It’s the ultimate embodiment of “all for the gram.” In China, rooftop photo cafes let you pretend to live the high life without shelling out money for actual rooms. But how long can this manufactured fad last?
The picture looks like it could have been taken at the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong. A young woman is seated on a white king-size bed on the very top floor of a building in the middle of downtown. She has a view of the entire city skyline, as she gazes out toward the endless expanse.
Except it’s not the Ritz-Carlton. It’s not even in Hong Kong.
The room is in a cafe in Shenzhen, a city just north of Hong Kong, and it’s not just any cafe. For the price of a coffee and then some, people can pose in specially designed rooms and pretend to live the high life.
Backdrops include a white bed against an urban skyline, a tropical island hut, and a canopy bed straight out of a fairy tale. They’re all meant to be realistic enough to upload on social media without tipping off to anyone that you were anywhere but that swanky room on the top floor of the Ritz.
It’s the ultimate embodiment of “all for the gram.”
In China, a wave of rooftop photo cafes has taken this image-making obsession to a whole new level.
The cafes, usually housed in nondescript buildings in the middle of downtown, reproduce every part of a hotel in plastic—from the furniture and tableware to even fruit plates. They also offer rental clothes and professional photographers.
The cost ranges from as low as $10 to as high as $30. It might sound like a lot for a simple Instagram post, but compare that to $3,000 for a one-night stay in the executive suite of the actual Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong, and you can see why image-conscious millennials might think it’s worth the effort.
The idea is to give friends the impression that you can afford the jet-setting life—without actually setting foot on a jet.
Since Instagram is blocked in China, most of these images end up on WeChat, on a public feed of photos called “moments.” The idea is to give friends the impression that you can afford the jet-setting life—without actually setting foot on a jet. Most people don’t reveal where the photo was really taken.
Two of the most famous photo cafes are in Shenzhen, both located in an office high-rise. One is Cafe Pétales, famous for the Ritz-Carlton replica, and the other is Cafe Topfloor.
Cafe Topfloor is the one I decide to try with two friends on a hot day in September.
Inside a photo cafe
To get to Cafe Topfloor, you have to take an elevator to, well, the top floor, and walk down a dim gray hallway past several offices.
We buzz the cafe and are greeted by a manager who leads us past a wall of customer photos. There’s a woman dressed in a kimono performing a tea ceremony, a couple eating a strawberry shortcake on a hotel bed, and a woman in a vintage shirt who looks like she came straight out of a Wong Kar-wai movie.
The manager hands us a menu. We each go for the “sophisticated single package,” which includes a costume, props and accessories, a room of choice, and 30 photos from a professional photographer for about $27.
When I ask if the package includes any beverages, the manager says, “Of course. You can choose between a cup of juice or tea.”
The beverage might be the only thing that’s real about this place.
The whole place looks like a stage set for four different plays.
Cafe Topfloor’s roughly 500-square-foot space is divided into five rooms. The whole place looks like a stage set for four different plays.
There’s a corner mimicking an English afternoon tea table, a Japanese-themed room with a tatami mat, a dimly-lighted mahjong room invoking the stylized sets of Wong Kar-wai, and a hotel room with a bathtub and plastic glass of champagne.
All these spaces are compactly crammed in the most unflattering way and separated by no more than a thin wall. But taken alone, they’re all the perfect size for a tight shoot.
In the Japanese-themed room, a 20-something couple forgoes the kimonos in favor of loose streetwear. One wears a checkered blazer paired with baggy pants, and the other is in a loose T-shirt and jogger paints.
Two steps away, a 40-something woman is going for the perfect “raised champagne glass in a bathtub” shot. A photographer, holding a DSLR camera and umbrella light, is instructing her to be more relaxed.
“Smile, and look confident,” he says.
“This head towel is making my face look big,” she responds. “Please make sure you get the right angle to make my face look smaller.”
She sits up straight, adjusts her posture, and resumes her pose.
Keeping up appearances
Over the years, maintaining one’s WeChat feed has become consequential. The app has become an indelible part of Chinese social and work life. Job consultants, dating gurus, and influencer accounts continue to stress the importance of a well-planned WeChat self-image for networking purposes.
As China’s wealth grows and standard of living improves, users increasingly want to show that they can afford the jet-setting life—afternoon tea on hotel rooftops, overnight stays in chic designer rooms, and brunch at the latest trendy spot. As in the rest of the world, social media in China is about keeping up appearances.
But unlike the rest of the world, there’s no heed paid to authenticity, and that’s why image cafes have become so profitable. User reviews tow a highly pragmatic tone: “With only 80 RMB [roughly $12], you can pretend to stay in Hong Kong’s most expensive room!” “Why go to Singapore? Get the same hotel shot here with so much less!”
There is no shame in faking it.
Today, Chinese influencers are making more money on average than their Western counterparts, and the competition is fierce. While the rest of the world is shunning posed pictures in favor of “getting real” posts, Chinese social media posts continue to be more curated, staged, and even forged. Accusations of doctored videos run aplenty on platforms such as TikTok.
(Read more: I bought fake Twitter followers on China’s Amazon)
Even on WeChat moments, where the number of likes under a person’s post can only be seen by mutual contacts, people still prefer to post edited, polished versions of themselves over the real and raw version.
Showing the aspirational side of life rather than the messy reality is still the governing logic of Chinese social media. And it doesn't look like it’s going anytime soon.