by Bonnie Morris
A tour leader unlocks the coffee bonanza of East Asia.
Western visitors to Hong Kong, Korea and Japan expect to find teahouses, tea ceremonies, rituals steeped in steeping leaves of tea. But coffee is now a staple of East Asia; in fact, as described in Taylor Clark’s book Starbucked, the world’s largest Starbucks coffeehouse is located in South Korea. And a controversial Starbucks restaurant even beckons the tourist just within the walls of China’s Forbidden City. If I felt horror at seeing this American logo corrupting timeless landscapes, I was nonetheless grateful for the convenience of regional vended coffees when I toured East Asia with the Semester at Sea program a few years ago.
The restorative power of a quick-dispensed coffee jolt has to be understood, here, in the context of my role as Trip Leader and Chaperone. I was not an individual but an Escort. Faculty arriving on the Semester at Sea ship in Kowloon had exactly one day in Hong Kong to prepare for the most stressful journey of our lives, escorting hundreds of American students into Beijing for tightly controlled visits as “guests” of Beijing University. No fewer than five mandatory meetings were called on the ship for the select professors and staff heading into mainland China—and despite strict orders to pack one bag only, one bag of specifically wee dimensions, I was responsible for host gifts, medical kit, travel vouchers, identification badges, passports, health and visa forms, flight itineraries, evaluations, and over $900 in cash to assure our safe exit out of the Peoples’ Republic. I was terrified, and I needed coffee.
Released from the final diplomatic prep session and allowed one free afternoon in Hong Kong, I stood just outside the port area aghast with joy at the vision of hundreds of vending machines selling dozens of varieties of canned iced coffees. Their cost, in spring 2004, was just $HK5, about seventy cents. I quickly loaded my pockets and backpack with these mighty mouthfuls; mere blocks later, I even found Coffeemate in a sleek supermarket. Communism had certainly gone soft—or was it Hong Kong’s distinctive business-magnate character that allowed for chic caffeination? After visiting the giant Buddha on Lantau Island, I downed a few more $HK5 Nescafe Mocha Hazelnut and, emboldened by my vended buzz, headed to the famous Temple Street night market shopping district and its silk shirts, fountain pens, tasty dishes of “hot fried muscle” and dangling fowl. There I buried my face in a bowl of noodles while writing in my journal at breakneck speed: I just walked past the Tung Fuk factory and now feel strangely aroused.
I actually found canned coffee in Beijing, too, at the guesthouse where we enjoyed Beijing University’s hospitality, and a daily treat of transportable bliss soothed me through at least a dozen “emergencies”—injured students, lost passports, assaults by vendors, missing persons, and, for me, menstrual cramps throughout the entire hike up and down the Great Wall.
The canned coffee bonanza continued as we left Hong Kong for Busan, South Korea. On a day tour through the Korean countryside, my students and I enjoyed a rest stop where the shiny coffee vending machine had broken down internally: it was not necessary to insert coins to dispense instant shots of something called “Let’s Be Mild.” Guiltily, we pushed the button over and over, relishing delicious specimen-sized cups of free hot and cold cappuccino. Later, I accompanied a Korean friend to the famous Jalagachi Fish Market—the largest in Asia. Endless stalls of squid, octopus, conch, cuttlefish, anchovies, all overseen by ruddy-faced peasant women in padded jackets and colorful headwraps, their clean and sparkling fish displays literally cheek-by-jowl to intriguing piles of pigs’ heads, ginseng candy, dried pumpkin—and U.S. Army surplus gas masks. “I think I need one of those gas masks,” gulped a student overwhelmed by the competing fishscents, but “Here: suck this down,” I advised, handing her a can of Korean Café Caramella. Restored by the demon bean, she joined us for a traditional restaurant lunch of bibimbap, kimchee, dried fish, hot sauce, barley tea and something called “overcooked rice candy.” Seated on floor pads, shoes off, with the eating table and floorboards warmed by discreetly recessed heaters, exploring all-new tastes was no problem—especially when capped with a bottle of Soju, Korean sweet potato vodka. (But bear in mind proper drinking etiquette: pour for one’s elders/superiors first, showing respect by using two hands.)
My final purchases before we left Korea included beanpaste-filled hot buns, sweet green bean sticks, walnut-paste doughnuts, peanut chips and several cans of “I’m Cappuccino!” at a roadside rest stop. But I left that stall with many unanswered questions. What was the “ETIQUETTE BELL” for in the ladies’ restroom? And the purpose of the mirror in the squat toilet? Instead of mini-Maxwell House, should I have sampled the attractive can of “Human Water” in the vending machine? Or the mysteriously named “Nostalgia Beverage?”
In Japan, not one hundred yards beyond the port gate of Osaka, the legendary vending machines began. My students tumbled into town to see the truth of beer vended legally just outside one’s door. I stopped with interest to memorize which machines only sold coffee, hot and cold, in as many varieties as I might wish, and I bought three to start: one for now, one to bring back aboard, one to savor later in America. But then I saw that the next vending machine, too, sold only coffees, all new models, brightly tinned and beckoning, and very different from what had been available in Hong Kong and South Korea. And then another machine loomed. Reality dawned: the streets were lined solidly with coffee vending stations, all different, all vying for the yen of the rushing salaryman or schoolboy en route to juku cram school.
