Sometimes in this diary I like to get out and about beyond China. Recently I spent some time down under in Australia but as the Godfather used to say, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.”
Melbourne is most definitely a coffee town. Long Blacks, Short Whites – they take their coffee very seriously in this burg, and there’s nary a Starbucks or Costa in sight. The vast majority of stores are lovely little independents where they take the coffee more seriously than the corporate profit margins.
This converted even a confirmed drinker of “English Breakfast Tea” like myself a bit of a coffee aficionado. But wherever there are dominant trends so too there must be a backlash and an alternative. And in Melbourne the good fight for tea drinking is being led by none other than Ten Ren’s Tea, a well-known Chinese chain. These guys are ladling out the green, jasmine, Oolong, ginseng and pu’er to Chinese Melburnians and any other Aussies looking to get the coffee-addiction monkey off their back! And it seems they are doing pretty well at it.
As are another chain called Oriental Tea House, who have decided to sex-up the whole tea and yum cha concept with some really neat stores, great decor and advertising harking back to pre-1949 graphic design. Indeed, a bit of the old chinoiserie is “in” in Melbourne at the moment, it seems. Coffee and sandwiches cafe chain Villa & Hut Kafe has not only launched the “Shanghai Chai” in Australia but has opened their first overseas branch in Pudong (though in the decidedly un-chinois China Merchants Tower!) bringing Shanghai Chai from South Yarra to, errr, Shanghai.
The top end of Melbourne’s Collins Street is rather ritzy with some nice European-style architecture, known as “Little Paris” to some. No surprise then that this is home to those ubiquitous brands almost as prevalent in China as Ten Ren’s Tea! I refer of course to Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, and Bally. These stores are all packed with Chinese shoppers. I have yet to see a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aussie surfer-type emerge from one of these shops – it’s all Asian, all the time – more “nihao” than “g’day.” And that increasingly applies to the employees. No luxury shop on Collins is complete without a Mandarin-speaking staff member. And even the incredibly strong Aussie dollar doesn’t deter those looking to arbitrage their sale and avoid those pernicious mainland taxes.
My sense is that there’s about to be a rumble in the outback over the mining industry’s total domination of the whole China debate in Australia. Most people I talked to who have an interest in China were pretty angry that Australia’s entire China strategy seems to be run by the two giant mining companies down under. When it comes to prices and terms, Beijing talks to them, not Canberra, as if they were independent nation states. The mining companies’ representatives in China appear to be more important and influential than Australia’s official diplomats. Back in Oz there are a number of parasitical types – the lawyers, consultants and “advisers” – who hang on to the coattails of the miners and relentlessly push the argument that anyone criticizing China is threatening Australian people’s incomes. This is a bad state of affairs for a democracy and my feeling is that tempers are reaching a boiling point among many who want the elected government to take back control.
Paul French is chief China representative of Access Asia