Tag Archives: Wudaokou

Flat White Cafe and the Rickshaw Roasters: a Wellington-Beijing Coffee Crew

To live in Beijing is to give oneself to the incredible push and pull of constant human traffic. For a Wellingtonian, sometimes you just need a form of escapism from the urban madness of a city home to 20 million people… and the Flat White Cafes and Rickshaw Roasters coffee havens provide just that.

I visited the Flat White Cafés in Beijing’s 798 Art District [七九八qī jǐu bā, pron. ‘chee jyuw bar’], an area characterised by a short-lived but legendary period of local artists, who squatted and exhibited in the abandoned grid of industrial factories in the late 1990s, laying the grungy foundations for the current underground art scene in China. Nowadays, the area has been vastly commercialised by tourism and private galleries, with the original artists migrating east to Songzhuang in Tongzhou, a district now known in some circles for art, baijiu and punk rock. They are in the 798 though, Line 10 down to Sanyuanqiao then the bus to Dashanzi Qiao, lets be honest, for those who live in Wudaokou, ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!

798 consumers are thirsty for coffee
798 consumers are thirsty for coffee

But what a glorious thing it is to walk into the Flat White and have one’s senses overwhelmed by familiarities – a cabbage tree, the hum of the coffee grinder, colour prints of Whangamata beaches, pohutakawa trees and white sands, Moog keys, brass and Joe Dukie vocals, Havana, Supreme and Fidel’s posters hung proudly on the walls. The cafés feel cozy and warm – though tapered to a slightly more cashed up type of consumer, it lacks the rugged appeal of Fidel’s. The coffee however, is out of this world.

Michael Hongfu 洪夫

Founder/Boss, Flat White, Rickshaw Roasters

Last month I caught up with original Beijing rén [北京人, Beijinger], Flat White founder and lǎobǎn [老板, boss] and coffee addict Michael Hongfu 洪夫 over a flat white on Cuba Street, during one of his annual trips to New Zealand.

Michael on the buzz
Michael on the coffee buzz. Photo courtesy of Michael.

Ni Hao Michael! So when did you first come to New Zealand?

I first came to New Zealand in December, 1989, to study English. At the time, getting a student visa was the only way we could leave China, and they were limited in number too. In fact, I originally studied to become a fencing instructor at Beijing Physical Education University [北京体育大学, Běijīng Tǐyù Dàxué]. I studied at the Capital Language School on the corner of Taranaki Street and Courtenay Place, lived in Wellington for 12 years, then moved to Auckland in 2002. Wellington is so windy!

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The Flat White 798 Art District Store. Killer Eggs Benedict, though it ain't cheap.
The Flat White 798 Art District Store. Killer Eggs Benedict, though it ain’t cheap.

Where did the idea come from to start a kiwi-style cafe in Beijing?

The reason I started the Flat White was so my friends and I could have good coffee in Beijing [laughs], so we opened the café on Silk Road in 2006. Roger Young from Fidel’s and Geoff Marsland from Havana Coffee have given us really strong support from the very beginning. At the time, we would use Havana beans from Wellington and it had to be sent to China every week. We did it that way for three years. Then we started Rickshaw Roasters in 2009. We have two or three people from Fidel’s come to Beijing each year to help us with technical support. Every time the staff come they really enjoy it, Beijing has a totally different lifestyle to Wellington.

I went into an indescribable nostalgia overload upon seeing this hanging in the cafe
I went into an indescribable nostalgia overload upon seeing this hanging in the cafe

How’s business in Beijing? Are more local people becoming accustomed to drinking coffee?

Some other cafes have started making flat whites, but we are the pioneers of this New Zealand / Australia coffee style in Beijing. All our cafes have WiFi, its important to customers here. The coffee business in Beijing started 20 years ago with the arrival of Starbucks [星巴克, xīng bā kè]. Over the years people’s standards of coffee has been changing, maybe to the point where they never want to drink Starbucks again…

Happy customers in the 798
One happy  customer in the 798! Photo courtesy of Michael.

Are there any further plans to expand the Flat White chain? Students in Wudaokou would lap it up.

