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From ‘Syrian style’ cafes to Costco, here are Chinese influencers’ go-to spots

By Alma Fabiani

Nov 19, 2021

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Yesterday, Thursday 18 November, VICE published an article looking into the surprising (and shocking) emergence of “Syrian style” cafes in China. “Chinese influencers and diners are flocking to trendy restaurants and cafes decorated in ‘Syrian style’ so they could photograph themselves posing in front of gaping holes and run-down walls that look like they have been bombed in a war,” wrote staff writer Viola Zhou.

Since 2020, influencers have promoted a wide range of industrial-looking restaurants, cafes and bars across the country by branding them as ‘Syrian style’. The term is also used to describe shabby-looking things in general. “I smashed my mobile phone again today and stamped on it,” one Weibo user wrote in October. “Now my phone is of Syrian style.”

The so-called ‘Syrian debris style’ refers to designs that often feature grey and exposed brick walls, reinforced concrete and uneven structures. Some places also have cracked home décor such as clocks, televisions and surveillance cameras that appear like they have been damaged in a war.

Throughout her research, Zhou went on to find that restaurant owners who had made the choice of going for such an insensitive term fully understood how it trivialises Syria’s devastating civil war—yet, they continued by explaining how valuable the change seemed to be since it could attract customers eager to take cool photos for their social feeds.

“If I call it ‘normcore’, no one would know what it is exactly,” 21-year-old Wang Fei, owner of a barbecue restaurant that features a “refugee barbecue area” told VICE. “But if I call it ‘Syrian’, people could imagine it in their head, and would want to check it out.”

However, it seems like half-assed hipster coffee shops aren’t enough content for influencers these days, which brings me to their second go-to spot, Costco. Yep, I’m talking about the American store chain mostly known for its boxy warehouse, wide variety of products, and competitive prices.

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“On RED, China’s Instagram-like social media platform, people share influencer-esque shots of themselves in front of the big-box store’s branch in Shanghai. Opened in 2019, it’s the first Costco store to operate in mainland China,” states another VICE article.

These Costco-themed photoshoots tend to include the same elements: a sprawling parking lot, blue skies, and, of course, the industrial building. When posted online, references to Los Angeles and users “pretending to be in Los Angeles” are commonly found.

While the trend appears to have started towards the early beginning of 2020, after it received international coverage and was presented as a way for Chinese social media users to pretend they’re in Los Angeles, old posts became flooded with a fresh wave of critical comments. Many Chinese users accused these Costco photo takers of idolising Western culture, a subject that’s particularly sensitive in the country.

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Meanwhile, the ‘Syrian style’ has also been applied to dessert places, fried chicken joints, offices, homes, and clothing stores, and more. Of course, some internet users have been quick to criticise the term as capitalising on others’ suffering. “Can you imagine some shop calling itself ‘Wenchuan earthquake debris style’ or ‘Zhengzhou flood debris style’?” a user commented in September 2021, referring to past disasters in China.

My point here is not to blame China’s influencers for any of this, but rather to highlight the terrifying power that social media has over us and the influence it has on our decision-making process. Nowadays, when a new concept turns out to be a traffic driver, there’s no way to stop it from growing bigger and, ultimately, from getting out of hand. Although Costco-themed photoshoots seem harmless, influencers who have dared to share them across social media have been on the receiving end of hateful comments. ‘Syrian style’ spots, on the other hand, have managed to grow into a full-blown trend across the country. And as much as I despise the latter, I can’t help but wonder what other deranged concept will ultimately replace it.

You know what they say, ‘do it for the gram’…