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Interview: Cotton Ding

Cotton's celebrates a 10-year anniversary this Saturday. We catch up with the unusually happy and smiley woman behind the bars.
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Cotton's celebrates a tenth anniversary this weekend with simultaneous parties at both locations. After a decade of running her own bars in Shanghai, plus the restaurant Hunan House, owner Cotton Ding continues to be about the happiest person living in this wretched city.

Hers is a bootstraps success story of a girl from a tiny village in Hunan who started shining shoes and ended up with her own little F&B enclave that's stayed the course and commands an army of dedicated followers. People love this woman. It's all down to positive thinking, she says, and loving what you do.


SmSh: People might know it, but give us the story, broad strokes…

Cotton Ding: I come from Hunan, I left there and came to Shanghai when I was 20 in 1997 to work in a factory, making electronics parts. I did that for six months, and I made 350rmb a month. But I loved it, it was fun. I was young and I always think you have to try to make everything fun, no matter what you're doing. I could daydream, and the factory was in Pudong, and back then it was surrounded by fields so I could look at all the beautiful flowers around the factory.

Then I moved back home and became a shoeshine girl on the street. I enjoyed that, too. It was really fun. When I first told my dad he was very worried. He's old fashioned and he thought it would bring our family no face if this young girl was on the street shining shoes. But they couldn't afford to send me to university, so I thought I had to do something. To shine shoes you don't need any money, you just buy a brush, and that's it. So that was the first thing I could do as an entrepreneur.

And after a few weeks all the other parents came and complimented my father and said I was a good daughter because I worked hard and he was really proud. But I loved it. I only had to shine about 10 pairs of shoes a day and I made the same as my mother. Ten pairs a day made me 300rmb a month, and I made a lot of friends. Where I set up, the guy next to me was a watch repair man and the woman on the other side was a fortune teller.

SmSh: There's some powerful symbolism in there somewhere. Did she ever tell your fortune?

CD: No. My mother wouldn't let me ask her. He said young kids should never go to fortune tellers. She said kids had to make their own future.

SmSh: So where next?

CD: Then in 1998 I moved to Guangzhou and worked in a Chinese restaurant, 28 days a month, for 10 hours a day. For that I earned 450rmb. It was tough and I really wanted to learn English, so then I got a job with Kathleen (of Kathleen's 5). Her first restaurant was a very simple sandwich place. When I started I didn't speak English, but she hired me because people thought I had a good personality and she liked my smile. I've always been very friendly.

SmSh: What did you think of the restaurant business?

CD: In the beginning I didn't like it. I was scared and found it stressful, so I decided to pay my way through university to learn interior design. I went to a good university in Guangzhou and worked in the evenings to pay for it and in 2001 I graduated and came to Shanghai to look for a job as a graphic designer, but I couldn't find anything. I had no money, I was living in a hostel for 20rmb, and I had to eat, so I gave Bob [Boyce] from Blue Frog a call.

I knew him through Kathleen (they used to be business partners) and he hired me. This was in the first Blue Frog on Maoming Lu. I was 24, and in the beginning I was so upset. I wanted to be a designer. I'd spent all my money studying and then after three years I was back to where I started, behind a bar. So I thought "Okay, I can't be a designer, I better learn to love what I'm doing," and in some ways that was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I realized that I'm a natural behind the bar. I love being a bartender.

I started to get creative and give them ideas about how to make Blue Frog more fun. I told them to start selling shots. I came up with the 100 shots thing. Most of those I made up. [Here's SmartShanghai editorial director Morgan Short trying them all within a week.] After all this, I started to love my job. It was at a time when Maoming Lu was crazy. You could look across the road and see girls dancing on the bar in the place opposite. I was still living in Pudong and I'd work all night and then cycle home all the way to Pudong and catch the first ferry. It felt magical in a way. I loved it.

But I never thought I could start my own place. I didn't have that sort of confidence. Then one day someone walked in the door and thought I was the owner and wanted to buy a share from me. I said, "No, I'm just a bartender" and he said, "No, you should open your own bar. Find an investor; you're already experienced."

