By Clark Doman ’23
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a decade after Deng Xiaoping introduced his “Open Door” policy that opened China to the rest of the world, American fast-food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s established their first restaurants in China. These restaurants in Beijing and other large Chinese cities achieved instant success, setting off a “fast-food fever” among the Chinese public that was more infatuated with the foreign dining experience than the food itself (1). Moreover, American fast-food restaurants attracted young locals to work at their locations by offering relatively high wages and promotion opportunities (2). However, the expansion of these mega-corporations represents a key piece of globalization and American soft power. In response, the Chinese government began promoting cultural texts that warn audiences about the dangers of capitalism by using fast-food chains like McDonald’s as symbols. Chinese popular culture texts, such as After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town (2000), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), and Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), portray American fast-food restaurants in China as places where employees can make high wages and customers can enjoy foreign cuisine in clean spaces of leisure. Alternatively, they also reveal that these restaurants expose workers to negative aspects of capitalism, such as inequality and the obsession with money, and provide customers with expensive, underwhelming food.
American fast-food restaurants in China are great examples of cultural globalization and soft power that subtly influence Chinese ways of thinking and societal norms. Cultural globalization focuses on how “Western goods, services, ideas, values, and media affect local, usually non-Western cultures once they enter the new markets opened by globalization” (3). This definition implies that the spread of American fast-food products in China has enhanced the United States’ soft power because as Chinese people learn to enjoy Western fast food, they begin to see the U.S.’s power as more legitimate and are less likely to resist America’s foreign policy agenda (4). Scholars have argued that elements of American popular culture, such as the fast-food chains KFC and McDonald’s, lead to a state of cultural homogenization where everyone’s consumption preferences are the same. They believe that because corporations like McDonald’s make “heroic efforts to ensure that its food looks, feels, and tastes the same everywhere,” they lead people’s values toward those associated with “mass consumer capitalism” through a process sometimes referred to as “McDonaldization” (2, 3, 5). By altering Chinese norms to be more capitalistic, the spread of American fast-food restaurants in China gives the U.S. a significant amount of soft power.
Although international fast-food corporations can promote cultural homogeneity, scholars have also pointed out that local cultures do not always act in opposition to global trends, but, instead the two often blend to form unique cultural hybridity (3, 6). In China, customers have transformed American fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s into local institutions so that “McDonald’s is seen as much a Chinese phenomenon as it is an American phenomenon” (5). For example, although many American fast food customers use the drive-thru system to take their meals to-go, most consumers in China spend “hours talking to each other and gazing out the huge glass windows onto busy commercial streets – and feeling more sophisticated than the people who passed by” (1). Instead of valuing fast-food as a quick, cheap meal, Chinese customers care more about the space for social interaction and comparison that fast-food restaurants provide. Additionally, many local Chinese restaurants have copied some of the beneficial aspects of the American fast-food model to compete for customers. These restaurants combine traditional Chinese food with the clean, social dining space that fast-food customers love, resulting in a clear expression of cultural hybridity. Although this process of “glocalization” gives Chinese people more agency in their response to the spread of American fast-food restaurants in their country, the fact that they adopt fast-food chains and their way of business into their own culture reinforces the American soft power that these corporations impose (6).
Considering the political importance of cultural globalization and the soft power that American fast-food restaurants have in China, it is interesting to examine the Chinese government’s response to this non-military threat. Most directly, local municipal governments operated some local Chinese restaurants, such as Jingshi Fast Food Company in Beijing, that tried to compete with and replicate the success of American fast-food giants (1). Additionally, the Chinese government promoted popular culture texts that critique capitalism and Western culture by utilizing restaurants like McDonald’s as symbols. Specifically, Ha Jin’s fictional short story After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town and the popular films Eat Drink Man Woman and Comrades: Almost a Love Story depict Western fast-food chains in China as having both beneficial and harmful effects on local workers and customers.