We have plans to expand to Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as other parts of Beijing like Wudaokou. Around five years ago we tried to start one at Beijing Language and Culture University [北京语言大学, Běijīng Yǔyán Dàxué], but it didn’t work out. We actually have a small café at Beijing Foreign Studies University [北京外国语大学, Běijīng Wàiguóyǔ Dàxué], in addition to the one’s in Sanlitun, the Diplomatic Compound, 798 and Chaoyang.

Where do you like to go for coffee in Beijing, apart from the Rickshaw Roasters cafes!

That cafe in Wudaokou, Sculpting in Time 雕刻时光 was really good when it first opened, I would drive there from Chaoyang.

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A divine Flat White. 'Super' beans from Rickshaw Roasters and fresh Wondermilk.
A divine flat white. ‘Super’ beans from Rickshaw Roasters and fresh Wondermilk.

Leo Cush

Espresso Technician, General Manager, Flat White

Back before chūnjié [Chinese New Year] in January, I met Leo at the 751 branch, past the old railroad tracks near the end of D-Park in the 798. The short black he poured me had more kick to it that the past eleven months of ‘měishì kāfēi’ [美式咖啡, American style coffees] at Bridge combined.

Mr Leo Cush
Introducing Mr Leo Cush – traded the Wellington coffee scene for the challenges of Beijing business

Kia Ora Leo! What originally brought you to Beijing?

Travel and coffee brings me here – I was keen to go somewhere a little different and see more of the world. I never intended to come to Beijing, but I heard through the grapevine that Roger was involved with setting up a roastery. I knocked on his door and said “I’m your guy.” So a couple of meetings with Roger and a Skype with Michael on the Chinese side, here we are.

Can you speak any Mandarin?

“我会说一点点!” [wǒ huì shuō yi diǎndiǎn, “I can speak a little bit!”]

Mural in the 798. The buildings were built by the Germans in the 1950s.
Mural in the 798. The buildings were built by the Germans in the 1950s.

What kind of involvement did you have with the coffee scene back in Wellington?

I worked for Coffee Supreme for eight years. So I knew a lot of people, heard about it and had the skill set to do a bit of everything. Matt Trow from Havana Coffee came over and was in charge of roasting, then I was in charge of everything else. I gave Matt Lamason from People’s Coffee his Coffee Supreme certification test years ago, back when he used to work at the Chocolate Fish. He’s done really well – gone pure organic coffee, I don’t know if there’s anyone else doing that today. I gave Nick Clark from Memphis Bell and Flight some training too – I think that was back in Palmerston North!

I thought the coffee labels were quite competitive?

It’s healthy competition. One time a few years back with L’afarre, Havana and Supreme, we went out and had a bowling competition –which Havana won. The next day there was an ad in the paper saying, “Havana is the winning coffee company!” with no mention of bowling [laughs]. Everyone there is really good and talks to each other, help each other out, it’s a really good culture.

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Cuba Street - the coffee and cafe hub of Wellington
Cuba Street – the coffee and cafe hub of Wellington

What ‘s it like over here?

Over at our roastery you can see the coffee and roasting process, it is quite an open door policy, which is both good and bad. One day the President of the China Coffee Association bought some guys from out of town around, he is a really good friend and helps us out a lot  –but these guys had a lot of money, were photographing everything and writing it all down, clearly to go and open a roastery back home. In China people will build an exact copy. In New Zealand we are from a culture where you might take a bit here and there and build your own thing, out of pride.

The Rickshaw Roasters Hall of Fame
The Rickshaw Roasters Hall of Fame

What makes Rickshaw Roasters so special?

It’s basically a slice of home. It’s a New Zealand style roastery dumped in the middle of Beijing. So the coffee is delivered fresh each week, you can get coffee training with us and the coffee is really good. It’s trustworthy  – an honest brand. People that understand that we are serious about the product, we are not filling the coffee out with cheap beans. We have a different ethos compared to other companies here. We’re small – we’re hands on.  Matt left to set up his own café in Qingdao. Beijing is a crazy place to live so he’s gone for the beach, any New Zealander can understand that!

Freshly roasted beans getting a cool off at the roastery
Freshly roasted beans getting a cool down at the Rickshaw Roastery

How has Rickshaw Roasters managed to spread to other cafes over in Gulou and Yonghegong?

