Hello world!

Do you get easily attached? Well, I do. Attachment doesn’t only have to be towards small items but can be towards a variety of things, a shop, person, memory, and more. Well, for me I have an attachment to this small cafe located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But, what’s so special about a small cafe? Normally when you look at a cafe, you don’t really think of the history of how long it has been there. Or rather, how it may play a significant role in one’s daily routine. Customers come and go, but what about those that are regulars? What is their reason for going back to this one cafe so often? Mee Cafe. Located on 26 Rutgers Street in Chinatown. If one were to see pictures of the neighborhood surrounding the cafe, they may think it doesn’t stand out. But the exterior and interior of the cafe speaks for the neighborhood itself, through the graffiti, menu, decorations and even customers tell a story through it’s linguistic landscape. 

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Fig 1. The shop Mee Cafe’s exterior design during 2015

Source: Zomato, 2015

Based on the location of the cafe’s neighborhood it is easy to see that the location of the cafe is far from ideal for a business. The street that it is located on is also home to several other small businesses as well; new, old and rundown shops such as a laundromat, 99 cent store, deli, office and more. It is noticeable that the signs of the businesses, such as the 99 cent store and laundromat are quite old as can be seen in Figure 2 and 3 compared to the Deli in Figure 4. The laundromats sign can be seen displaying both English and Chinese. The exterior of the two shops also look similar as the paint on the gate and sign both are peeling off. In comparison to the Deli, their signs look relatively new with diverse use of advertisement. There is also a pattern in which the two shops and office next door all have gates, suggesting the importance of security but adds to their image that may intimidate customers. These aspects of the shops support that being a hole-in-the-wall business creates a disadvantage as other competing businesses located on ground level that are in direct view of a customer grabs easier attention. 

Fig 2. A 99 cent store and office lay next to each other

Source: Google Maps

Fig 3. A rundown laundromat that presents bilingual service

Source: Google Maps

Fig 4. A neatly Deli & Grocery store resides at the corner of Rutger Street

Source: Google Maps

The neighborhood in which the cafe is located can be easily predicted as to what people reside there. As can be seen in the image and of Figure 5, graffiti takes up the white space beside the cafe’s sign as well as the post of an apartment beside the cafe. Businesses located within these neighborhoods also may tend to be ignored and avoided by customers, as their store’s image looks uninviting. Nearby is also an elementary and middle school in which I attended as a student. The majority of students who attended would usually reside close to the school and were mainly populated with Asians and African Americans, suggesting a rundown or overall immigrant and minority based neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, many of the students quickly became regular customers of the cafe, like me.

Fig 5. A graffiti painted apartment building surrounded by black iron gate

Source: Google Maps

When one thinks of a cafe, they might see an image of an aesthetic exterior. However, at first glance one may not think that Mee Cafe is a cafe. Not often are cafes opened in what is known as a “hole-in-the wall” and perhaps it may seem like a small restaurant to some. The primary visible landmark of Mee Cafe is its sign, hung sideways and covering the sign of a previous business. Visibly the words “COXE” can be seen beside the store’s sign, this might make it seem like the cafe is not well owned and even unappealing. The two signs also seem homemade, demonstrating that the sign from the previous business and the current is not a highly produced piece. The gate besides the entrance of the cafe also creates an uninviting atmosphere as the bottom edges are also rusted, in a way that may remind one of a prison like gate. Two other signs of two red, orange and yellow colored lambs can be seen taped onto the entrance of the door representing the year of the lamb demonstrating a trace of Chinese New Year celebration. Another sign that is hung downstairs right above the entrance door labeled OPEN is made with green, blue and orange lights dancing around. A sign that is often seen used in restaurants, but unusual for a cafe.  

Photo of Mee Cafe - New York, NY, United States. It's all about MEE

Fig 6. This picture presents a different angle of Mee Cafe’s entrance during 2018

Source: Yelp, Fox E., 2018

Comparing the sign hung outside and inside of the cafe in Figure 6, noticeably they have the same format in which the words “Mee Cafe” and “OPEN” are both placed in a circle and have the same colors of green and orange. Although it may not be noticeable it creates a consistent color theme throughout the cafe. The OPEN sign especially influences my strong personal attachment to this cafe, given that my family’s past business used the same sign; I’m thus struck by a sense of nostalgia on entering. As this cafe has been open since my childhood while many others around the neighborhood closed down, creating a stronger sense of attachment.

The owner of the cafe is an Chinese immigrant. I personally do not know much about his background, however I am aware that he is not fluent in English. Despite his lack of fluency, the cafe’s menu is written in only English which came as a surprise as I looked back. Even during 2012, the menu was written in English as shown in Figure 7. Then in 2018, the menu was upgraded as seen in Figure 8, displayed onto a television. However, over time it became noticeable and understanding as to why it was written only in English. Majority of customers that came in were students that were in elementary, middle and high school as well as college. Customers spoke English and were also bilingual. Although, at times, there were Chinese and elderlies who came as customers, the language choice of the menu did not come as an obstacle as they could communicate to the owner with Chinese.

