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January 7, 2010

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Bohemian cafe oozes character

COZY, warm and homely, Old Mike's diner offers a bit of everything, including a match-making service, Sam Riley reports.

An old Beatles record, an antique brass ship's clock, a secondhand book offering salacious tidbits on the golden days of Hollywood can be found at Mike Liu's cafe.

The avid collector has stuffed his quaint cafe in Xuhui District with all manner of weird and wonderful items gathered during his travels around the world.

Originally from Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, Liu, or "Old Mike" as he is commonly known, traveled to more than 40 countries before settling in Shanghai to open The Cottage Cafe in April last year.

The cafe is an eclectic bohemian hangout with loyal customers signing their names and messages on the wall and often leaving with more than just a caffeine hit but also a keepsake from Liu's collection.

Liu dodged the global financial crisis, leaving a 20-year career in banking in the nick of time to start the cafe.

Having ditched the suit for the casual surrounds of his cafe in a historic building on Taojiang Road, Liu discovered a whole new lease of life.

It's an approach he has spelled out on his business card which says: "To live a life rather than being alive."

Liu says he wants to create a cozy, warm, homely cafe that stands out from the typical polished, sleek, interior-designed joints usually seen in Shanghai.

"To make a living in a bank, that is merely being alive but it isn't having a life," he says. "I prefer a freer life, to live a life I like."

The cafe is situated in a historic building constructed in 1927. Originally the German Consulate in Shanghai, it then became the East China Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences after 1949.

Appropriately, the rustic cafe is located in what was the garage and workers' quarters of the building and still has the original 100-year-old boiler in the basement.

Spread over three levels, the cafe has been fitted out with wooden floorboards and panels recovered from older homes that have been demolished.

A wander through the three floors reveals a treasure trove of quirky items Liu has picked up during his travels.

In the basement, there are cabinets filled with unusual antique clocks, old vintage watches, even an antique hairdryer. A bugle greets wanderers as they head out of the basement and various old vinyl records are hung on the walls as one enters the top floor.

There are a number of cozy corners for diners to relax with one of the cafe's secondhand books or they can peruse the various cabinets displaying a range of vintage watches, jewelry and old spectacles.

But Liu is also enjoying another somewhat unexpected demand of his new career as cafe owner - he has become the unofficial love doctor to his customers.

After hearing the love woes of various customers, Liu decided to do something to help the lonely hearts and started his own version of a match-making service.

The concept is simple. Two photo albums, one for boys, the other for girls, where people leave a picture with a message and an e-mail address.

Liu has also held a single's night, which he says was an outstanding success with a number of couples swapping details.

"As far as I know, we have been responsible for about five couples getting together. We haven't had a marriage yet but we are hoping it might happen this year," he says.

"We try to meet the requirements of our customers and I suppose this has been broadened to include courtship and finding the one," he says with a wink.

The Cottage is open from 11am to 11pm daily and serves light food like sandwiches and salads between 20 yuan (US$2.92) and 30 yuan.

Coffees range from 25 yuan to 35 yuan and a pot of tea made from loose leaf tea ranges from 25 yuan to 80 yuan for premium grade teas.

Address: 25A Taojiang Rd

Tel: 6466-0753


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