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May 27, 2023

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An eerie figure appears on Yandang Rd

Humblebrag, I live in a gorgeous part of town, nestled around the leafy streets to the northeast side of Fuxing Park. And I love it.

But within the beating heart of my neighborhood, a bewitching figure has appeared, casting a spell upon unsuspecting souls who find themselves helplessly ensnared in her irresistible allure. Her jazzy melody drifts through the city’s air, caressing the depths of its consciousness with a racket that refuses to die. Her tresses cascade in rolling waves, reminiscent of seaweed, shimmering with an ethereal luminescence that defies comprehension. Each tendril, akin to Medusa’s serpentine locks, possesses a force of its own, twisting with an irresistible grace crowned with a crest fit for an empress who has claimed her throne.

She is a queen. She is a siren. She is a seductress. She is a mermaid.

OK, I’m talking about Starbucks. Perhaps dramatically. But another one has opened within a stone’s throw of my apartment. There are more than 1,000 Starbucks stores in Shanghai. Five are within a five-minute walk of my compound. The latest being on Yandang Road, I’m pretty miffed about it.

If you don’t know Yandang Road, it’s sandwiched between the impossibly pretty Nanchang Road and shoppers’ paradise Huaihai Road. This unsuspecting street lays claim to a noddle nirvana. Weixiangzhai is part of Shanghai’s history. It’s in the Michelin Guide, and you’ll find this local’s favorite in every handbook any tourist “worth their soy” carries. It’s the kind of canteen where you sit unusually close to complete strangers, and the service has zero elegance. Which makes it magnificent. And it’s always packed. The noodles are so sexy that I sometimes see a guy in his underpants standing outside holding a huge pan to fill.

If you haven’t been, go. And if you have been, go again. Then, if you like, walk 3 meters across the street and treat yourself to a venti iced vanilla Frappuccino. Don’t bother walking the seven minutes it takes to reach award-winning Metal Hands, deemed within the top 40 coffee shops in the world. No. Treat yourself to a Starbucks.

As a writer, I’m tasked with weaving tales of truth and rubbing the underbelly of life. In this tale, the mermaid is not merely a symbol of commercialism but a sinister temptress beckoning us to forsake the homegrown places that fill our assorted city. We are all sailors at sea, vulnerable to the seductive whispers of ease and familiarity. I pride myself on supporting local businesses and embracing the vibrant tapestry of independents, but even the most hardened romantic can be swayed. We live between a desire for local authenticity and the ease of familiarity. It’s a comedic battle of conflicting desires. We want to be cool, hip champions of the underdog, yet we secretly crave convenience.

Here’s the deal-breaker. I met one of my now best mates at Metal Hands. And the dinner lady at Weixiangzhai always gives my husband an extra dollop of satay because she fancies him. It’s also where Shane met Wen, a kindly neighbor with a soppy poodle called Chocolate. Wen always offers me a cigarette though he knows I don’t smoke. Sometimes we have a beer together and play dice.

Yes, convenience is a powerful enchantress. It whispers promises of time saved, efficiency gained and moments of respite amid hectic lives. It beckons us to succumb to its embrace and surrender the pursuit of discovery in favor of streamlined experiences. We don’t always have the time or patience for the barista who pours their heart and artistry into every cup. But when was the last time you had a life-affirming experience at Starbucks?

The paradoxical thing is the tiny noodle shop offers a routine experience like the coffee Goliath across the street. You know what you’ll get from it: a slab of local flavors with zero frills set to the sound of lip-smacking gratitude. The same goes for the deliciously trendy yet effortlessly cool Demo Caffee, which sits within spitting distance of my kitchen. I’m writing this from there. The difference is that these places have a story to tell. The green-haired temptress has the lure of a shiny rewards program and the promise of the perfect pumpkin spice latte, but she’s got no soul. Demo and Weixiangzhai embody the spirit of the neighborhood, serving steaming bowls of connection to the community.

As I perch on a ridiculously small stool in the window of Demo, enjoying a cool glass of Sauvignon Blanc and staring at my kitchen window counting the candles I accidentally left burning, I wonder if that’s the answer. Maybe we don’t have to pick a side but instead embrace the beautiful messiness of it all. We can (and should) celebrate local entrepreneurs who infuse our lives with creativity and passion while acknowledging convenience’s role in a fast-paced existence.

This isn’t a case against Starbucks or a rant about commercialism. I like a venti Americano with oat milk as much as anyone. It’s just a thought. And in a city that thrives on contrasts and contradictions, our establishments serve as microcosms of this beautiful chaos — a testament to the harmonious coexistence of convenience and character.

Still, ask yourself this: Where would we go if you were to take me for coffee? A local favorite? Baker & Spice? Manner? Seesaw? Wherever you’d pick, I bet it wouldn’t be Starbucks. Not because we’re in a cockfight about who’s hippest and not because there’s anything wrong with the mermaid. We just wouldn’t ... would we?


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