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Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia (英語) ペーパーバック – 2006/2/15
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McDonald's restaurants are found in over 100 countries, serving tens of millions of people each day. What are the cultural implications of this phenomenal success? The widely read--and widely acclaimed--Golden Arches East argues that McDonald's has largely become divorced from its American roots and become a "local" institution for an entire generation of affluent consumers in Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo. In the second edition, James L. Watson also covers recent attacks on the fast-food chain as a symbol of American imperialism, and the company's role in the obesity controversy currently raging in the U.S. food industry, bringing the story of East Asian franchises into the twenty-first century. Praise for the First Edition: "Golden Arches East is a fascinating study that explores issues of globalization by focusing on the role of McDonald's in five Asian economies and [concludes] that in many countries McDonald's has been absorbed by local communities and become assimilated, so that it is no longer thought of as a foreign restaurant and in some ways no longer functions as one." --Nicholas Kristof, New York Times Book Review "This is an important book because it shows accurately and with subtlety how transnational culture emerges. It must be read by anyone interested in globalization. It is concise enough to be used for courses in anthropology and Asian studies." --Joseph Bosco, China Journal "The strength of this book is that the contributors contextualize not just the food side of McDonald's, but the social and cultural activity on which this culture is embedded. These are culturally rich stories from the anthropology of everyday life." --Paul Noguchi, Journal of Asian Studies "Here is the rare academic study that belongs in every library."--Library Journal
People who have travelled in Asia know that some fast food specialties are customized to accommodate local tastes--the Maharaja Mac contains chicken, not beef, and teriyaki burgers are to be found not only in Japan, but also in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Some McDonald's publics are specifically Asian, as witnessed by familiar scenes in ordinary restaurants: school kids in uniform having a snack on their way home or before cram school; office ladies enjoying a relaxed atmosphere; lively birthday parties during week-ends. We know the story. It has been told before: by articles in the international press, by case studies in business schools, and by direct observation when one ventures abroad. What can the reader possibly learn that he does not already know? And what can a team of anthropologists bring to the task that does not duplicate the narratives of journalists and business writers?
Such skepticism was met by the five authors of Golden Arches East when they embarked on their collective endeavor to study McDonald's restaurants in five East Asian locations. Some academic colleagues accused them of legitimizing corporate hype, or of elevating to the status of a research project what could at best be handled as a sophomore class assignment. Few took them seriously, and they had to give justifications for their choice of topic. For James L. Watson and his coauthors, studying McDonald's is not only anecdotical: "To dismiss enterprises like McDonald's as somehow unworthy of serious inquiry is not only elitist, it is also suicidal for our discipline." As an academic field attached to cultural change, anthropology has to focus on terrains where change actually takes place, and the evolution of food habits is a prime example of cultural evolution.
Besides, the fast food industry and its adaptation to East Asian urban cultures is a good test of theories that take a critical perspective on the transnational transmission of cultural norms. Is McDonald's an instrument of American imperialism, of cultural homogenization, and of commodity fetishism? In the lead author's terms: "Does the spread of fast food undermine the integrity of indigenous cuisines? Are food chains helping to create a homogenous global culture better suited to the needs of a capitalist world order?" When observing, in true anthropological fashion, people who actually eat and spend time at McDonald's, a different and more nuanced picture emerges. As James Watson underscores in his introduction, cultural adoption is a two-way street. McDonald's has indeed effected small but influential changes in East Asian dietary patterns, in ways that are more subtle than the critics of imperialism would surmise. At the same time, East Asian consumers have quietly, and in some cases stubbornly, transformed their neighborhood McDonald's into local institutions, again not always in the direction that was planned by corporate headquarters.
What strikes the reader of Golden Arches East, more than the differences and variations across the five Asian localities, are the common patterns and repetitions in different cultural contexts. Sandwiches are produced according to a rigidly uniform process detailed in a 600-pages manual. The menu served at McDonald's is broadly the same from Tokyo to Hong Kong, from Seoul to Taipei, and the local adaptations serve only to underscore the homogeneity of the service provided. Customers usually, but not always, order a standard combo of three flagship products: the Big Mac, French fries, and a Coke. As the authors note astutely, "the keystone of this winning combination is not, as most observers might assume, the Big Mac or even the generic hamburger. It is the fries."
