Doors close on Starbucks’ controversial Forbidden City outlet

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There will be no more Frappaccinos or lattés in the Forbidden City as Starbucks closed down its controversial outlet situated inside the former imperial palace on Friday. The closure brought an end to a seven-year presence that sparked controversy and protests that the image and cultural heritage of the historical site was being trampled on by the American corporation.

In the end it was not the petitioning of cultural commentators or declining sales which led to the store’s demise, but the company rejecting an offer to combine their outlet with other shops in the former Imperial Palace. This move would have forced Starbucks to sell their beverages under the palace’s brand name, a common practice in national parks in many western countries.

“There were several choices, one of which was to continue, but it would not carry the Starbucks name any more,” Starbucks’ vice president for Greater China, Eden Woon told the AP. “We decided at the end that it is not our custom worldwide to have stores with any other name, so therefore we decided the choice would be to leave.”

According to Xinhua, the total number of stores within the Forbidden City has been cut from 37 to 17 while the palace goes through restoration, due to be completed by 2020.

Starbucks presence in the Forbidden City caused unease from the outset. Opening in 2000 at the invitation of the palace managers – in an effort to generate revenue to maintain the 178 acre site – the move sparked criticism both abroad and in China. The shop was forced to remove its external sign almost immediately. Pressure had since increased earlier this year with Rui Changgang, an anchor for CCTV, launching an online petition backed by over half a million people and forcing museum management to promise a solution with Starbucks by the end of June.

The protest was revived in March by a member of parliament at the National People’s Congress, saying the chain coffee shop “posed a challenge to traditional Chinese culture” according to Xinhua. Since the closure of the 20-square-meter store, the Beijing Morning Post ran an opinion piece questioning the Chinese “cultural tolerance” over Starbucks.

Although seemingly popular with tourists, the management of the Palace Museum revealed in a survey “that most visitors – from China and abroad – hope to taste some imperial food at the emperors’ former home”. Yang Xiaobo, an official in charge of planning, explained to Xinhua “we’re tailoring a new snack menu.”