Interview: Shawn Chua Ming Ren

Shawn Chua Ming Ren is an artist currently working in New York City. His works focus on interconnectivity and test the boundaries between positive and negative human interaction ranging from casual handshakes to violence.

(Phone Interview, abridged)

What do you think of when someone mentions coffee?

SC: If I were to think of coffee on its own, I am reminded of late nights and early mornings and deadlines…. But I tend to associate coffee with specific places and who I had it with. I have traveled and lived in several cities but I always had a favorite café where I owe several epiphanies and inspirations. 

Do you have any favorites?
SC: Oh there are many, each with special memories but there is a cafe I frequent several blocks from my flat. I go there often to read, write and sometimes just watch people. Its fun to eavesdrop on conversations. Sometimes strangers jump into chats they overhear and an interesting debate begins. The casualness of it all is pretty inspiring, this spillage of private conversations becoming suddenly public.

Just to make clear, do you hold a strong opinion on coffee as a beverage?

SC: Coffee is something I consume on a daily basis but what is more important to me is how it serves as a vehicle of communication. Like, what do people mean when they say ‘Lets meet up for coffee sometime’? We read between the lines, it could be a business meeting, a catching-up between friends, a suggestion of possible romance, and more.” But it is interesting when you see how some people are very particular about how they have their coffee. I have one friend who just can’t stand the disposable cups they give out and is very picky about the blend, the ratio of milk and sugar etc.

That reminds me of the essay in Inei Reisan by Tanizaki who stressed Japanese soup HAD to be enjoyed in black lacquer bowls.

SC: Yea yea I think drinking coffee requires special attention. Its not only the taste but the aroma, the temperature, the cup… a lot can go into it if you really care. Then the cup becomes more a culinary experience. It can become fetishized too, with the amount of attention put into the specificities. When I think of coffee extremities I am reminded of Kopi Luwak coffee. They are beans taken from the shit of a cat-creature and its considered a delicacy. It must be really good but its kind of funny too.

Okay, going back to what you were talking about coffee as a catalyst. You see it as a stimulant, not necessarily because of the caffeine content?

SC: I think caffeine might take part in its power as stimulant but you go to a meeting or hold conferences and there is almost always coffee served. Its almost a fixture, a requirement.

And what do you think of cultural variations in coffee appreciation? For example, I know an Italian friend who was appalled by the Japanese vending machines selling cold coffee in cans.

SC: I think there are differences, especially between countries that have a long tradition of coffee-drinking and those without. You even see it in the menu. American coffee is watered down coffee and Wiener coffee is a special type of cappuccino. In New York, I think its about choosing the cafe. Each cafe has its unique style and attracts a particular audience. You know that you are mingling with a familiar crowd even if you don’t actually talk to any of them. So by choosing your coffee and the place to have it is also a form of social identification.

Interview by Chisako Izuhara

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