All three aforementioned popular culture texts include characters advancing themselves economically by taking advantage of the labor opportunities offered by American fast-food restaurants. After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town follows the story of the employees of an American chicken fast-food restaurant, Cowboy Chicken, located in Muji City, China. The narrator Hongwen and other low-level Chinese workers make significantly more money working for Cowboy Chicken than they would at a similar local job. For example, Hongwen’s salary is over fifty percent more than his father’s, even though he just started working at Cowboy Chicken and his father has been working at a government job for over forty years (7). Additionally, Peter, the Chinese manager at Cowboy Chicken who studied in the U.S. and knows English, represents the significant promotional opportunities that American fast-food companies offer to high-achieving locals because his income is twenty times more than that of the other workers (7). Similarly, young women Jia-Ning in Eat Drink Man Woman and Qiao Li in Comrades: Almost a Love Story work at American fast-food restaurants to earn high wages in a place of Western modernity. Jia-Ning’s job at Wendy’s acts as a vehicle for her to build relationships with a romantic partner, while Qiao Li’s job at McDonald’s allows her to increase her savings and overall wealth. By allowing Chinese workers to earn a decent wage and advance their careers, American fast-food restaurants in China provide locals with the economic success and upward mobility associated with capitalism.
Despite noting the high wages and potential for promotion that American fast-food companies provide to their Chinese workers, After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town also highlights the negative aspects of capitalism that the restaurants impose on their workers such as unnecessary waste, inequality, and the lack of job security. Jin depicts the corruption of capitalism by having Hongwen and the other low-level Cowboy Chicken employees get increasingly upset with Peter, their manager, for his superior position in the restaurant and his wasteful actions. First, out of curiosity the workers travel to Peter’s house in the countryside and are “staggered” by the size and cost of the mansion (7). Because the house reveals to the workers that Peter makes much more money than they do, their eyes start to show “envy and anger” when they look at him and think of the apparent income inequality (7). This festering jealousy causes the workers to try to find fault with Peter and start arguments with him. One day after work, they follow Peter and discover that he burns and pees on the leftover food from Cowboy Chicken. The employees are furious and disgusted with this extreme form of waste, and when they confront Peter about it, he admits that he does not enjoy burning the leftovers, but says, “If I gave them away, I’d be fired. This is the American way of doing business” (7). Even though there are begging children and hungry homeless people in Muji City, Cowboy Chicken’s company policy disallows him from giving the leftovers to the needy, conveying that the abundance of Western capitalism is wasteful and unforgiving to the less fortunate. Finally, after the workers find out that Peter’s salary is twenty times larger than theirs, they feel exploited and ask Mr. Shapiro, the restaurant’s white American boss, to fire Peter. When Mr. Shapiro does not, the workers go on strike for a half-day. When the workers show up in the afternoon, Mr. Shapiro immediately fires them, revealing that workers lack job security and bargaining power in capitalist systems. Through portraying the waste, inequality, and expendability of workers under capitalism, After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town shows the negative effects that American capitalist corporations can have on their employees.
Moreover, in Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Qiao Li’s obsession with money and risky investments that lead to immense debt reveal that the capitalist private wealth she gains from working at McDonald’s can have some negative consequences. Qiao Li, a migrant worker from mainland China looking to take advantage of capitalist systems in Hong Kong, works multiple jobs, including one at McDonald’s, to increase her savings. Her strong work ethic pays off, causing her ATM balance to consistently rise. However, Li Qiao develops a “fetishism for Hong Kong, its aggressive commercialization, and the seemingly boundless moneymaking opportunities” that leads her to speculate on risky stocks that eventually put her in immense debt during the stock market crash of 1987 (8). To pay her debts, she is forced to become a masseuse, which is a hypersexualized profession that she criticizes earlier in the film. Although Comrades: Almost a Love Story portrays McDonald’s in a relatively positive light, the fact that the income Li Qiao earns from the fast-food chain eventually becomes a financial burden that she must remedy through working a morally problematic job highlights the dangers of capitalism and American culture.
Like how Chinese popular culture texts show that Western fast-food restaurants have an ambiguous impact on Chinese workers, they also reveal that there are positive and negative features of Chinese fast-food customers’ dining experiences. Together the three popular culture texts show that customers at American fast-food chains in China enjoy the “experience of eating in a cheerful, air-conditioned, child-friendly restaurant” that offers a clean environment and intimate taste of modern Western culture (2). Chinese customers benefit from Western fast-food restaurants because they provide the rare opportunity to experience American culture. In the late 1980s and early 1990s when fast-food chains opened a restaurant in an untapped Chinese neighborhood, such as when the fictional Cowboy Chicken restaurant opened in Muji City, young Chinese customers who were “eager to taste something American” would “come in droves” (7). Similarly, when Comrades: Almost a Love Story’s XiaoJun Li, a Hong Kong migrant worker from Tianjian, gets his first payday, he goes to McDonald’s which he sees as “somewhere Tianjian people have never been” to enjoy an American dining experience and get his hometown sweetheart a McDonald’s paper placemat as an exotic gift. In addition to Chinese adults wanting to experience American culture themselves, many working-class Chinese parents save up money to take their children to KFC or McDonald’s to “connect them with the world outside of China” and reward them for academic achievement (2). These cultural texts reinforce the idea that Chinese customers, specifically young people, believed they benefit from international fast-food corporations introducing them to American culture.
