The Compass Cafe's Last Days

Beijing's Compass Cafe will close in about a month, when owner Zhang Qiang will head to earthquake-stricken Sichuan province. Despite a seemingly prime spot at an intersection at the northeast corner of the ancient Forbidden City, revenue isn't strong enough to meet the 5,400-yuan monthly rent, which rose from 3,500-yuan a year ago.

Rent costs have spiked because of the Olympics, Zhang says. And in a city where consumption is conspicuous, Zhang’s Western-style coffees and free Internet connection haven’t made it.

Beijing-native Zhang, 36, started the cafe two years ago in an east-meets-west style. A primary selling point is the free WiFi Internet connection, which one may use while drinking green tea or a latte at one of five tables covered in red-plaid cloth. Western and Chinese art, some created by his girlfriend, adorn the walls and tables. Menus and signs feature English and Chinese. The regular musical playlist features "Hotel California" and the Godfather theme. Unlike other shops on his street, he keeps the front door closed.

“I wanted to make a place I like first,” he says. “Easy and quiet.”

Zhang says rents started to rise last summer after the government began to improve nearby roads. He points to an ornate, red overhang in front of his shop that officials also added. Another nearby café has already shut down because of the rising rent, he says.

Mostly foreigners and a few locals come to the cafe, and not enough of them to cover expenses. The café makes about 100 yuan to 200 yuan per day. Zhang spends the downtime surfing the Web. He browses Internet forums and searches via Google. He keeps up with the investigative reporting coming out of the quake zone.

The stories of the tragedy have inspired him to travel to Sichuan with the pastor from his Christian church. Zhang says he could use his engineering background to teach local students about math or computers. His brother, a photographer, is already there. After Zhang finishes his relief work, he plans to travel to England, where his girlfriend will study.

China's greater openness today means Zhang's closing cafe isn't a life-wrecking event.

"It's a failed business," he says. "It's normal."