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Senator and Sichuan Citizen's Daisy Fei and Mike Chang

Jan 11, 2019

DAISY: I'm Daisy Fei, I was born in Shanghai and I grew up here. I was an art student and a fashion model, and then I went to college in the US. I came back to Shanghai in 2005 and that’s when I met Mike. We opened Citizen Café together that year. We met through a mutual friend, Mike was an interior designer, and I have an interest in coffee and cocktails. Mike also has a background in restaurants.

MIKE: Mike Chang, I’m from Hong Kong and went to college in the States. My degree is in graphic design and digital media, not interior design. But after sitting in front of computer too much I slowly grew to love interior design because you get to work with material. That’s how our business really came together, we both bring something that we can put together and create a business with. I do total concept, design. Daisy is better at cocktails, and more operations. We are both creative people. She’s an artist.

D: We opened Sichuan Citizen in the end of 2008. The space came first, the one on Donghu Lu. It was huge. I had just gone to Chengdu for the first time in my life, and I fell in love with the mala flavor. So when I saw that space, I told Mike, you cannot do western food in such a big space. Let’s do Chinese food with a decent bar, someplace we’d like to go to. So we flew to Chengdu and brought back a chef and his whole kitchen crew. He is still with us today.

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M: A lot of things had to come together to make Sichuan Citizen. The atmosphere really had to be right; it had to be very comfortable. We like to have a cocktail before dinner or with dinner, and so we wanted to put that together with the food. The lighting is a big part of it, the music, and the service has to be better than your average Chinese restaurant. People are always asking for our music playlist.

Still, people don’t try to copy us. The ones who have the kitchen skills don’t want to do Chinese restaurants. And investors want things with crystal chandeliers and a fancy atmosphere, not a moody Sichuan restaurant dressed in wood.

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D: The Basil Drop, our signature drink, came about kind of unexpectedly. I was working behind the bar at Citizen Café during the day and just playing around with cocktail ingredients. I served it off-menu to a few people, and then a week later, a month later, people started coming in and asking for that drink. So then when we opened Sichuan Citizen we put it on the menu there.

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M: The sweetness and freshness of the basil complements Sichuan food so well. We didn’t even realize it at the beginning. But Sichuan food needs something strong to balance it. And of course the color is great.

D: In three months at the new location, we sold 12,000 Basil Drops, and that’s slow compared to Donghu Lu. At the old location, our record was 500 in a night. And we are a restaurant, not a nightclub – 500 cocktails.

We left Donghu Lu in May 2018 after five years of not having a stable lease (month-to-month starting in 2013) and learning that the government plans to demolish that building. They are probably doing it right now. The landlord was the biggest challenge. At Senator Saloon, the landlord lives upstairs and he’s a businessman, so he understands. We’re okay here.

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This space (Senator Saloon) actually came up by accident. We never go to agents for our spaces. In 2012, a friend of mine wanted to open a beauty store or a clothing shop and rented this place on Wuyuan Lu. But the street was too quiet back then and she didn’t do anything – it stayed vacant for three months. She was like, “What should I do with this, do you want it?” Mike and I were thinking about a small bar at the time, and had just been watching Boardwalk Empire, and were partly inspired by that, so we took it. It was easy; Mike came up with the whole design in a week.

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The original space on Donghu Lu, Mike’s mom found. It was a Korean BBQ that had been open for three months, and That’s Shanghai gave it a really bad review. So Mike’s mom went over there, and was like “Are you guys ok? It must be so hard for you. Do you want to get rid of the place?” And the manager said “Yes, the owner really wants to get out of it, and transfer, but she hasn’t contacted an agent yet” and that’s how we ended up on Donghu Lu.

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For ourselves, we like to go to small, intimate western restaurants. For French food, Franck. It’s still good even after Franck the owner left. The whole crew remains, and the food is still good. It’s not as busy as before but you get better service. We also eat a lot of Italian food. Casa Mia, the one hidden behind Donghu Hotel, we were there two nights ago. It’s a very small, cozy and intimate place run by a Chinese-Italian couple. They cooked together in Milan for more than a decade, and used to run La Dolce Vita (now Funkadeli). Porto Matto on Changshu Lu also. It’s a chef-owner from Puglia. Not fancy but his food is good. We sometimes go to my friend’s place Vesta for roast chicken and to Bistro Sola, an Italian restaurant by a young Japanese chef-owner.

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M: I’m from Hong Kong, so I go to cha canting all the time for lunch. Xin Wang, Tsui Wah, those two are my go-to places.

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D: I don’t know about broader economic trends — we are too small of a sample size; changes might be seasonal— but business is growing for us. We work hard to make people like us. Customer service has to be good, and we try to keep up on all the details, making sure everything is clean, and the drinks and food are good.

M: After 13 or 14 years in Shanghai, we could have grown a lot, in shopping malls and places like that. We’ve been approached many times by different investors, but it’s not us. We like small places, cozy places. We didn’t want to go corporate or turn into a chain. We want to stay a small and private business.

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[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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