Scatter Stars: An Interview with Bo Pan
By Mengchen Guan
Edited by Lizzie Alblas
This interview was originally in Chinese and has been translated by me. All photos are sourced from Da Zhong Dian Ping.
‘I like going out, and I like every customer who comes to the café, my cosy cave. They are all the flames in my life.’
A Chinese saying that describes friendship goes: As flame of fire we gather, as sky full of stars we scatter.
This interview with Bo is more like a reminiscence between old friends. In order to make this conversation more like a ‘professional’ interview, I had prepared some more formal questions to ask him, but when we talked about memories of the past, I suddenly realised that the person across from my screen was not only my interviewee, but also an old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen for a long time.
He still remembers that it was his Espresso Martini that brought me to his café in our hometown, Linyi (a small city with a long history, famous for its revolutionary war and located in the northeast of China), for the very first time. I hadn’t been able to find the exact location, so I had looked up the café’s number online and called him.
He laughed when he said that, because his coffee shop is in an old residential area on a winding street, and it’s really hard to find.
‘This is indeed the case. I also looked at other places before opening, but for various reasons, I couldn’t rent them. When I finally saw this yard, I was really happy. At that time, I thought it was fortunate that I hadn’t succeeded before. It was as if I had been made to wait for such a good place. Although it’s not big, I really like it.’ Bo has not returned to his hometown for ten years, and this city is already unfamiliar. I tease him and ask him if it’s his business secret to open the café in a secret city corner.
‘Maybe this is because I don’t want to make my café completely commercial. Speaking of it, it reminds me a little bit why I wanted to go back to Linyi, my hometown.’
‘It is true that I didn’t know the coffee market in Linyi at the time. And I have no idea what people’s tastes and preferences are. I only know that this city has a population of 12 million! For the customer group, there are many young people in this city and also many of them who have returned to the city after studying or working in other countries and cities, giving it a lot of multiculturalism and a fresh vitality. The city is still growing.’
He is very confident in the business environment he is in. There are many young shop owners under 30 around him who are very dedicated, and even though they don’t have much working experience, they manage their businesses very well and are committed to produce remarkable products in this small city. This was the first surprise that Linyi gave Bo when he returned here in 2019 after ten years of hard work in Shenzhen. He hopes that as a young force, he will bring vitality to this place with a long history, watch it continue to grow, and witness his own growth as well.
On Mondays, Bo’s café is closed, but he doesn’t really relax on that day. Traveling and tasting coffee at coffee shops all over the country is something he enjoys. I think there must be other reasons for him to travel every week besides learning. He is so dedicated and thoughtful, passionate and open about his career. He told me this is one of his business philosophies.
‘We can’t just stay in our own store every day, worrying about other people in the industry robbing our own business or something. Learning and communicating are essential. Just like you are here now, I won’t worry about you disliking my coffee, or what should I do if my customers like another’s coffee more. On the contrary, if you want to try something new in this city, I will definitely recommend other ones I think it’s worth trying even if you want to know about coffee in other cities. And the other café owners are very generous every time I go to theirs, they are willing to talk to me about the coffee business. Sometimes we are not so rigid and we also talk about our lives.’
‘I imagine if your peers are so positive and want to improve, you will definitely feel very motivated and inspired. This is why we can make one thing better and better.’
‘Let’s talk about the small project we ran at the beginning of this year’:
Date: 23.1.2021 Location: Bo Cafe
The Invisible Communication
‘I sincerely invite you to come to the café to play a game of collecting ‘invisible communication’ with me! If you have anything you want to but hesitate to say to others, such as blessings, jokes or even confessions, they can all be seen as ‘invisible communication’. You can tell me before you come to Bo Cafe, and I will write them secretly on the back of the coffee coaster for you and serve it with the drink to the person who comes along with you. See if those words will be discovered by them.
If those words behind the coaster are found, this means the communication has been made in a special way, and you are welcome to take the coaster as a souvenir. Accidental tacit understanding may turn out to be an everlasting bond.
If not, Bo Cafe will collect this secret and keep it for you. They are even more mysterious and precious because of your bravery, and although they have not been delivered, they have been seen by us.‘
We once spoke about communication difficulties. He said communication with others is not always mutual and effective. When we say something, the people we talk to, such as friends, family and colleagues, may not be able to fully and immediately understand, and a sense of distance may then be caused. After hearing many stories like this from customers, he wanted to help everyone to get closer to each other.
‘The highlights and sacredness of life are actually hidden in these romantic details. We must always dare to send signals to the people we love, and we must embrace these signals that have not arrived.’ Although some of the whispers in our hearts may not be delivered, Bo Cafe can be the little box to help everyone keep these secrets. I, as a customer, can imagine that when I come back to his café a few years later, I may think of those words that were written down but that I couldn’t let out of my chest. Those which were quietly stored here. Or I may forget, and Bo will remember. Perhaps this is the romance that we, as customers, gave Bo Cafe, or in other words, Bo is the one who keeps this romance for us.
Bo said, speaking frankly, that the reason he loves his career so much, other than the attractive nature of coffee and his talent for making it, is because of people around him. In his café, most of the decorations on the walls are not artistic paintings or coffee menus, but photos of him with his regular customers
‘Each customer has different values, personal preferences and shining personalities. Some customers like to drink warm water, some like hot Americano, some are allergic to alcohol, some don’t like to take pictures, some have a very strict diet and some like small animals. Everyone is different, so the world of Bo cafe can be diversified. Everyone in this cozy cave will feel more connected when they communicate with each other.’
Every morning, Bo hopes provide customers with a better service. For people who like to chat, there are storytelling platforms; for people who enjoy privacy and quiet, a room where they can simply stare into space.
‘I love the coffee industry. And I have loved it for 10 years. Sometimes I am a little pessimistic about people coming and going. It seems the only thing I can keep is the cup of coffee in my hand. But having said that, it is precisely because of these people that I can love life and my career so much.’
I ask him if this conversation had started with his own story, what would he want to tell me first.
‘I would introduce to you every friend who led me into this industry, and tell you what a wonderful time we have. As flame of fire we gather, as sky full of stars we scatter.’
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