Old Mike is a legend. Now in his 50s, he is crowned the ‘wanghong bizu (social media trendsetter) of Shanghai’ by netizens. Nope, he doesn't post selfies, food porn, or bendy yoga poses. He ascended the throne after his interior designs and antique collections gained widespread recognition and became sites of pilgrimage for xiaozi (more or less culture vultures) to snap selfies, food porn and bendy yoga poses (ok, maybe not this one) for the 'gram.
His kingdom reaches far and wide: three Cottage Cafés (two in Shanghai and one in Chongqing), a Cottage Antique Shop, a Cottage Barbershop, ten Flower Fingers nail salons and multiple upcoming projects ranging from bookstore bars to traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies.
With a reserved yet sharp gaze behind his stylish spectacles, who is this man who shifts so gracefully through latte sipping, treasure hunting, nail polishing, scissor wielding and herb sniffing? Where is he from? What life did he lead before his rise to glory? We sat down with Old Mike at his Cottage Café to decode the mystery.
Tell us about your professional life before your Cottage projects.
My first job after graduating from college was at the World Bank in Washington, DC, where I accompanied Chinese representatives to attend international meetings. My traveling and thrifting stints blossomed during that period when I got some holiday after these conferences. In the 1980s, I moved to Shenzhen to teach at Shenzhen University and then work in commercial banking. In 2004, I moved to Beijing to work in investment banking before quitting the corporate life in 2007.
After living through worldly professions and lifestyles, I felt tremendous boredom. Life is too short! I thought that if I didn't get started soon, I wouldn't have the time nor the mindset to fully enjoy [my career]. After all, people enjoy different things at different life stages.
What sparked your passion for thrifting?
Since I wasn’t financially well off when working in the United States, I went looking for affordable entertainment and stumbled upon lots of flea markets and second-hand treasures. Thrifting piqued my curiosity, as most treasures were a complete novelty to me. I remember toying with and being in awe of the mechanisms in lipsticks and lighters. They stretched my limited understanding at the time.
Which piece of thrift are you most proud of?
Three years ago, in preparation for the opening of the Cottage Antique Shop, my partner and I went to Brussels, Belgium to hunt for used treasures and found an antiquated set of Chinese tea table and folding screen inlaid with gems and jades. We took a photo and sent it over to a friend who’s a Chinese antique expert. Due to the time difference, we didn’t hear back until the next day. He urged us, in great earnest and length, to get a hold of it at all cost. We immediately canceled our train tickets and drove back to Brussels to buy the 500-euro set.
It turned out that the six jade handles (one of them was broken) on the table drawer were longgou (belt hooks) from the Ming dynasty. It’s unseen and unheard of in China to put longgou on furniture, or on anything that isn’t a piece of garment. To save space, we found tools to chop off the handles from the tea table and transported them back to China. Similar pieces were sold at 280,000RMB per one by Christie’s.
Why did you want to open a café?
Cafés capture and display the pleasant side of life. When I was travelling in a rural hilly town in Portugal, I woke up early to take photos and noticed that cafés were open already. I went in to chat with the owner and really enjoyed the homey vibe that a café can offer. I believe that this sense of enjoyment is universal and that Chinese people would appreciate it as well. Small independent cafés weren’t common in 2009. I wanted to open a café that was different from the commerciality of Starbucks and gave a touch of warmth.
Describe your style and its evolution over the years.
My personal aesthetic is a cross between soft industrial vintage style and European country style. I like things that are unconventional. I like vintage style because I always feel nostalgic about the comfort and warmth of the past. On an emotional level, I feel resistant to fast-paced modernity.
Whenever I come across anything that resonates with me, I snap a photo, sketch it and document it in my journal. Some objects recorded in my journal include coffee coasters, yoghurt caps and baguette bags. My eye for colour, texture and design was cultivated through these everyday observations.