McDonald’s in China (A History + Anecdote)

Everyone loves McDonald’s. Admit it. Even if you utterly despise the Golden Arches, it means you’ve come to a point of hatred that you need McDonald’s. It is your foil, the touchstone that for you defines evil. You hate how their McNuggets are not chicken, or the McDoubles are not doubles. You hate they get preferential treatment on Coca-Cola. We all know cows in Brazil are ravaging the rain forest. And it’s just not really…food.

I hear ya. I do. And that’s why you love them too. You need them, or else what other evil corporation would you take on? And that’s the point.

Everyone has a special Mickey D’s story. I remember my grandmother, an exceptional Portuguese cook, would treat us to a feast of Quarter Pounders when we were much younger after our soccer games. This would mainly happen during Monopoly week/month/whatever it was. It doesn’t really matter cause nobody would win, anyways. You’d get all the pieces except for one of each set, because of course you would. The salt and oil from the fries would smother each laminated Monopoly piece as you’d try and peel them with your grimy little fingers off the picnic bench, and it was glorious.

Anyways, this is a story about China, isn’t it?

So one day, a friend of mine recounted her story of her first McDonald’s experience to me when she was a little girl.

For those you may not know, McDonald’s has a start date. In the US, it was already there when prehistoric Asians crossed Beringia, and franchises had sprung up across the eastern seaboard by the time some pesky Pilgrims sailed the ocean blue searching for religious freedom and McRibs. Pork was scarce in Northern Europe in the seventeenth century. (Loads of research went into retroactively citing this joke.)

In China though, fast food entered the Middle Kingdom in 1987 with the introduction of KFC. Chinese folks love chicken, and that right there is a damn understatement. Chinese love chicken like Americans love beef, which is nice for the environment and bad for chickens.

McDonald’s entered mainland China in 1990 and has forever been number two in China to KFC’s number one. This is the opposite the US, where Macdos is number one, and KFC is a garbage heap where you take emergency shits during road trips.

This is partially because of the competitive advantage of entering a market first, and also consumer tastes in China. (Have I mentioned they like chicken?)

Further, as fast food made inroads into China, it wove itself into the fabric of society. At first it was a status symbol. Do recall that China of 1987 was an improving, but certainly far from wealthy nation. Only the rich could eat at McDonald’s and it was considered a nice meal. This has occurred in other places that are not the US, as well, like Ghana. Status and the fact that it’s just so damn tasty. Right?

In any case, in China, McDonald’s first came to Shenzhen in 1990. Why Shenzhen? Well, as China entered its “Opening Up and Reform” (改革开放) 5 cities had Special Economic Zones (SEZ) where free-ish trade occurred. Two of them were Shenzhen and Zhuhai, as these were the places that bordered Hong Kong and Macau, two already (mostly) free regions.

My friend was originally from the Northeast (Dongbei, as they say) and moved/migrated to Zhuhai. Thus, Shenzhen and Zhuhai are considered migrant cities, as many aren’t actually from there. Very few people in these two cities speak Cantonese, for instance, which is the provincial mother tongue.

In any case, she lived in Zhuhai, and one day her father made the trip to Shenzhen, which isn’t particularly close if you’re driving (nor if you’re a crow). It’s across the Pearl River Delta, so you must drive all the way around or take a ferry. In any case, he went to McDonald’s there, purchased a burger for his daughter, and gave it to her hours and hours and hours later when he returned to Zhuhai.

Because this was McDonald’s in the early 1990s and it was held in such esteem, she was delighted. He carried this incredible sandwich over city lines (Chinese cities are uniquely massive…which I shall explain on another day). He carried this immaculately crafted delicacy from the east banks of the Pearl River to the west, just to satisfy his daughter’s taste buds. She finally bit into this strange creation from across the Pacific!

And it was….awful. And so there you have it. Every single person on this Earth loves McDonald’s.

Let me know what you think in the comments below! Do you love McDonalds a lot, or only love it a little bit?

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

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