Steven SchwankertBy Steven Schwankert
The Grouch's catastrophic computer failure has left him without connectivity, without even a green-monitored word processor with which to issue his epistles to you, his legions of loyal China Internet followers. In search of a keyboard and a connection, he searched the Chinese capital until he found an Internet cafe named "520 Virtual Game World" in Beijing's Chaoyangmen district, occupying the third floor of a building that mostly serves to push tech products to the local populace.

The Grouch's most recent previous Internet cafe experience was years ago, when a Chinese guy in Beijing who spent some time in Canada was going to take over the world, or at least China, with a horde of such establishments. The Grouch saw said guy last night getting out of a black Mercedes Benz, one he had driven himself, so apparently the $5 million that HSBC gave him based on a $100 million valuation is going to good use.

This is a different deal. There are two words that are used in these cafes relentlessly, neither of which is suitable for publication here. Basically it looks like a design farm, except that just about everyone is playing Counterstrike and swearing loudly. The only people writing email are foreigners, since Internet cafes are so hard to find in Beijing that the foreigners are ultimately driven here. Some other users are chatting. It looks like a lot of people are playing hooky from work or school, or in the Grouch's case, life.

At first glance, it may be difficult to see the appeal of the cafe. There are a huge number of people; many smoke until the staff tell them to stub out their cigarettes; there are windows but all are covered by heavy shades. However, after spending several days here, the Grouch can attest that he may give up life as a Starbucks denizen altogether and move operations to 520 permanently.

First of all, there's the price. The Grouch is rarely cost-sensitive, what, sitting on his enormous fortune and living in a palatial, wireless-enabled estate, but the price of one grande hot chocolate at Bux buys three hours of Internet access and change. But that's not that important.

What this is is a living laboratory. This is an anthropological study. Hiding in plain sight, the Grouch sees the brand names, the mobile phones, the bookbags. The Grouch always wondered who these mythical consumers that buy Kelly Chen records and Nokia phones were, but now he knows.

The Grouch likes the anonymity the best. There isn't a soul on the planet who would think to look for the Grouch here (until now, of course). These kids around the Grouch don't care who the Grouch is. The Grouch cranks up some Evanescence on the iPod, and he might as well be on Mars. Pop the battery out of the mobile phone to create the illusion of being out of the service area, and he might as well be.

Yesterday the Grouch spent six uninterrupted hours working here. It was one of his most productive days in a long time. Like Starbucks, the cradle of creativity in Beijing, 520 is a third place. It's not work or school, and it's not home. Mom isn't there telling you to stop playing that damn game. Wife isn't calling to say it's time for dinner. Idiot workmates aren't popping into your doorway to quote Seinfeld. 520 is ultimately a physical manifestation of cyberspace, a place that doesn't exist yet where things happen. China needs more of that, especially since there are too many places that do exist where nothing happens.

Brand managers/marketers, if your research folks aren't spending at least a half-day per week here, you're not getting enough bang for your buck. Get out of the office and down into the lab.

About the author:
Steven Schwankert is a former editor of Computerworld Hong Kong, based in Beijing. He can be reached at [email protected]

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