Beijing. Starbucks, a symbol of Western culture, has stirred up controversy once more even as it tries to blend in and adapt to Chinese ways.
A descendant of Justice Bao, the Song Dynasty judge revered for his impartiality, saw red last week over the American coffee giant's use of his famous dark-faced ancestor.
Plastic cups and mugs plastered with an image of the legendary judge are offered along with lattes and frappuccinos at Starbucks' first cafe in central Hefei city, Bao's hometown in Anhui province.
But his descendant, Mr Bao Xunan, is not impressed. "Their Justice Bao looks like a lao wai (foreigner) and is a joke," he told local media.
Some netizens agree, saying the image of the judge looks somewhat similar to that of the monument of American president Abraham Lincoln in Washington.
In recent years, Starbucks has tried to please Chinese palates by introducing traditional foods like mooncakes and dumplings as well as more varieties of tea. In 2007, it closed its controversial cafe in the Forbidden City which was an eye-sore for many nationalistic Chinese.
Now it has again upset Chinese sensibilities.
Bao, who has registered his ancestor as a trademark, said Starbucks has violated his rights and wants it to stop selling the cups.
Starbucks has not said if it will do so.
Li Jing, its public relations manager for Greater China, told local media that it usually customises cups for each city it is in, using symbols associated with it. For instance, it sells cups featuring images of the Great Wall in Beijing.
Intellectual property rights lawyer Xu Xinming said whether the image of Justice Bao violated copyright depended on whether it was taken from a particular artist and is copyrighted.
"If Starbucks is relying on historical records and stories to produce an image of Justice Bao, there's no issue of violating copyright," he told the Straits Times. Nevertheless, he believes the commercial use of the judge's image is inappropriate.
"Justice Bao is a symbol of justice. He is very highly respected among not just his descendants but also common folk in China," he said.
The latest storm in a plastic cup comes as Starbucks, which has had to close hundreds of cafes in the United States, looks to China to boost its fortunes. In China since 1999, it has announced plans to increase its existing 400-odd cafes to 1,500 by 2015.
While the Chinese are traditionally tea drinkers, their consumption of coffee has doubled in five years - from 2004 to 2009 - to about 30,000 tonnes, according to figures from Euromonitor.
This is mainly instant coffee though. Fresh brews remain an acquired taste.
This has not deterred Starbucks and its foreign rivals from going ahead with expansion plans. The cafe in Hefei, for example, is just a part of Starbucks' march into China's interior and western regions.
Likewise, its rivals want to set up more cafes. Britain's Costa is opening its 100th store in China at Beijing Capital Airport this month. Hong Kong's Pacific Coffee, which does not have a strong presence in China yet, said earlier this year it aimed to have up to 1,000 cafes in China.
McDonald's McCafe also aims to set up more cafes.
But Fu Changming, secretary-general of the Hainan Coffee Association, wonders if these foreign coffee chains will flourish outside China's cosmopolitan cities.
"Are there that many coffee drinkers in China?" he asked, noting that a cup costs some 20 yuan (S$4) to 30 yuan, still rather expensive by Chinese standards.
Many Chinese prefer coffee houses that provide other beverages and set meals, such as Taiwan's UBC Coffee, where they can talk business, he told The Straits Times. UBC, better known by its Chinese name Shangdao, has about 3,000 branches across China, mainly franchises.
Fu feels Starbucks' venture into the heartland may not run smooth. "China's consumption habits are still quite different from America's," he said.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.