Cultural Meaning and Power of Starbucks in South Korea

Song Myongdong Starbucks

A review of Building an Empire One Cup at a Time: Cultural Meaning and Power of Starbucks Korea, by Jee-eun Regina Song.

Jee-eun Regina Song’s dissertation analyzes the cultural meaning of coffee in South Korea, tracing the commodity’s historical significance but particularly focusing on gendered consumption practices in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Song  utilizes ethnographic and cultural studies approaches to map out a “shift in neoliberal value formation and practice going from café as communal meeting ground to coffee and café space as laboring ideals through which consumers actively produce knowledge and the self” (4). Starbucks Korea, as the first global chain to enter the South Korean market, takes center stage in the work, but Song’s analysis also addresses coffee culture more broadly. This reader finished this fresh and complexly-flavored dissertation in greedy gulps, appreciating its rich brew of insights into general consumer and leisure culture in South Korea, as well as its illumination of power relations in global food practices.

In tracing the global flow of not only commodities, but also the “brand” associated with them, Song states that a main intervention of her work is to bridge the gap between development theory and cultural analyses of food. She is interested in Starbucks in Korea, to be sure, but just as interested in the Starbucks idea in Korea, and the ways that this powerful idea-brand led to Starbucks Korea’s success even during the extraordinarily lean years following the Asian Financial Crisis. Starbucks quickly came to represent leisure, entrepreneurial spirit in a particularly American vein, strong brand identity, and individualism. In her introduction (“The Historical and Cultural Meaning of Coffee Consumption in South Korea”), Song describes her theoretical frameworks (globalization, consumption and gender, and food commodity chains) and methods before offering an explanation of the stages of her project: first Song observed café customers and their interactions at Starbucks locations around Seoul, then interviewed café employees and corporate executives at Starbucks Korea, and finally expanded out to conduct research at small coffee shops–independent cafes as well as local chains—interviewing owners and baristas. In this expansive work Song asks the questions, “What does the proliferation of transnational designer cafes signify regarding the political, economic, and social restructuring associated with neoliberal globalization in contemporary South Korea? And how does it impact the tensions of ongoing urbanization, the reconfiguration of class and gender divisions, and the reformulation of postcolonial nationalism?” (iii). In a skillful interweaving of interviews, historical background, discourse and media analysis, and well-placed reflections on her own position between the U.S. and South Korea, Song answers these questions and then some.

Chapter 1, “The Neoliberal Self: Ethics and the Success of Starbucks in South Korea,” examines the emergence and growth of Starbucks in the Korean market. Having discussed the longer history of coffee on the Korean peninsula in the introduction, Song differentiates the romantic image of coffee in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s—then, as in the United States, meaning almost exclusively instant (or “mix”) coffee rather than the wŏndu, or whole bean, coffee of cafes today—with the perception of coffee as a key ingredient in the “revitalization of the self” beginning in the late 1990s. Song analyzed popular instant coffee ads of the 1970s and 1980s that highlighted coffee’s romantic image—ironic indeed when one considers the placement of instant coffee vending machines around the nation as a strategic move to increase worker productivity during the rapid industrialization era. Song carefully combines analysis of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s translated biography, as well as other Starbucks written materials, with customer and barista interview material about the meaning of Starbucks and about Schultz himself. Rather than a story of the “self-made man” (73), Starbucks’ origins story highlights the importance of the “networking society,” and Starbucks was able to succeed in South Korea despite unprecedented national economic woes due to the fact that it “actively produc[ed] an ideology of the self-manageable individual in neoliberal Korea” (44). In other words, Starbucks’ master narrative valorized the human connection and collaboration people craved during uncertain times, while simultaneously holding up self-development and self-management as a worthwhile—indeed, even morally good—pursuit. Towards the end of the chapter, Song analyzes the popular webtoon Snowcat (the work of artist Kwon YoonJu), whose apathetic cat protagonist simultaneously mocks and praises the productive “third space” of Starbucks as he moves through the city. Although the cat quips that Starbucks is an inescapable as Microsoft Windows (84), in one comic he settles into the space, appreciating the possibility it offers of “playing alone”—something not possible in bar space, for example—while being productive. Song’s analysis of this popular webtoon is a fitting end to a chapter on the meaning of Starbucks in South Korea.

In Chapter 2, “Discovering a Lifetime Career: Inventing the Barista,” Song draws on interviews with Starbucks Korea baristas and her participant-observation at corporate events. She discusses the rise of the barista as a possible career in the context of the New Economy of the 1990s, carefully outlining shifts to the service industries and knowledge-based economy in both the United States and South Korea. As Starbucks expanded throughout Korea, the position of “barista” became differentiated from other “low-class” service jobs due to its creative distinction, through duties such as “latte art” (drawing a pattern on the top of an espresso drink with the milk foam) that required some degree of training. Being a Starbucks barista was more than food service with a smile—it took on artistic meaning and artisanal qualities, as exemplified by latte art training and coffee tasting classes. In South Korea, Starbucks set itself apart from low-paid food service jobs such as McDonald’s by mimicking the corporate structure of national conglomerates such as Samsung, emphasizing training and the continued growth of its employees. Though Starbucks baristas received neither the salary nor social respect accorded to Samsung employees, they at least were called “partners” and were encouraged to feel part of the company through team-building activities. Still, despite the lifetime commitment many of Song’s interviewees expressed towards Starbucks, if they became too interested in the company business strategy or took the initiative to study the manuals themselves in their role as mere “partners” they were often branded as “too nosy” by management. In other words, Song argues, despite Starbucks Korea’s reputation as an inclusive company nurturing of employees’ creativity, the pure physical labor of baristas, as “docile bodies” was prioritized.

