My Shanghai Real Kung Fu is still around — even flourishing. The once-dirty floors are now mopped every hour; the dog-eared paper menus have given way to illuminated menu boards that hover over high-tech registers manned by smiling, uniformed employees who move almost robotically from counter to kitchen and back. Real Kung Fu promises your entire meal within 60 seconds of ordering or your money back, and I have yet to claim a refund for my favorite dish, the really rather good chicken-and-mushroom rice. They’ve learned a few tricks.
The same can be said of other vastly improved and emerging local fast-food places, such as Mandefu and Baijila, small-scale Chinese chains doing slightly Westernized variants of local favorites, complete with knockoff Western logos — Mandefu’s red and yellow sign front owes more than a bit to McDonald’s palette, while Baijila taunts KFC with a slightly feminine Colonel Sanders.
But China’s up-and-comers, its aspiring middle class, prefer the status of the real thing. McDonald’s and KFC are still largely the preserve of the bai ling and young families on the make, who go for a little taste of things foreign, and a sign perhaps that they really are moving up. As Warren Liu, a former KFC senior executive, has written, when the chain’s first restaurant opened just outside Tiananmen Square back in 1987, “Customers were attracted to KFC’s Chinese brand name; its American roots; its likeable, grayish, beard-bearing brand spokesperson — Colonel Sanders; the unique restaurant decor; the new way of ordering food; the bright red and blue colors of the brand logo; the American music broadcast inside the restaurant; and, as an added bonus, a very clean toilet!” That’s mostly all still true.
Around the corner at my local noodle shop, the average customer is decidedly a step down on the socioeconomic ladder, largely from the city’s army of waidiren (migrant workers) who need to watch every yuan. Tom Miller, author of the recent book “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History,” has observed this phenomenon closely. “If the economy works out right for this army of labor,” Miller says, “then maybe someday soon they’ll get in line at KFC, but for most that moment is not quite yet.”
The truth is: The Chinese people are both aspirational and eminently sensible when it comes to partaking of the benefits of global capitalism. Great cars come from Germany, luxury fashion from France and Italy, and fast food from America. And the hundreds of millions who make up China’s new middle class want the best of everything: Audi cruisers, Gucci purses — and, it would seem, KFC’s Dragon Twister.
French is chief China market analyst at Mintel, a London-based research firm, and co-author of “Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation.”