Once we really started going a lot of people were giving us good support, like Jade Gray from Gung Ho, who put us in touch with Will from Vineyard Café. There’s no Yellow Pages, you rely on your friends to tell you whose found the good stuff. There are a lot of cheap coffees, and if you’re not passionate about coffee then the whole package falls down. If you spend a bit more, people will buy that second cup and make sure they go to that café for their coffee in future – but that mentality is not so common with a Chinese café owners, more with the foreigners and people who have come home after being overseas for a few years.

The famously fattening full English Breakfast at Vineyard Cafe, with a Rickshaw Roasters flat white
The famously fattening full English Breakfast at Vineyard Cafe, with a Rickshaw Roasters flat white

For the coffee nerds, what kind of gear do Flat White and Rickshaw Roasters use?

WEGA and La Marzocco machines with Mazzer grinders. And for the roaster, Probat have an office here in Shanghai so you have to buy locally through them.

Nice pour
Coffee U Feel: pouring shots at the 751 branch

Flat White Cafe 在那儿?? Many branches all round Beijing, with more to come this year!

See where you can get your fix of Rickshaw Roasters in Beijing. Beiluo Bread Bar is my fave.

NB : The Beijing cafes are not associated with the ‘Famous in New Zealand’ Flat White cafes in London.

NZ-China crema. Image from Rickshaw Roasters.
NZ-China crema. Image from Rickshaw Roasters.

xx Peace and caffeine.

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Jade Gray: the King of Wudaokou

Kiwese caught up with Twizel-born entrepreneur Jade Gray in a particularly self-reflective and transitional period in his life (or day) and spoke about the trials and tribulations of the past fifteen years living China and those wild nights that began the infamous party hard culture at Wudaokou’s most well-know establishments.

The line “I went out in Wudaokou last night” is one that carries a stigma, a weight, a heavy hangover.  Wudaokou is Beijing’s notorious hub of student intoxication – the party zone for an international mix of laowai who have scored a ticket to Beijing on Government scholarships. While many will opt to party in the indie-fied hutongs of Gulou or the more upmarket designer bars of Sanlitun, a grimy night out in Wudaokou will always have a place in our hearts… somewhere.

The drinks menu at Wu Club, one of the grimiest bars in town. Cheap, fake alcohol.
The drinks menu at Wu Club, one of the grimiest bars in town. Cheap, fake alcohol.

The infamous Latin parties at the Pyro Pizza, which are dripping with enough sweat, tequila and Gasolina to have you making out with a random Mexican man on the dance floor. Sunday night Open Mic Night at Lush has been running for the best part of a decade. YEN throwing their wild parties and fetish raves out in the 798 [七九八, Qī Jǐu Bā] Art District, the formerly abandoned factory squats of Beijing’s contemporary art community. Fusion Fitness at Beijing Language and Culture University [BLCU] where we try to work off all those pitchers of beer. For a 20-something living in Wudaokou, the university student district of Beijing, it is difficult to avoid the influence of Jade Gray’s mini empire of enterprises.

Image from The Beijinger article on Jade being one of Beijing's 20 Most Interesting People. How do you rank someone on their interestingness?
Image from The Beijinger article on Jade being one of Beijing’s 20 Most Interesting People. How do you rank someone on their interestingness? Gutted to be the 21st most interesting.

Jade Gray’s success story reads like the dream of every entrepreneur coming to China – starting from ski instructing in Heilongjiang to founding several award-winning businesses. “Opportunity brought me here, like all of us I think,” he says, after pondering the question for a moment, “for me, opportunity originally meant business, that’s what got me into doing marketing in Chinese. Then when I got here I found a strong love with the culture and the history – so more and more I found myself staying here not because of the opportunity, but because of an understanding of how the East looks at things.”

Jade could be considered one of the earlier foreign arrivals to the Beijing scene, trading the rolling hills of South Canterbury for the growing urban sprawl of China in 1996.  “I’ve got friends who came in ’82, so it’s all kind of relative to define what ‘early’ is,” he says, “Back then w­e were always treated very hands off as foreigners. You could pretty much do what you wanted – there was one law for foreigners, one law for diplomats and one law for Chinese. That was kind of how it rolled – but now those gaps are being reduced and rightfully so. Back then, I did stuff I could never do now. We got away with a lot.”

