Don’t call me, Ishmael

August 28, 2015

Well, the game is up. Our revels now are ended. The second shoe has dropped. Starbucks is coming to Cambodia.

The US-based coffee giant has announced it is to open its first outlet at Phnom Penh airport by the end of this year, with plans to open a second store in the city centre by the end of 2016. Starbucks already has more than 22,000 outlets around the world.

Whether Cambodia needs Starbucks is a matter of some debate. There is no shortage of coffee shops in Phnom Penh: there are probably 60 shops within a 15-minute walk of where I sit. Most of them, especially the locally-owned and entirely estimable Brown Coffee, offer a far superior product to Starbucks’s bitter, over-roasted nonsense and expensive and tasteless sandwiches and buns.

Is it a sign of progress that Starbucks is coming? It joins the likes of Costa Coffee, KFC, Burger King and Dairy Queen in clogging the streets, and the arteries, of Phnom Penh. Sure, it’ll provide a few jobs for bored students, but with all the profits winging their way back to the States, does Cambodia need it? A friend of mine used to be friends with Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and would come back from dinner with him raving about his numerous Picassos. Schultz is worth over a billion dollars. I expect Cambodia will propel him even further up the rich list.

A spokesman for the company, with the unwieldy title of Group President, China/Asia Pacific, Channel Development and Emerging Brands, issued a statement saying: “Cambodia is a vibrant country with a rich cultural heritage, and we are proud to bring the unparalleled Starbucks Experience to this market.” Yes, he actually did write “Starbucks Experience.” It makes my soul weep.

A few years ago, The Onion ran a spoof piece on US bookseller Barnes & Noble opening a branch in Cambodia. “Speaking from Barnes & Noble’s New York headquarters, John Day, company vice-president in charge of overseas expansion, said that Cambodia represents an outstanding new market for the book chain. “Cambodia has all the signs of being a book-friendly country,” Day said. “Did you know that only one Cambodian in 10,000 has a television set? That, to me, is the hallmark of a literate culture.””

Now all we need is Macdonald’s to arrive, and we’ll have the full house of soulless corporate behemoths jostling small local businesses aside and expanding their bland cultural hegemony over this once-proud nation. Oh, the joy…

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