The Cafés of Tonghua

One day while travelling through my husband’s home province Jilin in July 2013, we come by a city called Tonghua. My husband’s friend is living there and my husband has promised to pay her and her mother, who is seriously ill, a visit.

My phone got stolen a few days before on our train ride to gugu’s* home and since I used it as both e-reader and camera, I have to rethink what to do with my spare time. When my husband leaves for the hospital in the morning, I start my walk through the city. It’s raining heavily but I don’t mind. I walk through streets lined with small restaurants and cross the river, thinking to look for a bookshop or a café. Now mind you, it’s not easy to find a nice café in a place like Tonghua, which seems to be frequented little or not at all by Westerners.

When the rain is getting even heavier, I find a small bookshop where I stay for a while to scan through the magazines and books. I buy a magazine called duzhe (读者, reader) that features essays about people and places and walk on. When I turn right I am suddenly in a street lined with cafés. I had almost given up finding a café to while away some time. Between the cafés there are quite a few sex shops, that are only recognisable by the Chinese signs in front of the small shops.

I peer into one café after another, not really sure if these are normal cafés or rather meeting points for prostitutes and their clients. Many of the cafés are closed or their interiors are hidden from a bypasser’s view behind curtains. I take a look into one cafè from behind a curtain covering the main entrance, but it’s quite dark inside and nobody is to be seen.

When I’ve walked down the whole street, I go back and opt for a café that has small coffee mills in the windows. I open the door and ask the female owner if this is a café. She says it is and after asking me what kind of coffee I want (there are only two choices – instant coffee and freshly ground coffee), she points me to one of the separés.

There are only three small rooms, each one with different interiors. The one the owner points me to is the beauty queen room (that’s at least how I would call it). The chairs are silver with purple satin cushions. Instead, I choose a Japanese-style room with a small table on top of a bed-like sitting area. The owner puts away a trouser and a shirt and beddings that are stapled in the corner, substantiating my suspicion that this is not just a normal café.

Maybe I’m wrong and this is just a meeting point for lovers. Whatever this place is, at least I’ve found a place to sit down and enjoy a coffee that  doesn’t taste freshly ground at all and while away my time writing this blog entry. After all, there are two things I always take with me and that never get stolen: A pen and a notebook.

Have you ever been to a similar place? I’d love to read your stories.

*gugu (姑姑) = my father-in-law’s older sister

4 thoughts on “The Cafés of Tonghua

  1. This is hilarious!

    One good thing about being a writer: as long as you have paper and a pen, you always have a way to entertain yourself. (I used to be a painter. Painters are also easy to please. They can always sketch.)


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