Last year, I succumbed for a solid month to the dull diet of Starbucks and the Starbucks-like Pacific Coffee, before one day I looked up at two high-rises in my Yau Ma Tei neighborhood and noticed neon signs for “Café” this and that.
Exploring them one by one, I found them refreshingly unique with their cozy, dimly lit interiors. The cafés drew lots of young locals, of varying degrees of hip-ness. And they always seemed to have friendly staff pleased to host a laptop-toting foreigner.
Tonight, I tried to remember which had no qualm about me plugging into an outlet. These cafés are so tough to spot from street level, some send young staff down to the sidewalk to hand out cards or leaflets, inviting passersby upstairs.
On this occasion, I come across a young guy with earring and black cap, joined by a pretty young companion, handing out cards for the “Bearz Café.” I ask if they have electricity, making that universal thrusting gesture for “plug my cord in.”
Yes indeed, he replies. “And free Wifi,” says his smiling partner. “Eleventh floor.”
Inside, “Bearz” are truly the theme. Not grizzlies mounted on the wall, mind you. Teddy bears. Dozens of them. All sizes, shapes and pigmentation, lining the shelves of a room illuminated by blinking Christmas lights. Some of the bears are in pajamas, some hold hearts, some look like Winnie-the-Pooh knock-offs.
It’s the most infantile décor I’ve ever seen in a “café.”
The female waitress and male barista greet me with big smiles, motioning me to over to one of the five tables in the place. Heck, I’m just here for a Hong Kong experience – and to juice my computer.
Not surprising, the crowd matches the décor. Very straight-laced. At one table, five kids who look like high schoolers play Monopoly and drink sweet tea from glass mugs. The other patrons are quaffing either tea or coffee. One young woman slurps spaghetti out of a faux-lacquer red bowl. No alcohol, though it’s 9:30 on a Friday night. I myself am sipping a sickeningly sweet green-apple tea concoction through a straw.
While the Monopoly-playing kids chat and laugh, the other handful in here are awfully quiet, watching two televisions high up on opposite walls. Two young guys sit side-by-side, watching, mouths agape – which looks, as my mother would say, like they’re “catching flies.”
This is a disturbing habit I’ve noticed in Hong Kong: so many restaurants have a TV on, loud enough for customers to watch while eating. Communal TV-watching. Depending on the place, half the customers converse, while half are glued to the damn tube, watching the news or a soap opera.
It’s not enough that some 40 percent of all subway passengers in Hong Kong spend their commute fiddling with electronic devices – cellphones, video games and MP3s? (Yes, I’ve spent my commute counting: there’s always two or three per every five-seater.) Instead of, say, talking or reading?
The Bearz Café, though, isn’t all that milquetoast. On the TV is a violent criminal drama, with lots of blood spattering. It’s not only in Cantonese, but provided with both Mandarin and English subtitles.
Not to be a killjoy, but this TV thing bums me out. When the barista with funky black frames and spiked hair serves me my tea, I ask, “You don’t have music?” He replies, affably, that when the movie’s over, soon, he’ll put some on. He smiles, like we’re on the same page.
The movie ends; as promised, music starts. Not from a stereo or laptop. Instead, he’s flipped the channel to one with music videos. Better than nothing, I suppose.
But then I see what kind of videos he’s showing. My jaw drops. These aren’t the sort of music videos I flip past at home on cable, with my kids, when we surf between cartoons, extreme sports and Discovery Channel. No, this is softcore porn masquerading as music videos.
I don’t mean to sound like a card-carrying member of the Family Research Council. This TV would be perfectly appropriate if I were in a nightclub. But goodness gracious … the kids are still playing Monopoly! On the TV above them, a black rapper lies on a bed, caressing three gyrating women. They peel off their lingerie, down to nakedness, while also enjoying each other – if you know what I mean.
Is this typical for a Friday night out? Is it a common form of entertainment? Observing these innocent-looking Chinese, I wish I could see their thought bubbles – with subtitles for the Cantonese, of course.