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Old and new battle for changing Chinese tastes

By Pushpa Adhikari, Asia Times, 24 April 1999

BEIJING - Wang Kan is busy preparing noodles and pancakes at machine-like speed, kneading dough with his bare hands while inviting customers to come into his eatery.

Two of his helpers, both women, are out on the street inviting passersby to step in for lunch.

But only a few come in, and Wang is not happy at all. He curses foreigners for opening fast food centers in every corner of the city, undercutting his business. What has happened to the Chinese people these days? They are crazy, Wang grumbles.

He is referring to the stiff competition posed by western food franchises that have been drawing crowds in China's capital.

In many a corner of Beijing today there stands either a McDonald's or a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, with queues of youngsters waiting to dine there. Not far away, small restaurants which serve traditional Chinese food wait for customers to come.

Until the late 'eighties, fast food was a new term for the Chinese. Since then however, it has become synonymous with American-style food from foreign-owned enterprises.

Nowadays urban Chinese , whether they live in a small city such as Xian or in the capital, Beijing, are well-acquainted with the American franchises Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's, although many of them may not yet have had a chance to taste their products.

Businessman Lao Rong says youngsters are the main targets of western-style fast food, because they have liberty and money to spend, provided by parents who indulge them with material things.

He says, KFC tastes good but it is expensive, so one cannot afford it quite often.

Beijing's food scene has changed a lot since the 'eighties, social researchers agree.

There was only one restaurant of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing in 1979 and now the number has grown to more than 85. It shows that they are becoming popular, and the average numbers of customers in these shops range from 150 to 300 each day, says Han Chiannai, a researcher on food habits at the Academy of Social Sciences.

But Chinese entrepreneurs are not sitting with their hands folded, and some have taken up the challenge openly and put up similar businesses next to the western food chains.

Ronghua Chi, one company that has taken up the fast food concept, has opened a stall opposite KFC in Andingmen Street here.

But it is tough to compete with the Western chains: today there is a queue outside KFC but not outside Ronghua. Zou Xin, 55, says she prefers Ronghua because it is Chinese - but her son would definitely go to the American fast food place.

Elsewhere, some restaurants in Beijing have gone on the offensive to stress special Beijing characteristics, such as making as much noise as possible during eating, to lure customers in.

Many have also spruced up their surroundings and removed rubbish and dirt to draw patrons. Sun Bao, an official with the National Administration of Internal Trade, agrees that the food habits of the Chinese are changing and many worry about street food not being clean.

But Han says it might be too easy to conclude that Chinese country-wide are radically switching food habits.

Youth in the cities are more prone to go to Western fast food restaurants not just for the food, but also for fun and because doing so is seen as a sign of modernity, he notes.

China is a big country, and people have money in the cities and they can afford it, but that does not mean that the food habita of the whole country are changing, he explains.

After all, he says, there are still places in China where people cannot afford even simple food. Even for city people, going to a Western fast food restaurant is a luxury. You can see crowds of customers in such restaurants, but the individuals might visit just once in a month, Han points out.

The average spending of each individual in these shops ranges from 20 to 40 yuan ($3 to $4), which is much higher than the daily income of average Chinese, Han says.

(Inter Press Service)