The Westernization of Chinese Food

The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas HollmannIn the epilogue to The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas Hollmann concludes with a look at the changes in Chinese food and eating habits. In the following excerpt he discusses the introduction of such Western staples as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to China:

Mineral water, lemonade, and other fizzy drinks have been sold in China since the 1860s. Coca-Cola started trying to conquer the Chinese market in 1918, but it took nine years until the first bottling in Shang­hai. This success did not hold for long: The Communists’ accession to power was followed by a long dry period, and Coca-Cola was only able to re-establish itself in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. It has since achieved a market share almost double that of its peren­nial competitor, Pepsi. Coca-Cola was the main sponsor of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and tried to strengthen its market presence in the following year, but the authorities eventually refused it permission to take over Huiyuan, the biggest domestic juice manufacturer. Inci­dentally, the Chinese do not always drink their Coke chilled: A popular remedy for a head cold is to add ginger and drink it.

The opening of McDonald’s first restaurant in China in 1992 was a major event. It was the biggest branch the fast food chain had ever set up worldwide, serving up to 40,000 customers on the opening day in Beijing. Twenty years later, there were around 1,400 branches Still, that was not enough to overtake Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which is the market leader among Western fast food chains in China and looks set to remain so for a long time to come. US $3 billion investments from 2009 to 2011. This is due to the enduring popularity of chicken, as well as the remarkable flexibility that enables KFC to adapt to indige­nous food tastes. Perhaps only Pizza Hut matches this degree of ingenuity: The type of pizza they serve in China has even less in common with the Italian product than the U.S. variety.

Western firms have demonstrated their adaptive capacity in China in other ways such as paying workers below the minimum wage or contravening food safety regulations. Indigenous Chinese companies have barely profited from this: Their repeated attempts to imitate for­eign competitors have largely proved unsustainable. The same applies to development of alternative concepts that attempt to combine local tradition and mass production. Even massive government support and emphasis on the positive medicinal effects of these products have failed.

What are the reasons? People in China are certainly interested in vis­iting McDonalds and Co. because of the unified standards of hygiene, the consistent quality of the food, and curiosity about Western lifestyles. There is, however, another important motivation. The advertising spe­cifically targets the “little emperors,” the children and young people who mostly grow up without siblings because of the restrictive population policy and who manage to persuade the family to give them nearly everything money can buy. The spoiling of the younger generation is not only creating a social paradigm change, but also aggravating a previ­ously negligible health risk in China: overweight. Ironically, this is hap­pening at the same time as excessive thinness is being idolized.

The U.S. fast food chains in China, which now include increasing numbers of Starbucks-type coffee shops, may boast impressive income growth, but they have not managed to displace the snack bars that have been providing light meals at least since the era of the Tang dynasty. They are in imminent danger, however, for it is small businesses that are most at risk in the center of the megacities. The threat comes less from competition of whatever kind than from the regulation mania of government authorities that use deficient hygiene conditions as a wel­come pretext for getting rid of cook-shops, stalls, and little outdoor restaurants.

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