Image from Gung Ho! Ventures
Image from Gung Ho! Ventures

Having only lived in Beijing for a year, it was pretty insightful to speak with someone who has been amidst the massive changes that took place over the past few decades. “Alan Young, who just retired as NZ Trade Commissioner was in the second group of foreigners to go to BLCU in 1976,” says Jade, “he was showing me pictures of Wudaokou at the time where it was just a straight up cabbage patch.”

Modern Wudaokou is now home to malls, Starbucks, food courts and apartment buildings, but it hasn’t been like that for long. “I remember when Hua Qing Jia Yuan sprung up, it was the first high rise in the area. It was surrounded by hutongs, dive bars, ciggie shops and chuanr [串, street BBQ on kebab sticks]. Kind of Gotham city style – just smack-bang in the middle of it and so out of place.”

Hua Qing Jia Yuan today. Lush is the blue sign near the bottom right.
Hua Qing Jia Yuan in Wudaokou today. Lush is the blue sign near the bottom left.

The first of Jade’s Beijing endeavors was Fusion Fitness, which was set up back in 1999. But in the true entrepreneurial spirit – it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Originally we set up near Xijiao Hotel, then we moved it across to BLCU in 2002,” he says “then SARS came along and kicked us in the guts! So we closed down for a few months, as with every communal gathering space.  We had just invested all this money in a new gym and all the students left overnight, about 95% of my clientele.”

"It was pretty intense." Image from The Guardian.
“It was pretty intense.” Image from The Guardian

The SARS virus and subsequent scare that erupted in June 2003 saw a lot of people forced home, but Jade stayed on with a crew that would party on through the quarantines and characterize the vibe that Lush still retains today.  “Nobody knew what it was, was it gonna be just a bad flu or Ebola? There was a big unknown, and the way the Government went from denial to freak out just caused even more stir. My parents wanted me to come home, which is understandable as the news they were getting was pretty biased and sensationalistic. We realized that after about a month it wasn’t gonna be this ‘end of the world’ shit and it became a bit of a cat and mouse game, with people finding tunnels out and ways through the fence to escape quarantine. It was pretty intense at the start, if people saw you coughing they could dob you in and call and guys in white bio suits pick you up in class or at work to take you away. It was the classic heavy-handed Chinese approach. Not a good time to have a smoker’s cough,” he laughs. “Though upside of it was that Wudaokou cleared out and I managed to get the space at Lush, so there’s always a silver lining!

Upstairs on the corner of Chengfu Lu 城府路, Lush sits snugly above the organized chaos of bikes, green and yellow taxis and street food vendors below. “Hope Lush hasn’t thrown you off your studies too much,” laughs Jade, who co-founded the bar in 2003 and relocated his flat to the floor below to keep it pumping from morning till night. Lush is now a popular, student staple with a wide range of patrons, yet it is the essence of the early 2000s parties that still characterizes the name. “It was heady days,” recalls Jade, “it gave people a sense of security, a creative space. People could really find who they were at that time of their mid-twenties, a time where you’re in China and out in the big world but you still don’t really know where you’re at.”

The Lush Hall of Fame
The Lush Hall of Fame

The walls are adorned with polaroids and posters – the evidence of gatherings been and gone that continue to bring the misplaced and displaced student community together. “You got exposed to different scenes, those who were into hip hop and those who were into electronic were throwing the parties, hiring the clubs, being the DJs, trying to get onto the Great Wall, all coming together to make it happen. In a week I could easily go to a Latin Party, a hip hop throw-down and a rave and see all the same people. It was a really fun time because there was no attitude, we all just wanted to get amongst it and try it all.”

Rocking the Lush Open Mic Night with Daniel back in July
Rocking the Lush Open Mic Night with Daniel back in July

Those loose late nights and never ending parties of the early years are now nostalgic tales. “It is probably not as unique as it was back then, there are now more people around and more established scenes,” Jade reflects, “but I think those old vibes would be in places like Dalian and Kunming, places off the beaten track. I once read something by Chris Knox, one of my favourite musicians, that basically said anything great and epic doesn’t usually get past the first two years – movements have two-year life spans of when they are really at their peak.”

