A coffee culture with a flavour all its own

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 July, 2007, 12:00am

What people read and talk about is said to tell you a lot about them and their society. If you don't mind a little eavesdropping and peeping over people's shoulders, Hong Kong's booming coffee bars are ideal places for some field research. They are to be found almost everywhere nowadays, and their popularity shows no signs of waning. After a caffeine fix, the most popular diversion of the city's new cafe culture is reading, or talking, even if it is often on a cellphone.

What people are drinking also tells you a lot. Today's report that we imported enough coffee beans last year to make 635 million cups, nearly has as much again as in 2000, offers a revealing glimpse of how Hong Kong society has changed since the handover.

The departure of a lot of expatriates was hardly the catalyst for the runaway growth of a cafe culture in a tea-drinking society, although the more diverse makeup of our expatriate community these days compensates for it with more cosmopolitan tastes.

It is a homegrown Hong Kong phenomenon, and not another example of American culture creep, although the rapid expansion of a well-known US cafe chain gave it momentum. Moreover, Americans did not invent good coffee. In fact, 19th century president Abraham Lincoln is credited with the memorable quote: 'If this is coffee, bring me tea; if this is tea, please bring me coffee.' From all accounts it was not so long ago that Hongkongers' appreciation of some of the coffee served at eating venues was basically non-existent.

But now coffee is in, among the young and the white-collar class alike, and cafes are no longer places where only foreigners eat. We are demanding and adventurous in our tastes. If that tells you anything about this city, it may be that the quick stimulus of a cup of coffee in familiar surroundings is a good fit with our fast-paced, hard-working lifestyle.

Hongkongers, therefore, would be tempted to drop the first word from another facetious coffee quote: 'Never have black coffee at lunch; it will keep you awake all afternoon.'