Cultural texts also convey that through sharing an interest in American culture, Chinese customers at Western fast-food restaurants transform them into localized spaces of leisure and social interaction. At fast-food restaurants in big Chinese cities, consumers “have turned their neighborhood restaurants into leisure centers for seniors and after-school clubs for students” (2). In these clean spaces with “roomy tables, good light, and air-conditioning,” each demographic spends hours munching on fries, drinking tea or coffee, and socializing among themselves (2). This transformation is a key example of how Chinese people have localized the private property of American corporations into a public space.
In both Comrades: Almost a Love Story and Eat Drink Man Woman American fast-food restaurants are depicted as bustling spaces where many customers are eager to order and enjoy the social space. In Comrades: Almost a Love Story, XiaoJun Li enjoys his first McDonald’s experience by sitting down at a table and talking to Qiao Li when she comes near. He is so impressed by the clean, busy restaurant that he eagerly asks her to help him apply for a job there, noting that he does not want to work “anywhere else.” Moreover, the fact that Qiao Li is shown mopping the white floor and wiping windows that are already fairly clean emphasizes the cleanliness of McDonald’s that customers like XiaoJun Li appreciate. Additionally, Chinese consumers occasionally host special events such as birthday parties at American fast-food restaurants. For instance, in After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town, a couple decide to host their wedding dinner at Cowboy Chicken. Before the “exotic” food was served to the wedding party, the man officiating the banquet thanked Mr. Shapiro, the white American restaurant owner, for providing “such a clean, beautiful place” for the celebratory event. Chinese cultural texts reinforce the idea that American fast-food restaurants in China are clean, safe spaces of social interaction and celebration.
Although Chinese popular culture shows how customers benefit from the pristine, social environment of American culture that fast-food restaurants provide, they also reveal how Chinese consumers tend to dislike the underwhelming, expensive food. According to the scholar Yunxiang Yan, in the 1990s, Beijing adults did not particularly like McDonald’s food, commenting that “the taste was not good,” the “flavor of the cheese was strange,” and the food often did not make them feel full (1). Similarly, young locals of Muji City initially flock to Cowboy Chicken to experience American culture, but many adults later complain that the American fast food is a “sham” that is too expensive and not “for the Chinese stomach” (7). Further emphasizing the last point, after the wedding dinner hosted at Cowboy Chicken, many Chinese employees, and members of the wedding party experience diarrhea because they consumed dairy-heavy ice cream and cheesecake that their stomachs are not accustomed to (7). Lastly, although Eat Drink Man Woman does not depict any main characters eating fast food, the fact that Jia-Ning takes her romantic interest to eat at a food cart serving traditional Chinese cuisine instead of the Wendy’s where she works suggests that she does not enjoy eating the fast food that she serves to others. By describing how American fast food does not appeal to Chinese tastes and by generally not focusing on the food, popular culture texts reveal that Chinese customers go to fast-food restaurants because of the dining experience rather than the food itself.
The spread of American fast-food restaurants in China is a relevant example of cultural globalization and soft power that the Chinese government has responded to by promoting pieces of popular culture that portray the ways that fast food benefits and harms Chinese workers and consumers. After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town shows that fast-food workers earn relatively high wages and have access to promotional opportunities, but it also conveys that employees are vulnerable to the dangerous features of capitalism including income inequality, waste, and the lack of job security. Additionally, Comrades: Almost a Love Story suggests that fast-food workers can become obsessed with money and financially ruined by the inherent risks of capitalist systems. Finally, Eat Drink Man Woman and the other cultural texts highlight that American fast-food restaurants in China provide consumers with a clean social space where they can experience the Western culture, but that they also serve expensive food that does not appeal to Chinese tastes.
Clark Doman is an American Studies and Economics major. His essay was originally written for Professor Xian Wang’s course ‘Chinese Popular Culture.’
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