Graduates misty-eyed over good times on funky-diners row
When Liu Han thinks of coffee shops, “luxurious” is the word that always springs to mind. “They weren’t very popular 10 or 15 years ago, and we spent most of our time talking about Shakespeare and our futures at food stalls or in shabby diners near the campus,” she said, recalling her “treasured four years” as a student at Peking University.
In the days before campus coffee shops, students got together at small diners, most them of them featuring shish kebab, or teahouses and snack bars to study, socialize, and organize campus activities.
For generations of Chinese students, these places played the same role as campus coffee bars in the West. From 2000 to 2010, one of the most popular haunts was “West Gate Chicken Wings”, or WGCW, the collective name for a row of small diners near the west gates of Peking and Tsinghua Universities that offered barbecued chicken wings.
Cheng Jie, a 30-year-old who studied at Tsinghua from 2003 to 2010, has fond memories of the glory days of WGCW: “The diners were cramped, noisy, and slightly shabby. They were always full of smoke and the smell of beer, but I’ve never tasted better chicken wings since. Of course, that could just be my memory of a mixture of youth and passion.
“I heard my roommates’ tearful love stories over the spicy chicken wings. They claimed their eyes were watering because of the hot spices, but … . They could also say the same thing about me, of course,” she said, recalling that the row of diners was a favorite post-rehearsal spot for members of the local orchestra.
“Coffee shops are too fancy. It would be embarrassing to be extremely loud and crazy in one of them, but being loud and crazy are synonymous with student life,” she said.
Cheng and her college peers still hold reunions at WGCW. “It’s like we revert to being students when we meet up for those dinners, even though we’re all dressed in smart clothing, suits and ties and so on. It’s like a taste of our youth,” she said.
Chain teahouses were also popular with college students in the “old days”. In the first semester of his senior year in 2007, Wang Rui spent nearly every evening in a teahouse called Be For Time near Beijing Normal University.
“I was working on my graduation program, and also working as a statistic analyst intern in a hospital. That meant I had to study at night, but the dorm’s lights were turned off at 11:30 pm, so BFT was my best study area after midnight,” the 31-yearold math graduate said, adding that he only spent 18 yuan ($2.90) each visit, and often spent the whole night studying while sipping endless free refills.
“I still felt tired when I see BFT on the street now,” he said.
Founded in Shanghai in 1998, Be For Time now has more than 100 outlets nationwide, many of them near colleges.
Liang Suyao discovered the delights of campus coffee shops when she studied in the United States after graduating from Beijing Normal University in 2007. In Beijing, Liang was also a fan of Be For Time, and in the US she developed the habit of sitting in the campus coffee shop to finish her day’s reading.