The Golden Arches of Tian'anmen (ASIAN 258 Blog)
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
About twenty years ago, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation about imperialism. The woman sitting next to me had taken issue with airline regulations. She thought it was outrageous that English was the lingua franca of air traffic control. “American imperialism,” she scoffed. “You Americans impose your culture, your language, your junk food on the rest of the world. You conquer with McDonald’s and KFC.”
At the time, I was inclined to agree about the fast food. What caught my attention, however, was her remark about air traffic control.
The arguments should have a familiar ring. Academics have sounded the alarm about McDonald’s and KFC for some time. Some think fast food represents a second wave of Western imperialism. They complain that burgers are destroying the world. Junk food lays waste to native habitats, and eradicates local cultures, languages, religions, and food systems – all the while leaving mediocre American cooking in its wake.
Consider the following:
“Just as religious missionaries replace indigenous culture with European culture, now we have Western corporations replacing local culture and regional identity with a homogeneous global identity of Coke and Kit-Kat and pudding. To me, the loss of regional identity is as tragic as the increase in obesity.”
I’m not here to debate about whether “the loss of regional identity” is worse than obesity. Instead, we need to consider a much deeper problem: Should you feel guilty about eating fast food in Asia? Or, to rephrase: Is it OK to order from KFC Beijing after taking ASIAN 258?
I remember the dearth of fast food on my first unsupervised trip to China. In the summer of 1994, Western-styled fast foods were few and far between. KFC opened its first Chinese branch in 1987. McDonald’s was just celebrating its fourth birthday in the Middle Kingdom. My arrival coincided with the opening of the Hard Rock Café in downtown Beijing. What can I say? Only good things come from getting to know me.
Things are different now. The Golden Arches are everywhere, so too is the General. You can get Taco Bell and even P.F. Chang in Shanghai.
Food scholars are not thrilled with the situation, to put it mildly. Some of them argue that China has paid a high price for turning its back on the traditional diet and opting for fast food. Diabetes has become an epidemic. Every other adult I know has high-blood pressure or cardiovascular disease. Cancer has reared its ugly head everywhere. And cooking skills have declined.
Blame naturally falls on the Westernization of the diet. Picture kids gobbling down junk food in front of the TV or computer screens, the overabundance of refined carbs and fat, loads of processed meat and sugar. Lots of sugar.
Fast food is big business in China. According to one 2019 report by What's on Weibo, the industry witnessed breakneck growth over the last decade. The first half of last year even saw an almost 10 percent increase compared to the previous year.
As you might imagine, Western brands top the chart. KFC is number one, with McDonald’s on its heels. Burger King has captured third place. But Asian franchises are making gains.
Take the Japanese chain, Yoshinoya. It now has position 10, having squeezed out Subway, In 2013, the American sandwich brand held that position. Ajisen Ramen scored number 8, reflecting the popularity of “Japanese” food with Chinese consumers.
Chinese brands are even more popular than these Japanese franchises.
There’s Yonghe King (#9), which focuses on noodles.
Country Style Cooking (#7) features stir-fry dishes and Kung Pao Chicken.
Real Kungfu (#6) is good for rice bowls.
Dico’s (#5) is famous for its (Chinese) fried chicken.
Home Original Chicken (#4) won fame not for its chicken, but meatballs, fried gluten, and spicy sour fish. Go figure.
What does the report tell us? Should we interpret KFC’s preeminent position as a sign that Western fast food will soon displace the traditional Chinese diet? Will global capitalism bring a wholesale transformation of the Chinese food system? Will “we” Americans dominate China by imposing our foodways?
Before we get carried away with these dire predictions, a little historical perspective is in order:
When Western franchises first turned up in China in the late 80s, they faced an uphill battle. A market for their goods simply did not exist. The average Chinese had no experience eating at McDonald’s. Instead, what they were used to were collective dining halls, which dished out unappetizing fare. Restaurants were out of reach for most people, being expensive and reserved for the Communist elite (and the occasional foreign guest). The closest analogy to fast food was the boxed lunch for workers, beginning in the 1970s. Think Communist bento.
What is more, fast food was pricey. McDonald’s first opened its doors in a prime real estate location, in the Wangfujing district. The only people who could afford McDonald’s were young professionals, members of China’s emerging middle class. They sought out the Golden Arches not for the food, but the ambiance. Most people found burgers uninspiring. But they liked the air conditioning and the fact that they had a place outside of the house to hang out. Besides, the restaurants were “hygienic” or “clean.” They were also a good place to advertise your cosmopolitan credentials. Going to fast foods once signaled that you were moneyed and modern.
