the café in Beijing has achieved. It was the atmosphere that he first opened up for, he emphasized. Customers worry for him because they think his coffee is too cheap, and that he’d be losing money. That’s the kind of relationship he wants, not one of transaction between costumers and business-owners, but one of caring between friends, he said.
Gunther said that when the coffee shop started picking up steam, media outlets were interested, and they were covered in articles. Gunther recalled that actress Lisa Kudrow, who portrayed the character Phoebe in Friends, mentioned the café when she was in China on business, and that someone who was involved with the production of the series visited the Beijing café.
Gunther said that he expects that people who are true fans of Friends will be fewer and farther between as time goes on, which is why now he is focused more on the production of food and beverages, so that as a café the business may always continue. He seems to have a very peaceful attitude towards how things go, saying that if people can come in and have a good time that’s good enough, and if they recognize the reference, then all the better. In the early years of the café, now seven years old, Gunther spent a lot of time in the café itself with his wife, making coffee and baked goods. In terms of day-to-day activities, Gunther now spends a lot of his time managing online materials, such as his weibo (where funny posts like a couples ranking from the couples of the series may be found), and WeChat official account (iloverara), and also spends time in developing souvenir products (like a replica of the photo frame on Monica’s door in the show and cellphone cases), and researching how to improve the coffee shop as a restaurant business by drawing inspiration from other establishments abroad. Of course, he still watches Friends. On his weibo, he playfully wrote “Rachel is now my wife.”
Address: Room 0616 Building A, Chaowai SOHO, 6 Chaowai Avenue Yi, Chaoyang District朝阳区 朝外大街乙6号朝外SOHO A座0616室（近世贸天阶）
Featured image courtesy of theBeijinger article.