Pete Sweeney (more chengdu)|
In my opinion, and those of others, the cultural divide between the East and West is rarely so clearly illustrated as in the difference between ex-pat coffee houses and Chinese cafés. The prices are similar but the ambiance changes drastically. Where western cafés tend to resemble offices, Chinese cafés are, as a rule, Love Boat all the way (sans Charo).
That said, I’m sick of expat coffee bars. Not because they do anything wrong but because I get nothing done while I’m there and yet I don’t want to go out for coffee and end up proposing marriage by accident. So I was glad to discover, entirely by accident, that the Zhi Ai Bookstore has a nice little café upstairs which combines the best of both worlds. Good coffee, relaxing ambiance, cool pop art, and almost nobody gabbling at me in English, or in any other language. Zhi Ai is blessedly quiet.
The place is a dim loft, but during the day there’s enough light coming through the main window that you can read. When there’s not, each table features a touch-sensitive lamp that does the trick. Unfortunately, there’s no English reading material for now (which is odd, considering there’s English quotations printed all over the place), so you have to bring your own, but you can surf wirelessly and spread out your paperwork and get things done. The menu has only coffee, teas, and smoothies. Each type is graphically associated, for some reason, with illustrations of famous old white guys. Expresso is 22 kuai and it goes up from there to 80 RMB for a cup of Blue Mountain. Each table also features a couple of notebooks for doodling or writing random notes for the next (bored) occupant.
Zhi Ai is also a good bookstore in its own right. It’s got plenty of Chinese material, magazines, and box sets of sundry Classics. It’s also a great place to buy gifts like notebooks, drawing pads, picture frames, and, for some reason, a few retro suitcases.