But the appeal of Western fast food soon faded. Urban incomes rose sharply after the late 1990s and early 2000s. As China prospered, visa restrictions loosened. My friends traveled the world, making a habit of producing food porn everywhere they stopped: Istanbul, Jerusalem, Paris, Mexico City, LA.
In short, McDonald's and KFC could no longer rely on a stiff price tag for their cache. People were not eating there anymore because it was expensive. Nor were they turning to fast foods to save money, either. Price comparisons reveals KFC to be in the middle of the pack.
Western franchises survived in China because they adapted.
Beginning in the late 1990s, fast-food franchises took one of two approaches. The first was to focus on consistency. McDonald’s exemplified this trend. To be sure, there are some local touches to their products. In Japan, for example, you get silverware. And in India, paneer takes the place of beef in burgers. In China, you can find soy milk, and in Europe, light beer.
The adjustments, though, were modest. McDonald’s in those days wanted to ensure that its brand remained consistent. Regardless of where you are in the world, you can expect to have the fries cut to the same length and cooked in the same oil for the same amount of time.
KFC, in contrast, tried something else. It altered the menus to fit with prevailing local tastes -- and sometimes radically. KFC here is all about the fried chicken. Hence the name. In China, KFC sells:
Bacon Mushroom Chicken Rice
Beef and Shrimp Soup Noodles
Curry and Rice
Braised Pork Belly
Egg Custard Tarts
The menus, however, were not the only sign that KFC adapted to local tastes and habits. Aware that Chinese workers had a long history of boxed lunches, they focused their efforts on the delivery business. KFC will “send” (song 送) the meal to you. They also played with giving out “freebies” like drinks to consumers, a tactic common in Chinese restaurants.
Their marketing team, furthermore, went to lengths to argue eating KFC fit with Chinese culture. Their commercials featured loving grandparents ordering KFC takeout to nourish their families. They also showed children talking to their parents. In one, a young professional told her mother not to worry about her diet. “Mom, I am eating at KFC.” The implication here, of course, was that KFC was like “mom’s cooking.” Healthy, wholesome. The commercials even identified KFC customers with martial art heroes and traditional warriors.
KFC’s efforts paid off. The brand rose to the top of the list, largely because its leadership knew that it needed Chinese consumers more than Chinese consumers needed KFC. To survive, KFC aligned its products and services with the Chinese cultural matrix. Not surprisingly, its competitors have fallen in step. Everyone now has the memo:
Locally adapt or perish!
I close this blog with an anecdote.
About ten years ago, I was doing research in China. It was lunch time, and one of my oldest friends stopped by my hotel. I was in no mood that day for a big lunch: couldn’t handle a lot of meat and baijiu on a hot July afternoon. But my friend was hungry, so I suggested that we go around the corner for a quick bite.
“There’s a bakery there,” I told him. “We can grab a light lunch. Maybe a sandwich?”
He made a face. “Sandwich?” he asked. “Why not grab a burger at McDonald’s?”
The Bay Area food snob in me protested. “Why the hell would I eat that? It’s unhealthy. Gross.”
He looked perplexed. “What’s the difference between a sandwich and a burger? Both of them are a piece of meat between two slices of bread. Only the burger is better. It’s hot, not cold. Cold food is bad for you.”
The story reveals a lot -- about why my friends refuse to eat sandwiches. About why Subway has been less successful. About why McDonald's has survived despite local competition.
Like my mother, these friends have ideas about food that derive from Chinese medicine. For them, there could be nothing less healthy or appetizing than a tuna fish sandwich or a potato salad -- even at the height of summer.
Yes, the cultural matrix will survive a trip to McDonald's.
Strong feelings about sandwiches or fast food? Stories about the Golden Arches in other countries?
See ya on YellowDig!
David Bell and Mary L. Shelman. "KFC’s Radical Approach to China." Harvard Business Review (November 2011 Issue). https://hbr.org/2011/11/kfcs-radical-approach-to-china
Colin Campbell, The China Study: Revised and Expanded Edition: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health (BenBella, 2016): “Lessons from China,” 59-100.
Manya Koetse, "China’s Best Fast-Food Restaurants: These Are the 11 Most Popular Chains in the PRC These are China’s most popular fast-food chains and the most important trends in the industry." October 24, 2019. https://www.whatsonweibo.com/chinas-best-fast-food-restaurants-these-are-the-11-most-popular-chains-in-the-prc/
Karen von Deneen, Karen; Wei, Qin; Tian, Jie; Liu, Yijun, "Obesity in China: What are the Causes?” Current Pharmaceutical Design 17.12, (April 2011), 1132-1139.
Yunxiang Yan, "Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald's in Beijing," in Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik eds., Food and Culture: A Reader (Routledge: 2012), 449-71.
James L. Watson ed., Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, Second Edition (Stanford, 2006).