Last year, Lush won Best Student Hangout for the eighth year running at The Beijinger awards, the staple magazine of the ex-pat community. “I had the 10 Year Anniversary last month and I put out a guestbook where people wrote some really touching stuff. The biggest message that came through was that this place changed the course of their lives. Some people met their spouses there.”

Boys will be boys. Image from gunghoventures.com
Boys will be boys. Image from Gung Ho Ventures

Unlike those foreign Australian establishments that tend to shove their nationalism down your throat like Groundhog Straya Day, Lush and Pyro are notably neutral in their aesthetic and branding. Though along with fellow Kiwi bro John O’Loghlen, Gung Ho! Pizza was born in 2010, giving a nod to Cantabrian Communist and social reformer Rewi Alley. “We wanted a name which had a bit of attitude, you don’t wanna name your company after a product, you wanna name it after the attitude of the people behind the product,” says Jade, sharing in on some of that guerrilla marketing skill. Gung Ho! Pizza is mouth-wateringly delicious, the staff are passionate and fun and the company supports local artists, charities and hungover people. “I guess I had a reputation for being pretty Gung Ho,” continues Jade, “I kinda had a laugh at that because fuck – if you’re not Gung Ho you shouldn’t be here!” he laughs. “If you are looking for security and guaranteed short play then you’re in the wrong place. A big part of what we do is looking after people and that’s what Rewi Alley was all about, so the connections really evolved as we got more into the environment and CSR [corporate social responsibility].”

"If you're not Gung Ho, you shouldn't be here" Image from Gung Ho! Pizza
“If you’re not Gung Ho, you shouldn’t be here.” Image from Gung Ho! Pizza

Over the years, Jade has seen attitudes in China change and evolve, especially those towards foreigners and foreign business people. “The Olympics played a big part in that, China became part of the world and was on the world stage, it became a lot more accustomed to foreigners and also started to see the negative side of foreigners, which is a good thing,” he says “whereas before I think the  lǎo bǎixìng [老百姓, common people – lit. old hundred surnames] put foreigners in a bit of a bubble – now that bubble has been popped. Whether it was the GFC or issues of American democracy, you name it – things have made Chinese people a lot more realistic about how they see foreigners and how they see themselves.”

Commenting on the development of the country, Jade says, “China have developed a ‘self-respect,’ or ‘pride’ or ‘nationalism,’ all these kind of words have positive and negative connotations. I think China’s challenge now is how they become balanced in their new power and their new place in the world with a unilateral approach to the way they see things. There’s that kind of maturity that comes with their newfound status.”

In addition to his role as the King of Wudaokou, Jade has done taken some pretty intrepid motorcycle journeys through the backwaters of China. “I did a great trip in 2006 where we drove for three-months through Sichuan, Tibet, Xinjiang, back through Gansu and Inner Mongolia. There’s still a lot more places to go, it’s a big country, but I think by my 80th birthday I will have covered it all,” he quips. “You could say “work hard, play hard,” has been my motto to date,” considers Jade, “though now I’m starting to keep it more ‘zen’ and enjoy the moment a bit more – it’s a growth in life instead of trying to “burn the candle at both ends,” as my mother would fondly tell me when she was pissed off,” he laughs.

Tagong, where Jade was once holed up for three days with altitude sickness
Tagong, where Jade was once holed up for three days with altitude sickness

While Jade has ideas about how China is moving into the future, he is starting to see his own home base shift Down Under. “I’m looking to gradually return and I’m getting a place down in Sydney now,” he says, “China is always gonna be a part of my life, I will always be back in Beijing to keep things chugging along, but I feel like I’m ready for a new.”

Lush has one of the most eclectic playlists I’ve ever heard, moving between J-Lo, Aqua and Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, but what are Jade’s favourite New Zealand acts? “Old-school would be Salmonella Dub, my faves from back in the day. With the new scene I’m not fully in the loop, but as cheesy as it sounds I love what Lorde is doing. Turning the whole music world on its arse!”

Faceless Lorde. Image from katherineisawesome.com
Faceless Lorde. Image from katherineisawesome.com

Jade suddenly cracks up laughing down the phone and describes the faux-deer velvet covered Land Rover that just drove past him “The thing about China is that it surprises you everyday. I’ve been here for 15 years and still feel that. That’s why I’m still here, this place just continues to blow your mind.” ♦