Saturday, May 13, 2006

How Do You Say "Supersize Me" In Chinese?

Current mood: thumbs down

Category: News and Politics

China shifts to a drive-through culture
By Simon Montlake Fri May 12, 4:00 AM ET

Lunchtime in China's footwear capital, where giant factories spit out shoes for sale on four continents, is an object lesson in globalization and the evolution of a brash boomtown.

While the Brazilian cafes cater to homesick migrants who work in the leather trade, the chic Japanese sushi restaurants and Italian pizza joints aim squarely at China's newly rich. There's a Spanish tapas bar, half a dozen Thai options, and plenty of local and regional Chinese restaurants. And the marble-floored luxury hotels have international buffets.

Did I mention the new McDonald's?
No, not just a regular run-of-the-mill McDonald's. Dongguan already has those, along with all the other imported fast-food franchises that are multiplying fast across China. Instead, this car-crazed city of industrial fortunes is getting its first taste of another all-American habit: the drive-through.

Ever since China cracked open the door to foreign capitalism in the late 1970s, it has been shifting gears at a furious pace. At times, the breathless rush of development can be disorienting, not to say destructive.
But there's comfort in the unbending traditions that endure in China. Until now, I counted among them family mealtimes, the clatter of chopsticks over communal plates. For my own Chinese-American in-laws, this is the social ritual that trumps all others. Scoffing down a burger at the wheel is a poor substitute, and I found it odd to imagine a nation of convivial diners surrendering their birthright.

It's no accident that McDonald's opened its first drive-through in Dongguan last December. Local newspapers have estimated that one in three Dongguan households, excluding the vast migrant workforce, own an automobile, making it one of the highest rates in China. Slick new highways cut through the city, dotted with speed cameras that catch out-of-town motorists unawares.

The new McDonald's, which also has a sit-down restaurant, occupies the corner of a suburban street of salmon-pink apartments and low-rise malls. It's a world apart from Dongguan's gritty shoe factories where migrants sleep in crowded dormitories and line up for canteen meals. Even the smoggy skies are softer on the eye, and a green hillside pokes out behind an electricity pylon that towers overhead. Out past the downtown cluster of skyscrapers called, with utter frankness, "Central Wealth District," Dongguan's famous shoe leather meets the gas pedal, and there's not an iron bicycle in sight.

In short, it's an ideal locale for the all-American meal in your car. McDonald's calls it a natural response to the "fast-paced lives" of many Chinese who they hope will embrace this "next generation" of restaurants. A second drive-through has opened this year in Shanghai, and more are promised.


Soon the Chinese will be as fat and as sick as we are.