By Emily Feng
New York Times
High above Beijing’s financial district, on the sixth floor of a futuristic commercial complex, is a little slice of New York City.
Playing off a Chinese obsession with the sitcom “Friends,” it is a cafe called Central Perk, just like the fictitious place where Chandler, Joey, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe hung out.
The Beijing version is constructed much like a set, with low brick-patterned walls erected over smooth concrete. Glass cases display obscure references to specific episodes: a Lionel Richie record (“The One With the Giant Poking Device”), a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (“The One With the Rumor”), a replica of the mirror from Monica’s apartment.
It’s run by Du Xin, a Beijing native who opened the place in 2010 hoping to recreate the show’s ethos of camaraderie. With his shaved head and light complexion, Du Xin shares a passing resemblance to Gunther, the hapless deadpan waiter. Oh, and the cafe’s Wi-Fi password? iloverachel.
There’s a vague sense of role-playing; customers order desserts named after the characters who ordered them on the show, sit at tables named after each character and fend off Smelly Cat, the cafe pet. The next room is done up like Joey and Chandler’s place, complete with darts and foosball.
People lounge on the giant orange couch for hours watching reruns of the show, which are always playing. A thick silence, punctuated only by the raucous laugh track, permeates the cafe; everyone is glued to the television screen.
“‘Friends’ is a fantasy,” said Yang Gao, an assistant professor of sociology at Singapore Management University who has studied the show’s significance among Chinese millennials. “The show provides a window into a set of lives that appear less controlled, less structured and burdened by test-taking, rankings, family commitments and government oversight.”
At Central Perk, for the price of a cup of coffee, one can escape, if only for a few episodes.