Crumbling decor and 'refugee zones': These 'Syrian style' cafes are China's new trend

Two examples of "Syrian style" establishments in China, shared by influencers on social media networks Xiaohongshu and Douyin.
Two examples of "Syrian style" establishments in China, shared by influencers on social media networks Xiaohongshu and Douyin. © Observers

On Chinese social media, influencers are sharing photos from cafes they are calling "Syrian style", decorated to look as if they were ravaged by war. You can take a selfie in front of a dilapidated wall and set your bubble tea on a table that looks like an ammunition crate, all while depressing music plays in the background. The design style, accused of being offensive and capitalising on human suffering, has stirred debate on Chinese social networks.

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"I just tried out THE new 'Syrian style' cafe that everyone is talking about! It's the perfect place to take your photos," said a young Chinese woman on Xiaohongshu, a Chinese Instagram equivalent where influencers exchange tips on good places to take selfies. She's not the first one to be excited – the cafes are a hit. 

But if you thought you would find traditional Syrian delicacies there, you'd be mistaken. For these cafes, it's the decoration that counts. Dusty red bricks, peeking out from behind faux dilapidated plaster, walls broken as if they were bombed and exposed pipes. This is the image that is being marketed as "Syrian" in cafes and restaurants around China since last year. The term has been used like other design terms in China such as "industrial" or "minimalist" to describe any with a broken-down appearance, intentional or not. And "Syrian style" design has become a phenomenon in China.

The "trend" is driven by thousands of big and small-time influencers who share photos and videos of the new "Syrian" style on Xiaohongshu and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

The influencers are mainly interested in photogenic locations, and they share tips about the quality of food as well. "With a few touches of light, the 'refugee' style of the decoration becomes very warm," one young woman said on Xiaohongshu, recommending a restaurant in Wuhan. 

"This 'Syrian destruction' style restaurant will keep you busy for a long photoshoot," another one said about a restaurant in Shantou. 

Photo taken by a young woman and shared on social network Xiaohongshu, showing a restaurant in Shantou.
Photo taken by a young woman and shared on social network Xiaohongshu, showing a restaurant in Shantou. © Observers

Some of these establishments push the "Syrian" style even further, offering "refugee areas" which play sad music. They use damaged toys and everyday objects as props to add ambience, as detailed by VICE World News

The owner of one of these cafes told VICE that even though he thought it was offensive to describe this design style as "Syrian", he continued to do so to attract a large clientele from social networks. 

 

The "Syrian style" isn't limited to new cafes and trendy restaurants, however. It's also making its way into people's homes through Chinese interior design.

On Douyin (TikTok), there are a few tutorials that explain how people can achieve their own "Syrian style" decor. One video shows how to give your walls a faux-damaged look using micro cement. Another one explains how to create a brick effect.

There are even entire homes decorated in "Syrian style", as shown in this video of a real estate agent showing a 109m2 flat in Guilin.

 

Screenshot of the site Tao Bao, a Chinese online shopping network, using the search "Syrian style".
Screenshot of the site Tao Bao, a Chinese online shopping network, using the search "Syrian style". Observers

 

 

Other design terms such as "industrial" or "minimalist" have also been used to describe this type of design, but calling the same design "Syrian" ties the aesthetic choice to a country that has experienced more than a decade of war.

Despite its commercial success, the "Syrian style" is a topic of debate on Chinese social networks. While some people are unfazed, others are outraged, and try to explain to others how inappropriate the term is. 

"Don't use the term "Syrian style" like that! Imagine if our country was at war, and foreigners were doing the same thing!" said one commenter on a blog post about a Syrian cafe. The author of the blog, meanwhile, said that going to a "Syrian style" restaurant can be a way to "remind us of the hardships caused by war".