It’s hard to tell whether it is the cafe that sustains the tradition, or our regulars that keep us going strong.”
It is 7: 15 on Monday morning. The flood of white collars has yet to descend on the metro station at People’s Square, where the popular Chinese phrase renshan-renhai (a mountain and sea of people) really comes into its own. The Starbucks outlet above the station has just unlocked its wellpolished glass doors, waiting for the first order.
Less than 1 kilometer away, a zigzagging line has been waiting outside Deda, an unpretentious cafe and restaurant, for the first sip of what many patrons describe as “the cheapest and most fragrant coffee in town”.
People have been lining up there every morning for 50 years. For elderly locals, it is a cherished symbol of Shanghai’s bourgeois aspirations. Before 10am, freshly brewed coffee sells for 10 yuan ($1.6) a cup, marking a 60 percent discount from the regular price. A latte at Starbucks would cost more than three times as much.
But those who line up each morning come rain or snow, say it is not just the price but the flavor — tinged with nostalgia and decades of memories — that makes it so special.
“It’s a daily routine. I get up, brush my teeth, wash my face and come here for my second gargle — with coffee,” said Shen Pingyuan, 72, as he stood in line amid a fierce downpour with some friends.
“If we don’t see him by eight o’clock, we know he’s in hospital,” quipped a younger man nearby.
“Who knows who will be going to their grave first?” Shen said, showing no decline in mental dexterity or humor despite his advanced years as he offered the man a cigarette.
At 7:30am the doors of the two-floor cafe eased open and the crowd filtered into its cramped space, which features a dozen or so tables. No one was pushing or shoving. Many seemed to have their favorite, time-honored seats. Most were well-dressed.
The majority of this Chinese coffee club are over 60, the age of retirement for men in China. They grew up in an age when coffee was enjoyed by the city’s middle class, before the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) came long and swept up such bourgeois talismans in a maelstrom of anti-Western purging.
Before this, the city was hailed as “the Paris of the East”. Shanghai was carved into different concessions from the middle of the 19th century.
It attracted adventurers from the United States, Britain and France, many of whom brought their Western ways with them from coffee to balls, church weddings and clothing fashions.
local, 76-year-old Zhu Hangjun, recalled drinking more coffee than tea until the former was banned. His father worked as a clerk at a foreign bank.
Since the 1980s, the city has seen a fresh flowering of cafes and Western-style restaurants. There used to be at least two dozen cafes on the central section of Nanjing road, a shopping Mecca that spans about 3 kilometers.
“I’ve been to every one of them,” said Zhu, who said his hobby is “cafe-hopping”.
Unlike the aggressively expanding Western coffee chains, State-run Deda is one of a kind. Founded in 1897 as the Cosmopolitan Cafe, it has built its reputation on serving authentic German cuisine. It was renamed Deda (meaning German feast) after the Communist Party took power in 1949.
“It’s hard to tell whether it is the cafe that sustains the tradition, or our regulars that keep us going strong,” said Huang Jianying, one of the cafe’s managers. She began waitressing at this quite male-dominated milieu three decades ago, right from school.
Referring to Hua Mulan, the legendary female warrior who pretended to be a man in order to fight on the battlefi in ancient China, she said: “I am the Hua Mulan of the coffee world”.
About 100 regulars aged 50 to 92 pile in every day for their morning brew, she said, adding “we tend to lose one or two each year, for obvious reasons”.
Other waitresses claim the shop uses Italian coffee beans grown in China’s Yunnan province, where Starbucks also sources its coffee beans for its China outlets. No menu is offered in the morning. It’s either an Americano, or go thirsty.
The boiling beverage is served in a small yellow porcelain cup with a disposable plastic spoon and sugar bags. A can of evaporated milk from Nestle does the rounds for those who need milk, or something approximating it.
“Smoking and food from outside is prohibited during our regular business hours, but we make exceptions for these guys in the morning because they have formed these habits over decades,” said Huang.
For some, the cup of coffee is akin to an entrance ticket. They buy it so they can socialize and chat with friends. When they are done, they are more likely to switch to green tea and munch on steamed buns and crispy fried bread sticks.
“The first two-thirds of the coffee are for enjoying. The rest qualifies us to stay,” said Shen. “When I’m done, I fill the cup with water and use it to swallow my pills — so it really is delaying my march to the grave.”
a manager at
Shen Pingyuan (left) has spent almost every morning for the past few decades in his favorite seat at Deda sipping coffee and discussing life with his buddies.