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'Friends' in China: 'Central Perk' hits Beijing

By Haolan Hong and Jo Ling Kent, CNN
  • A cafe replicating the "Central Perk" from 'Friends' opened in Beijing
  • The show remains one of the most popular for young Chinese
  • Cafe customer: "It makes us feel like we're inside the show"
  • China
  • Ross
  • Sitcoms
  • Beijing
  • Television

Beijing, China (CNN) -- It looks like Ross and Rachel's favorite hang out: the big orange couch, the oversized coffee mugs, the neon signage and bricks, and even the guitar on which Phoebe strummed "Smelly Cat."

Except this "Central Perk" is neither in New York City nor on the set of "Friends" in Los Angeles. It is thousands of miles away, tucked in the heart of bustling downtown Beijing on the 6th floor of a non-descript office building.

"When I watched 'Friends', I always wondered whether there was really such a coffee shop because I would definitely become a frequent customer," said Du Xin, who opened the cafe in March. "But I didn't find one. So, I decided to open a 'Central Perk' on my own."

A loyal and dedicated fan of the sitcom, Du scrutinized thousands of pictures of the show's set, watched endless reruns of the sitcom, and spent five months laboring over furniture designs with manufacturers in Beijing to create his uncanny replica.

Despite the massive popularity of "Friends" in China, the café's location was initially a liability.

"It didn't go well at the beginning. No one came," said Du, 30.

But just a few months later, buzz about the coffee shop spread through Chinese message boards and blogs, and the fans started pouring in.

Customers started calling Du their very own "Gunther," the quirky "Central Perk" manager.

Most of Du's customers are college students and young professionals who grew up watching "Friends" as a way to learn English and get a glimpse of young American life. Du said most intend to swing by for a quick coffee with friends, but they end up settling into the overstuffed couches for the homey atmosphere and the flat screen television, which shows endless "Friends" reruns on a loop.

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"I like Central Perk. It makes us feel like we're inside the show," said Li Li, a 22-year old college senior.

"In an unfamiliar big city, a group of friends hanging out here is like family. It feels very warm and friendly," said another customer and part-time "Central Perk" waiter, Li Jin, 26.

The steady stream of customers often overwhelms the small, understaffed cafe. Customers usually volunteer to be a "Rachel," serving up coffee to friends and fellow fans as the character "Rachel" would do on the show.

Although the sitcom, which ran for ten seasons, ended six years ago, it remains one of the most popular U.S. TV shows for young Chinese. From Ross and Rachel's romantic saga to Joey's humorous antics, China's high school and university students replay episodes multiple times, addicted to the fictional lives and personalities of America's favorite clique.

The popularity of the show has spread to China's classrooms. At some universities, episodes are included as part of the curriculum for English listening and speaking training, helping them pick up the latest slang and cultural references.

"We started watching it at college, because at that time we were curious about life and culture outside China," said Wang Huan, who works in the aircraft industry.

For some, the sitcom shows a life rather different from modern China.

"Is this real American life? Do they really celebrate important holidays with their friends instead of with their family?" said Zhao Meng, a graduate student, who was watching a holiday episode at the café.

Despite the differences, some young Chinese see a quality promoted in the show that transcends both cultures: friendships that withstand the years.

"I know that when we grow up, things will change," said Li Shuo, a 22-year-old college senior who recently relaxed on a couch at "Central Perk." "But there is a group of friends you always care about, just as it is in 'Friends'."

Du isn't the only entrepreneur capitalizing on the café's famous name. Other imitations have opened to much fanfare in London and Dubai, where the original Gunther has made an appearance.

"The show has inspired me to do something I really like," says Du. "Therefore I'm not running a business, but my dream."

Du hopes his customers will continue to enjoy his slice of New York life for the years to come.

"I hope that 20 years later, when those kids grow up, that they'll pass by this building and they will find that 'Central Perk' is still here for them," he said.