I took out my sketchpad and began to write down the names of each differing brand. It seemed impossible to have so many choices, so much pleasure available at the touch of a button. Automated drip-dispensed joy. I wanted all of them: one after another. How did I love them? Let me count their names.
Asahi Madrid Morning. Blendy Au Lait. Blendy Café La Mode Hand Pick. Boss Bitter. Boss Café Au Lait. Boss Caffe Latte. Boss Calorie Off. Boss Dark Black. Boss Demitasse. Boss Fine Roast “Super.” Boss Intermission. Boss Latte Milk Coffee. Boss Neo Seven. Boss On Business. Boss Refreshment. Boss Relaxation. Café Latte Georgia. Café Leche Quality Taste. Café Recio. Dydo American Coffee. Dydo Black Bottle Old Beans Blend. Dydo Black Coffee. Dydo Blend Coffee. Dydo Caffee Latte Espresso. Dydo Dark Roast. Dydo Demitasse. Dydo Kilimanjaro 100%. Dydo “M” Mild Milk Coffee. Dydo Seattle Style.
Georgia Café Au Lait. Georgia Demitasse Rich. Georgia Emblem Black. Georgia Emerald Mountain. Georgia European Blend. Georgia Guarana Black. Georgia Platinum Blend. Georgia Royal Blend. Ghana Original Mild Milk Cocoa. God Blue Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro. God Super Quality. Itoen Drip Coffee. Itoen Milk Coffee. Kafe O Café Au Lait Non Sugar Espresso. Kirin Fire Cream 22%. Kirin Fire Gold Rush. Kirin Fire Ice Coffee. Kirin Koiwai Milk & Coffee. Latte Latte Milk Coffee. Mocha Blend Coffee Heaven.
Nescafe Cappuccino Taste. Nescafe Clear Taste. Nescafe R & B Full City Roast. Nescafe Santa Marta Au Lait. Nescafe Santa Marta X. Nescafe Single Bean. Pokka Coffee Original. Pokka Driver. Pokka Driver Black. Pokka First Drip City Blend. Roots Aroma Black HTST Process. Roots Creamy Café. Roots Fine Edge. Roots Live Bodied Café Au Lait. Roots Real Blend.
Sangaria 100 Yen. Sangaria Mild Café Latte. Sapporo Jack Black Mocha Blend. Sapporo Jack Blend. Sapporo Jack Blue Mountain Blend. Sapporo Jack Caffe Latte. Sapporo Jack Excellent Blend X. Sapporo Jack Kilimanjaro Coffee. Sapporo Milk Coffee. SDC French Roast Blend.
UCC Blue Mountain. UCC Drink It Black. UCC Milk + Coffee. Wonda Morning Black. Wonda Morning Shot. Wonda Smooth Taste. Wonda Wonderful Blend.
For sheer conversational power, nothing compared with Japan’s “God” brand coffee, because, as I burbled enthusiastically in e-mails home to my American friends, one could push a button and have some God. Hot God, cold God, lite God with milk. One could specifically ask for God black and strong, and it would be black and strong every time. The desperate pilgrim in need of special assistance from above approached the machine in supplication, choosing God Super Quality, and down it fell into his outstretched palm. And sometimes there might be a terrifying absence, a spiritual lacuna, if the reliable corner dispensary machine was temporarily out of God.
One morning I stood in vain by the machine for an hour, hoping that the evangelical Christian student I’d befriended would happen by, just so I could pull out the appropriate Japanese coins and say “Look! Today I truly had a yen for God.” And what about the return home? Our voyage was nearly over—just the Pacific crossing left, Osaka to Seattle; all around the port area, in the cheap convenience shops, our American students from the ship could be seen loading up on snack foods to sustain them during final exams on the high seas. I, of course, indulged my “yen” and stuffed my own backpack with God. I brought God back aboard ship and into my cabin, and kept my God on ice for the faculty party, at which other colleagues remarked: “Are you going to try bringing God into America? Do you think there will be trouble about that at Customs?” The humor potential was so rich, incredulous, ludicrous—all from a wee tin can! Who needed sake? Not me—I’d found God.
It was easy to make fun, to revel in the silly childish pleasure of having affordable treats in an otherwise expensive country—until we toured Hiroshima.
It stopped being funny when I saw that the hot can of coffee, vended at the Peace Memorial, was a brand called Morning Shot. It was my own country that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. I couldn’t drink a Morning Shot and not choke on the irony. There was no God dispensed at Hiroshima.
Bonnie Morris is a women’s studies professor at George Washington University and the author of eight books, including three Lambda Literary Award Finalists (Eden Built By Eves, Girl Reel, Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor). She has twice served as visiting faculty aboard Semester at Sea, as well as working on two Olivia Cruises as a guest lecturer. Morris won the Funny Travel Bronze for “Hot and Cold Cans of God” in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.
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