Song steps back from Starbucks Korea itself in Chapter 3, “A Quest for a Café Latte: The Cultural Meaning and Representation of Coffee Consumption in Contemporary South Korea.” In this chapter, she explores the gendered nature of coffee consumption in South Korea, starting with the doenjang nyeo (literally, “bean paste girl”) debate of summer 2006. Deonjang nyeo is a term that was used online in South Korea in the early 2000s, but really gathered steam in 2006. Doenjang nyeo were called as such because of their alleged tendency to buy a cheap meal (doengang jigae, or bean paste/miso stew) in order to splurge on status-enhancing accessories like an expensive cup of Starbucks coffee. Those twenty-something women who resented being labeled doenjang nyeo attempted to coin a gender-reversed expression, referring to their stingy, unstylish male counterparts as gochujang nam (“chili paste boys”) (141). However, the male-specific term did not stick, while doenjang nyeo has had staying power even a decade later. Women’s “frivolous” consumption of expensive, transnational coffee was at the center of the doenjang nyeo discourse, reflecting the gendered and classed spaces of transnational cafés in South Korea. Song picks apart the discourse by analyzing a TV drama from 2006, The Man of the Vineyard. In the program an urbanite doenjang nyeo is redeemed by entering into a relationship with a wholesome country boy, who accepts her need for coffee but encourages her to develop her love for indigenous Korean things as well. Following her analysis of the TV drama as well as media discourse on the doenjang nyeo “phenomenon,” Song concludes that the contours of the debate indicate that many men dismiss women’s coffee consumption as “longing for an admiration of Western culture rather than need-based or relational consumption” (186). While coffee consumption trends have shifted quickly in South Korea, women’s time and money spent at cafes on espresso drinks is still more likely to be seen as frivolous—bringing to mind Laura Nelson’s (2000) work on the gendered nature of earlier “excessive consumption” (kwasobi) campaigns—than men’s “necessary” after-work consumption of alcoholic beverages.

In the concluding chapter, “Transnational Narratives and Global Ethics of Consumerism,” Song links Starbucks Korea’s growth and issues of transnational business ethics, arguing that “the transnational corporate narratives of Starbucks offer different material effects for nations like South Korea,” and “challenge the ethics of global ‘ethical’ consumption” (189). This final chapter touches on the promotion of fair trade coffee and use of recycled materials and the ways Starbucks’ reputation as an “ethical” company has led to even greater success in the South Korean market. Song ends the chapter with a recap of the arguments in the preceding chapters, and by reinforcing the dissertation’s core premise that consumerism and consumption are a “useful site to examine how the modes of neoliberal ethics are inserted into daily practices” (190). Starbucks Korea has taken on such a larger-than-life meaning for many Korean consumers precisely because it evades easy categorization: “Starbucks is not an independent Mom ‘n’ Pop, but trades on the folklore of its founding; it is not a franchise, but is serially located like other fast food establishments; it is not a corporation, but is allied with one; and it is neither fully South Korean, nor American, nor totally global, but is able to suggest all of these” (204). While Starbucks Korea does not have quite the cultural cache it had in the mid-2000s, without its highly symbolic presence in South Korea the nation’s coffee culture would have evolved very differently. As Korean news outlets currently bemoan the over-saturation of cafes, café owners and baristas continue explicitly or implicitly measuring themselves against Starbucks, attempting similar business maneuvers or deciding to strike out in new directions.

This dissertation is groundbreaking and refreshing, and effectively demonstrates both the cultural and material importance of Starbucks—and coffee more broadly—in understandings of neoliberalism, labor, and consumer practice in South Korea. Contributing to the intellectual lineage of food studies giants Sidney Mintz and Mary Douglas, Song expertly links tastes, subjectivities, hopes and anxieties in South Korea. Once this research is published as a book it will capture significant interest in the fields of Cultural Studies, Anthropology, Food Studies, Korean, Asian and Asian American Studies, and Gender Studies.

Bonnie Tilland
East Asia International College
Yonsei University Wonju

Primary Sources
Shultz, Howard and Dori Jones Yang. Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. 1st ed. New York: Hyperion, 1997.
Snowcat (Kwon YoonJu)
The Man of the Vineyard (2006)
Newspaper articles

Dissertation Information
University of California Davis. 2012. 212pp. Primary Advisor: Mark C. Jerng.

Image: by author.

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