Seven months later I opened my own place. It was on Yueyang Lu. We had no staff to do the renovation. We did it all ourselves, but we were so happy, we were just kids, you know, 26 years old. It was so much fun. Good location, cozy little garden, and I grabbed it, even though it was kind of ugly.

Finally I could use my design skills to make the place look lovely. But that only lasted 15 months. We'd signed a four-year contract, but the landlord saw how well we were doing and he took it back. I was young and naïve, and he just broke the contract. He said it was a government owned place and they wanted to turn it into a school. But in fact they kept it as a bar and tried to run it as their own place. Of course, it didn't work for them. I was young, and I didn't know how to play the game back then.

It took me a year to find the new venue, which was this one [Anting Lu]. It was a house at the time, but it became available and I grabbed it. It had been a coffee shop at one point, so they already had a business license, so it was very easy to turn it into a bar. This was 2005.

SmSh: How has that rent changed over the past eight years?

CD: Over the years things have changed big-time. This one wasn't cheap when I started, and it's doubled since I took it. But we had a lot of support. So many people came with us to the new venue from the day it opened. From the first day it opened it was already packed.
Three years later, 2008, the other Cotton's opened. That one, the rent has gone up a bit but not too much because we signed a long contract on it.

I learned my lesson early with landlords. We now have very good landlords and we are very good tenants.

SmSh: How much have you raised your prices?

CD: When we opened, beer was 35rmb and now it's 40rmb. Cocktails were maybe 55rmb 10 years ago and now they're 65rmb. I think our prices are very reasonable. Other places they charge more. For a nice place like this, I think we're 20% cheaper than our competition. We also have a good happy hour [4-8pm Monday to Friday, two-for-one drinks]. Consider how much the rent and staff costs have gone up in 10 years and we've just put 5rmb or 10rmb on each drink.

We could charge more but that's not why I do it. Listen to this: I was in a restaurant in Chile last year and I got talking to a French girl in a restaurant and she said she could speak Chinese, and it turned out she had lived in Shanghai for three years. So I asked her whether she knew Cotton's and she said yes, and she loved it and she and her boyfriend had their farewell party here. That made my day. It made me so happy. To be so far from home and still hear people who enjoyed the bar. That's why I do it.

That's why I think I would never sell Cotton's, because that's what makes me so happy. Nothing could make me as happy as that.

SmSh: What do you think has kept you in business so long?

CD: For me, staff is the most important thing. You have to have people you love. I love my staff, when I look at them I see myself 10 years ago. For me, they are family. I always tell them, "You won't be with me forever. In 10 years you'll have two or three bars or restaurants of your own."

My managers in both bars, they both started as bar backs, washing glasses and now both of them are running the whole show. Most of my staff have been with me five or seven years. My chef has been with me 10 years, since the very beginning.

SmSh: What about the next 10 years?

CD: I have no plans to open anything new. But then I never planned any of it. I just try to live fully in the present and let what comes surprise me. Cotton's is not about the business and the money, I don't ever want to sell it and retire, I want to be here, every day, working with the staff and meeting my guests and helping them make great memories.

SmSh: What would have happened if you hadn't done all of this?

CD: It's funny. When I was 17 I thought my life was already over. I finished high school and my parents couldn't afford to send me to university. I remember sitting there, watching people walking home, looking old and tired, and I thought, that's my life. That's what I have to look forward to. If you have no university you have no future, no life. But I took another path.

In life, there's no point complaining. You can accept your situation or change something, but complaining changes nothing. So I try never to complain, I just embrace whatever life gives me and try to make the best of it. At each stage you have to love life.


There are parties this Saturday at both this Cotton's on Anting Lu and this one on Xinhua Lu. Each one starts at 8pm and there's a live band in Xinhua and a DJ on Anting Lu. Everyone's welcome. The theme for both parties is "white and fabulous." Because cotton, generally, is white, and Cotton, this particular one, is fabulous.