Is Fast Food Really Becoming Unpopular in China?

via Shanghaiist and Mark's China Blog. The L.A. Times has recently written an article that claims that "in China, appetite slows for Western food." While a little part of me really wants them to be right about this, they aren't. Their thesis:

In the U.S., fast-food chains often thrive in tough times. But not so in China, where Western quick-service food isn't the cheapest stuff in town and, in target markets like Shanghai, there's too much competition. Plus, a growing number of consumers see it as unhealthful.
Their point makes a lot sense, but is ultimately laden with Western assumptions about fast food that don't really hold any water in China. More and more franchises are opening every day across China, and new chains are coming over every year (the recent arrival of Dunkin Donuts for example, soon to be followed by Kristy Kreme).

Go into a KFC or a MacDonalds here and look around. Who are the customers? What are they doing? It's a completely different customer base then the West, and the way in which people consume fast food in China is striking different, that attempting to even connect the U.S. brands with their China incarnations can take you for a loop.

The first time I ever ate fast food in China was in Jinan, Shandong Province in 2007. I was studying at Shandong University and myself and my Chinese-Canadian friend had finally hit that point where we needed to get our Western food fix. Jinan's a pretty provincial place (compared to Shanghai anyway) so we just went straight for the fast food. Imagine my surprise, (coming from "ew-fast food" hipster West Coast Canada) to see that the KFC we had just entered was not only completely packed, but packed entirely with 16-25 year old... couples... on dates. We went to a Macdonalds the next week. The same thing. At all hours of the day, packed, at least relative to other restaurants, and packed with young people on dates or hanging out, excitedly chatting with their friends. There's a rule that we could add about the conception of fast food patrons in China: they are never alone.

We want to imagine the fast food chains always under the cultural representations that they hold in the West. In Victoria, a Quebec poutine or a German shintzel restaurant isn't going to provide either a healthy or a cheap option for going out on a date or just hanging out with for fun. But it will provide something interesting, new and very delicious. That's what fast food restaurants are outside of the West.

There's plenty of Chinese "shanzhai" knock-offs of fast food too. Mark in Xi'an, who I found out about the story from, could take a trip to Xi'an's famous WuYi eatery where there are stalls selling big pieces of "knock-off" breaded fried chicken for several kuai. Or in Shanghai, one might want to venture to Kendeji (as opposed to KFC's brand, Kendeqi) for their shanzhai'd KFC menu... they serve Chinese food too. Others are popping up, and transforming Western fast food into something actually quite cheap priced next to the original brands. But Western meat-heavy fast food is going to always remain priced above high-carbs/veg/poor-cuts-of-meat Chinese food, there's no economical way of changing that. By virtue of that fact alone, I suspect the "novelty" of Western food has as little chance of wearing off here in China as the "novelty" of Chinese food does in America.


Ken said...

Hey dylan, first of all, great blog for both material and style! You write with so much ease that makes me a bit envious.

I don't know much about fast food in China today, but I remember clearly what it was like ten years ago. KFC was the best place for a child to be! The taste of the chicken and fries was magnetic and the toy found in the Kid's Meal was more than an object to play with. It was a dynamite to evoke jealousy. When my friend came to school with a KFC balloon, some kids were offering to trade it for much more valuable things, like a good ping pong ball.

The price of KFC was about 25 dollars per meal in 1999, so taking the inflation rate into account, although the price of KFC remains around that figure,it is significantly cheaper.

Dylan Sherlock said...

Thanks Ken!

That is a great story. It's so weird thinking of you as a little kid in China! KFC meals are cheaper today... but not by much. Obviously though, earnings are way up from 1999 and the middle class has grown large enough to accommodate that kind of spending.

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