Photo of Mee Cafe - New York, NY, United States. Hot and Cold like Katy Perry

Fig 7. The current menu of Mee Cafe, taken in 2018

Source: Yelp, Fox E., 2018

Photo of Mee Cafe - New York, NY, United States. Boba teas

Fig 8. The past menu of Mee Cafe, taken in 2015

Source: Yelp, Tam N., 2012

Although the owner is far from fluent in English he does speak it well enough in addition to speaking three other languages as well: Mandarin, Cantonese and Fujonese. In Chinatown, there are a population percentage of 32.7% of residents are White, 32.1% of Asians, 25.1% of Hispanics that populate the area. Those that aren’t literate in English, order by asking if a drink was available in their own language. They weren’t uncomfortable seeing the menu written that way. It was clear as the owner had already adapted to catering his business towards Americans. Noticeably the menu of the cafe looks new in comparison to the “Mee Cafe” sign. Demonstrating that they may not have enough funds to replace the one out front. However, the sign has not changed since 2015 and 2018, suggesting that the owner may have no intention in changing it but only the menu.

The menu that Mee Cafe serves mainly focuses on serving tea. A popular beverage that people drink in China. In which, tea has been oftenly used to create different flavors and drinks. One popularly known as bubble tea that originated in Taiwan but quickly was popularized in China, an example shown in Figure 9. Reviewing the menu, it can be seen that many of the items are catered towards Asians or those who have different flavor preferences of tea. This creates a targeted audience of consumers. However, if one were to think of a bubble tea shop. The names “Kung Fu Tea” and “Vivi” may come to mind as they have a chain of stores. Being chain stores, their shops are more likely to be opened up in places that are financially well off allowing them to sell their products more expensively. In comparison to Mee Cafe as a family-owned business in a low-income neighborhood, they need to take into consideration if customers are likely to come back if their menu is expensive or inexpensive.  

Photo of Mee Cafe - New York, NY, United States

Fig 9. An example of bubble tea and a sandwich

Source: Yelp, Henry T., 2015

Despite the unkept exterior outlook of Mee Cafe’s sideways sign and graffiti, a great variety of people come by day to day. Happy hour usually comes around in the afternoon during 2 to 3 PM, the time in which many of the students are released from school. Friends and reviewers agree that Mee Cafe “is a local gem for the most original bubble tea, this place has been here for so long it feels like home, the staff like family, and they kept their place neat and small”. An incentive that Mee Cafe has always kept is a loyalty card, in which a customer needs to buy 8 bubble tea drinks in order to redeem a free one. This persuades more customers to come back. 

Photo of Mee Cafe - New York, NY, United States. I'm a proud Mee. #idkifthatsoundscool #firstonetosayit

Fig 10. A loyalty card presents 8 purchased bubble tea rewards one free bubble tea

Souce: Yelp, Kevin N., 2015

As prices are cheap, it creates another incentive for customers to keep coming back as well. Despite the look of the exterior, reviews are positive. In 2013, a customer Steven Chen exclaimed that,  “Plain bubble tea for $1.75, a quarter extra for any flavorings. Sounds legit”. Slowly over time, the prices have gone up but are still very much affordable. As reviewed recently by a customer Jenny L. that “I love going to Mee’s! This is the place to get inexpensive teas and snacks. . . . Whenever I come here, I usually get French toast ($2.50), condensed milk toast ($1.00), iced milk tea ($1.50), and iced lemon black tea ($1.75). I highly recommend it.” Interestingly the food that Mee Cafe offers are of a diversity of American and Asian dishes. American dishes including, french toast, grilled cheese sandwich, and chicken salad sandwich. Asian dishes include fish balls and seaweed salads shown in Figure 11. There are a great diverse amount of food and flavored drinks appealing to customers. And although the interior of the cafe is quite small with little seating seen in Figure 12 and 13, it creates a comfy and welcoming atmosphere. However, being located at Rutgers Street, rarely are there any businesses that charge their menu at a high price as the neighborhood can be considered to be ranked as a lower class.

Photo of Mee Cafe - New York, NY, United States. Food menu @Mee Cafe

Fig 11. A menu presenting a variety of American and Asian food

Source: Yelp, Lily Y., 2017

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Fig 12,13. The interior design and seating of Mee Cafe

Source: Zomato, 2015

Mee Cafe in itself is a small immigrant Chinese owned business interestingly adapted to catering to not only Americans but to their culture and language. Having grown up around the neighborhood during my childhood, I rarely noticed the small details that the cafe had. The small OPEN sign, English written menu, and even graffiti spread all around the neighborhood and entrance of the cafe. These small details all seemed insignificant in the past, however, putting them back together, they represented a story. A story of how a cafe came to be. In a way it reminds me of the saying, don’t judge a book by it’s cover, in this case Mee Cafe. Initially, the term Linguistic Landscapes at first came to be complex. However, on further research it became easier to understand. In one’s everyday life, on public and commercial signs different languages are displayed in a specific area. Whether it is a diverse range of language or one specific language like English, it gives one a clearer understanding of a region’s surrounding and history.

Fig 14. A view of Rutgers street

Source: Google Maps