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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Some things are really quite simple

I am in a teahouse in the Hongkou district in northeast Shanghai. This is not the most fashionable part of Shanghai, although I get the impression that it was a district in which Chinese artists and writers lived in the 1930s, and (like much of Shanghai) it is full of interesting architecture from that period. And it may be a little like that in character again – it feels like a slightly bohemian, slightly studenty neighbourhood. A new metro line has recently been built through the area, which certainly can boost a neighbourhood.


The teahouse I am in is a branch of a chain named “Chatea”, which seems to build outlets in nice malls, and which appears to cater to an early twenties middle class demographic, and one that is more female than male judging by the customers in this particular branch. They sell a wide variety of traditional Chinese teas, as well as those funny multicoloured bubble tea drinks that are so popular with young people in the Chinosphere. And they have a food menu consisting mostly of Dim Sum. The music in the background is bubblegum music from six or seven years ago, so that would be right for a mid twenties female demographic. (Specifically the are playing the album Shades of Purple by M2M, who are perhaps best known for doing the theme song in the western world for the first Pokemon movie).


It is pleasant, but for me there is one more possibly more important thing, which is there is WiFi. And the attitude to the WiFi is right. The internet access if free, and I was smiled at when I sat down, ordered a pot of tea, and got out my laptop. A couple of minutes later, a waiter came over to me and pointed out the electrical outlet on the wall, next to the table. (Hang on a moment. My shrimp dumplings, turnip cakes and crab dumplings have just arrived).


Okay. I am back. That was not bad at all. Slightly trendier sorts of Dim Sum than one would find in the backstreets of Kowloon, and fancier service and crockery, but definitely good. A couple of rather studious looking girls at the next table did give me one of those “These foreigners are crazy” looks when I started taking photographs of my lunch, but I am used to that. I am going to get revenge. Little to their knowledge, thousands of people on every continent are shortly going to be looking at a picture of them.


I do like the way they have the standard “studying in a coffee shop” look that is instantly familiar, complete with the sprawling papers, and the mobile phones laid out neatly in front of them. Human nature is endearingly familiar, wherever you go.

But anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The free WiFi and the electrical outlet that I was encouraged to use. I left my power adaptor in my hotel, as I was not expecting to find anything this good. The reason why I was not expecting this is that I find it so seldom in London. WiFi in cafes and coffee chains in London is far too often of the “This will cost £7 per hour” variety. A cafe can set up WiFi on this basis if it wants to, but I am simply not going to pay that. However, if you provide me with free WiFi (which will cost you hardly anything) I will buy more coffee and food, possibly more than £7 worth. And then a cafe might provide WiFi, but will not provide an electrical outlet, or (even worse) if it has one conveniently placed they will tell you that you are “stealing electricicy” if you try to use it, or they will put a cap over it to prevent you using it. This isn’t greed, but just stupidity. There is a lack of appreciation as to what customers want and value, and a lack of appreciation of the cost of providing it. (My laptop will run for about four days on 10 pence worth of electricity). And a lack of appreciation about how providing it will create warm and fuzzy feelings about your business.

And if a chain of teahouses in Shanghai can understand this, why can’t a chain of coffee houses in London? Just one. If you figure out what your customers want and give it to them, then you will get repeat business. It is that simple. If I lived in Shanghai (and who knows, someday I might) I would have lunch here all the time. And I will recommend it to my friends. As in fact I just have. Thousands of them.

A waitress keeps coming back to top up my teapot with hot water, too. I clearly could spend all afternoon here. However, there is much more to see, so it is time to post, drink up, and leave.

13 comments to Some things are really quite simple

  • I’m much enjoying your China posts, Michael. Please keep them coming.

    Travel safe…

  • I think I’m going to print this article out and start handing it out to coffee shop managers. People will think I’m mad, but maybe it might have some positive effect, too…

  • David

    The Chinese understand competition, all we have is massive duopolies or at best closed cartels.

  • Simon

    Great article, passed it around at work.

    Conclusion: In London coffee houses are crowded. It’s a fiar point and it explains the difference entirey by supply-demand economics.

  • Dale Amon

    My current Starbucks ‘office’ when I am in NYC is also often crowded and I often have to wait awhile to get a table. But they do have some outlets for customers, although not enough. Some of the regulars bring their own little power strips and share!

