McDonald's in Hong Kong: Consumerism, Dietary Change, and the Rise of a Children's Culture James L. Watson
On a cold winter afternoon in 1969 my neighbor, Man Tsochuen, was happy to talk about something other than the weather. Over tea, Mr. Man continued the saga of his lineage ancestors who had settled in San Tin village, Hong Kong New Territories, over six centuries earlier. Local history was our regular topic of conversation that winter and the story had already filled several notebooks. Suddenly he stopped, leaned back in his chair, and began to describe a meal he had eaten. He recounted—in exacting detail—the flavor and texture of each dish, the sequence of spices, and the order of presentation: Blue crab and bean curd soup, laced with ginger and served in porcelain steam pots; red snapper braised in soy sauce with green onions; crackling roast piglet; pop-eyed delta shrimp, scalded for 15 seconds in boiling water; dim sam (steamed dumplings) shaped and colored like goldfish; stuffed whole chicken plastered with star anise and baked for a full day in clay; newly harvested, first-crop Panyu county rice served with fresh bak choi (vegetable), stir-fried in chicken fat.
78 James L. Watson Food for the g ods. Mr. Man's account was so vivid I assumed he was referring to a wedding banquet he had attended a few days earlier in the nearby town of Yuen Long. Only later did I learn from his wife that fifty years had elapsed since he had enjoyed that meal—as a 16-year-old—in the city of Guangzhou (Canton); his father had taken him along on a business trip, and they had been invited to a banquet in one of South China's premier restaurants. My neighbor's preoccupation with food was by no means unusual. Meals like the one described above are signal experiences in the lives of nearly everyone I have encountered during my 28 years of fieldwork in Hong Kong and the adjoining province of Guangdong. Whatever their station in life, hawker or billionaire property developer, the people of this region are intensely proud of their cuisine, indisputably one of China's finest. "We are Cantonese," Mr. Man would proclaim whenever we sat down to eat together, "We have the best food in the world." Given such strongly held views, how does one explain the phenomenal success of American-style fast food in Hong Kong and, increasingly, in Guangzhou—the two epicenters of Cantonese culture and cuisine? Seven of the world's ten busiest McDonald's restaurants are located in Hong Kong. When McDonald's first opened in 1975, few thought it would survive more than a few months. By January 1, 1997, Hong Kong had 125 outlets, which means that there was one McDonald's for every 51,200 residents, compared to one for every 30,000 people in the Unite d States. Walking into these restaurants and looking at the layout, one could well be in Cleveland or Boston. The only obvious differences are the clientele, the major-
McDonald's in Hong Kong 79 ity of whom are Cantonese-speakers, and the menu, which is in Chinese as well as English. Transnationalism and the Fast Food Industry Does the roaring success of McDonald's and its rivals in the fast food industry mean that Hong Kong's local culture is under siege? Are food chains helping to create a homogenous, "global" culture better suited to the demands of a capitalist world order? Hong Kong would seem to be an excellent place to test the globalization hypothesis, given the central role that cuisine plays in the production and maintenance of a distinctive local identity. Man Tso-chuen's great-grandchildren are today avid consumers of Big Macs, pizza, and Coca-Cola; does this somehow make them less "Chinese" than their grandfather? It is my contention that the cultural arena in places like Hong Kong is changing with such breathtaking speed that the fundamental assumptions underlining such questions are themselves questionable. Economic and social realities make it necessary to construct an entirely new...