For the millions of fans of American sitcom Friends and lovers of coffee culture, the Central Perk café in downtown Beijing, the first replica of the famous coffee house in the hit American show in China, if not in the world, is no doubt a dream hangout. And the person who gave shape to this dream idea, a Chinese man who is referred to by everybody as Chinese Gunther, is nothing if not a dreamer. But he gives the word a whole new definition.
Meet Chinese Gunther
Chinese Gunther, or Du Xin (杜鑫), his real name, looks nothing like his silver-haired, forever shirt-and-tie-wearing namesake in Friends. He shaves his head bald, and dresses casually, either in T-shirts or in plaid shirts, as can be seen in the pictures on his popular Weibo account @Central_Perk. Unlike Gunther, who is just a manager of the coffee house in the TV show, Chinese Gunther is the proud owner of Central Perk in Beijing and Shanghai, which he calls his “babies”.
Gunther (Du Xin) in front of his Central Perk in downtown Beijing. Photo: Ding Yi/ sino-us.com
But there is one marked resemblance between Chinese Gunther and his TV counterpart: the unrelenting obsession with Rachel. All the waitresses at Central Perk are called Rachel. Gunther’s wife, who used to be one of the Rachels, gave birth to a boy who is named Joey, same as the waiters at Central Perk. The reason for the name choice, as all the Friends fans must have gathered by now, is because among the six friends in the sitcom, Rachel and Joey both have worked at the coffee house. It only goes to show the depth of love Gunther has for the show that eventually defined him.
Dreaming of a coffee house
“I am a person who lives in my dreams and my coffee houses are my dream world,” Gunther said. His love for coffee house comes from four years of living in the Netherlands where he got his MBA at the Amsterdam School of Business.
“The cafés in the Netherlands are all streetside shops, haunts of the neighborhood,” Gunther recalled, “Shortly after I arrived in Amsterdam, I went to one of the little coffee houses with a friend. Suddenly the music came up, and I watched as everybody joined in the singing of that old song. It was such a touching scene.” This scene struck a chord in Gunther's heart. “I learned that this is what coffee houses should be like.”
"Coffee house culture is new to the Chinese. What I hate to see is the big chains rushing in and taking over," Gunther lamented, "I'd love to see more small, streetside coffee houses in the neighborhoods. They should serve as a place for people to hang out and socialize, just as the tea houses in the past."
Friends watching reruns of Friends on the big orange sofa at Beijing's Central Perk. Photo: Ding Yi/ sino-us.com
"A coffee house that could live in people's hearts should offer unique memories to its customers. In Holland, coffee houses are many people's 'third habitat' other than their home and work place. I hope my coffee house is such a place for my guests, or at least for the fans of Friends. I hope it is like another home to people who come here, a place where we can have a good laugh and sing a song together."
With the big brands like Starbucks and Costa grabbing much of the market share, Gunther admitted that he faces tough competition. But he reckoned that everybody has a favorite coffee house in their hearts. "And that will not be Starbucks. Like in Europe, the real coffee house goers do not go to Starbucks," he said confidently. "I hope I could make it known to more people what a true coffee house is like."