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.

An­other Shang­hai

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.

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