    Best way to deal with such problems is to complain. And come to think of it, perhaps I should mention this at the nearby Costa here just outside Belfast and see if they might become more laptop oriented… although it seems a place more with family members meeting up and chatting than a work spot.

  • Dale Amon

    btw Michael: What was the html problem that was cryptically passed on to me via Perry? Speaking of your mobile phone, there’s a good example of the way the world has changed with them. You rang Editor Perry walking down the street in London about a technical glitch; he, not being plugged in at the time then rang me (Editor Dale), sitting in my flat/office in the Belfast suburbs to see if I could look into it…

    I love this planet.

  • James

    Whilst I can sympathise with the Wi-fi and electricity problems you face, I think there are ‘other forces’ at work nearer home…

    Perhaps in our culture, we are all too aware that ‘free means free’, with many people willing to test whether or not that means there are polite or discrete obligations attached to things like complimentary Wi-fi in bars, cafés etc.

    Otherwise (at least, outside the metropolitan London area), it might just be seen as an unnecessary expense. After all, if people want coffee, they’ll buy it regardless of Wi-fi, no? That sort of mentality is at work.

    The lack of electrical outputs is prone to far more sinister reasoning.

    In my own experience, it’s not so much ‘stealing electricity’, but the lack of liability insurance on the venue’s part and/ or my laptop not having been PAT tested. Regardless of the true legal requirements, many businesses seem to have an aversion to providing anything more than what they are minimally insured for (if that’s the right way to put it).

  • I do like the way they have the standard “studying in a coffee shop” look that is instantly familiar, complete with the sprawling papers, and the mobile phones laid out neatly in front of them. Human nature is endearingly familiar, wherever you go.

    Well, not everywhere. You never see kids studying in coffee shops in the UK, they’re too busy smashing up the bus stop outside.

  • Hongkou is a nice district; be sure to check out the parks in the area (ESPECIALLY if tomorrow’s weather is as spectacular as was today’s!). It was one of the Chinese areas of the city in the 1930s and before, as distinct from the foreign concessions (Huangpu, Luwan, the lower half of Jing An, etc.), and I believe (not sure) that the local film industry was centered there at the time.

  • Dale: It was fairly boring. I missed the ” between the URL and the [/a] tag when I first posted the article. I actually fixed it in the teahouse before I left, but when I viewed Samzidata on my Blackberry a couple of hours later the error was still there and I assumed I had failed to fix it correctly. I think what may have happened was the Blackberry picked up a cached (older) version of the article, when in reality it was fixed.

    As for the provision of WiFi and power, I find it much better in New York than in London, and New York has cafes that are crowded as in London, and probably has insurance regulations as stupid as anything in London. So I do genuinely think a lot of it is just a lack of sensitivity to customer needs in London. Businesses provide the minumum they think they have to, and that is it.

    Ian: Yes, I checked out Lu Zun park this afternoon, which I thought was absolutely lovely. (It may have been a Chinese district, but this park was obviously designed by the British, just the same). My (Lonely Planet) guidebook more or less said that “There is nothing of interest in Hongkou or Yangpu”, and I found it to be a very interesting district to walk around. I am quite annoyed with the book, in fact. I think its take on the city is not very good at all.

  • Leo Dearden

    Well, not everywhere. You never see kids studying in coffee shops in the UK, they’re too busy smashing up the bus stop outside.

    I find that to be an unfair generalisation, and as such, unneccessarily negative. I regularly see people studying in the Starbuckses in Cambridge (UK).

  • I find that to be an unfair generalisation, and as such, unneccessarily negative.

    Ah, sorry. I lived in Manchester.

  • RAB

    I’m getting jealous now!
    Why is it only the management that gets to show off it’s holiday snaps?
    I’m off up the Nile in late May. Sigh, yeah I know I should have gone in Feb but the old lady had leave problems. I could do ya a Thompsonesque screed or two on that and a few pics. Whaddia think?
    Indeed, given how truely global this site is—
    why not a thread on best/worst holidays/business trips, with illustrations.
    We take ourselves too seriously sometimes.
    Let’s just sigh laugh and look at the pictures for a change.
    Shit happens.
    We can take a baseball bat to it later.