Recently, in my comings and goings around the city of Hong Kong, I stumbled across this particular gem of a coffee shop, called Starbucks.
Not that it serves great coffee, I don’t know too much about that since I’m not a coffee drinker myself.
But the moment I stepped into its interior, I was absolutely captivated by the extent of its decor.
Located on the second and third floor or a relatively dingy building on a busy street in Mong Kok, this Starbucks is accessible only by a stairway with a rather unassuming entrance, and the way upward is lined with Chinese calligraphy of old school slogan-y catch phrases.
Of course, presiding over the stairway remains the iconic Lady Starbucks, welcoming me with a smile into the posh, global sameness that Starbucks offers everywhere in the world. Franchising at its very best.
As I entered the counter area though, the first thing I noticed was the floor.
Interspersed with concrete blotches, and fake wooden floorboards was this dirty white and green tiling that would never be able to look polished.
Even more importantly, it was a distinctively Chinese type of tiling, particularly popular in the Southeast part of Asia, and pretty much identical to the floor of my grandparents house. The kind of floor I associate with large family dinners, oldness, slowness and the heavy weight of an entire family history I will never be able to fully uncover.
As I continued to wander around the floor, I noticed the furniture casually “littered” across the space, varied and cluttered, of all shapes, sizes and textures: chinese short square stools, large rectangular couches with their wooden edges, red upholstered round seats around tables low and high.
I admit to delight. A lot of it.
Delight that in the middle of a city and in a space I least expected, I came face to the face with my love for my past, my heritage, and my memories.
I also admit to sadness.
Sadness that over the entire space lay a fog of nostalgia and the yellow tint of bygones.
In the corner of the third floor say a old weighing machine, the kind you step onto and wait till the wheel stops spinning before you slot a coin into the machine and watch it print a card with your weight on it.
The walls were filled with Old Chinese Starbucks signs, mixed in with other street shop signs, street signs and transportation signs.
There were blurbs and pictures of Starbucks as it was back then, and now.
There was also a vibrant wall mural of Old Chinese movies obviously including Bruce Lee’s face.
I believe as a marketing gimmick, that this approach was spot on.
Capture the past in the present and offer that experience holistically to the customer.
Posit Starbucks with its origin as a regular coffee shop, one among the small tiny stalls lost in the noise and the people on street level.
Modernity by its very ideology erases any possibility to an alternative.
All we can see within the framework of modernity is the future it proposes, from the past it has emerged out of – a linear narrative if you are a visual person.
The decor in this particular Starbucks for me however, threw a wacky loop into that line.
Because, yes to cultural appropriation, yes to artificial cultural presentation, yes to capitalist swallowing and regurgitation.
But also yes to the recognition that the past is beautiful and is relevant yet, yes to an understanding of the power of culture and heritage, yes to the present and current presentation of things I believed were history.
And powerfully so.
I loved sitting in that space, just looking at the chairs gave me the crazy feels.
I don’t really have a specific argument to make with this piece of writing, except to point out that if my heart were to look like something, it might look strangely similar to that Starbucks.
We are always trying to define ourselves in pure categories, aligning ourselves on specific sides of spectrums and condemning whole things as good or incorrect.
But the truth is, it is hard to find any strand of history that is not horribly and complicatedly knotted to fifty other pieces of string.
Spaces are like people, they always hold more than we can ever say.
Starbucks represents some things, but the nature of franchising has created an interesting chemical reaction to its vision, because the environment you set a product into is not an empty, blank space. It has life, it has story, it has aesthetic. There are colors and sounds and smells and feels that are never translatable directly, but they will seep into the framework of anything and they will bring change.
This Starbucks is like any other Starbucks, serving the exact same menu with the same prices in the same type of cups. But it is also unlike any other Starbucks.
As a third culture kid I belong to a generation of young people who have been franchised, who are crazy chemical reactions, with untranslatable dynamics. Each one is a different life, has a different story, in a different aesthetic.
We could spin it this way,
People are spaces, and the world is a space full of spaces full of more than we can ever say.