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Coffee with Friends in Central Perk, China

india Updated: Jul 23, 2010 00:49 IST
Reshma Patil

Rachel served cappuccino in an oversize blue mug. Cafe owner Gunther told me he is searching for Phoebe to strum the guitar and sing Smelly Cat. Joey breezed past the peach couch, but it was a girl in a green T-shirt.

China’s first coffee shop replica from the hit sitcom Friends — still the ultimate American lifestyle guide inside China —has not yet found a male Joey.

“I’ve watched Friends thrice since I was 17,’’ Song Xiao Xing, now Rachel, told me breathlessly. A batch on her T-shirt declared ‘I am Rachel. I hate serving people,’ under the Central Perk logo copied from the fictional New York cafe where Friends Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe lounged for 10 series.

Nearly every Chinese student of English still talks about the series six years after it ended. Universities stock its pirated DVD to supplement English teaching.

And this month, Du Xin, 31, now known as China’s Gunther, announced a Rachel hunt on the Chinese Internet.

In three days, 400 girls sent SMS applications.

Jennifer Aniston earned millions for her role that began as an endearingly incompetent waitress. Song, a Beijinger completing postgraduation in international relations, makes 10 yuan (Rs 70) per hour as Rachel.

“I’m crazy about Friends. Some Chinese customers watching it with us cry even,’’ Du told HT. “The series taught me how to treat friends.’’

Du grew up in a remote province near Russia. He returned last year after two years in the hotel industry in Amsterdam, still obsessed with Friends. His badge declares ‘I am Gunther. Rachel is my girlfriend’. The cafe’s glass wall has the Central Perk logo of a steaming cuppa. “It’s not the cafe name, just a picture,’’ Du clarified, lest we question copyright. Old Friends cafe opened recently, cramped in a sixth floor corner of a struggling Soho mall. It’s cleverly drawing crowds in a city with surplus coffee shops.

The limited menu is printed only in Chinese. Two flat screen televisions screen Friends with Chinese and English subtitles.

Each Rachel contestant worked for a day. “If Rachel serves wrong coffee, no problem. The customer will understand,’’ said Du.

On weekend Phoebe nights next month, Chinese girls will sing one whimsical Phoebe song and one of their own. Fans will vote online for the best Phoebe video. Something crashed. Gunther shook his head. “That’s Rachel.’’