This fact, added to the cultural trait that the hamburger is classified as bread or bun more than as meat, explains why fast food cuisine is usually considered as "snack" by Asian consumers. A proper meal must contain rice, which the McDonald's menu does not include. As a consequence, McDonald's restaurants are often used as meeting places, leasure centers, or even after-school clubs: middle school students usually sit there for hours, studying, gossiping, and picking over snacks. Another Asian characteristics is the presence of a majority of female customers. Women appreciate the relaxed atmosphere, the clean toilets, and the non-alcohol policy that keeps some noisy male customers away.
The localization process of the McDonald's franchise also follows a similar cycle that is closely correlated with the level of development and openness of a given country. The first opening of a McDonald's facility in a foreign capital is not a minor event. The startup dates (1971 in Japan, 1975 in Hong-Kong, 1984 in Taiwan, 1988 in Seoul, 1992 in Beijing) closely follows the emergence of a new urban middle class with purchasing power and cosmopolitan tastes. The first McDonald's are usually located in prestigious districts (Ginza in Tokyo, Tiananmen in Beijing) and are first perceived as upmarket restaurants offering American cuisine (and culture) to a new class of young entrepreneurs and professionals who can afford the experience. These yuppies and foreigners are quickly followed by thrill-seeking teenagers and by young couples looking for a romantic date spot. Children are also prime movers in the creation of McDonald's East Asian clienteles. It is they who bring their parents or grandparents to the franchise, which offers a child-friendly environment complete with a play corner, birthday party salons, and iconic characters like Ronald McDonald or his female companion Auntie McDonald.
During this first phase of installation, McDonald's employees have to "educate" customers to the rules of fast food restaurants. During McDonald's first weeks of operation in Moscow, employees distributed information sheets to people standing in queues, telling them how to order and what to do after paying. The first discipline is to form a line in front of cashiers: in Hong Kong during the 1970s, customers packed themselves into disorderly scrums and jostled for a chance to place their orders. Similarly, customers at first generally do not bus their own trays and leave without attending to their own rubbish. Napkins placed in public dispensers disappear faster than they can be replaced. Without guidance, elderly people are likely to disassemble the Big Mac layer by layer, and eat only these parts that appeal to them.
After several years, when local managers think their business is well established, new items are introduced in the menu to suit local tastes in order to boost sales. The street-corner McDonald's restaurant is transformed from an essentially "foreign" setting into a place at once familiar and indigenous. The transformation from exotic to ordinary repeats itself across fast-growing East Asia at ten or twenty years intervals. Today it has become hard to convince a Taiwanese or a Korean child, whose favorite venue for birthday parties is McDonald's, that hamburgers are not part of the local food culture. McDonald's restaurants in most major Asian cities are packed wall-to-wall with people of all ages, few of whom are seeking an American cultural experience. For many people however, particularly in the politically sensitive contexts of Korea or China, McDonald's is not simply a corporation: it is also a representation of "the West" or "America". Some intellectuals see it as a symbol of American cultural imperialism--defined as the encroachment of cultural practices and values that reflect American political and economic power.
Are they right? Obviously much more than cuisine is involved when McDonald's first comes to town. It is a signal that the country is open for business, and that its citizens are wholeheartedly embracing globalization. They are buying much more than food, even if food is all that McDonald's is selling. As Stephen Mintz argues in the closing chapter, "Goods are embedded in their culture of origin; their introduction into a different culture is more than a simple importation of commodities." The McDonald's experience embodies quintessential American values: it is fun, friendly, and familiar. Consumers are treated based on the principles of individualism and equality, especially between male and female customers. The restaurants reflect cleanliness, efficiency, transparency, and economy. These features affect the way in which such food service is perceived by people in the host culture.
The cultural transplant sometimes creates misunderstandings. In Hong Kong for instance, people are suspicious of anyone who displays what is perceived to be an excess of congeniality. The visible smile that McDonald's employees were instructed to wear could be tantamount to a challenge. Similar reactions are reported by contributors who worked in Taiwan and Korea. In fact, the longer McDonald's operates in an East Asian city, the less evident are the forced smiles. Consumers are far more concerned with efficiency, reliability, and hygiene. And the penetration of American influence that intellectuals associate with McDonald's does not seem to bother ordinary customers. As Watson concludes his chapter on Hong Kong, "Having watched the process of culture change unfold for nearly thirty years, it is apparent to me that the ordinary people of Hong Kong have most assuredly not been stripped of their cultural heritage, nor have they become the uncomprehending dupes of transnational corporations."
As a last comment, Golden Arches East also reflects the fast pace of change in East Asia. Based on fieldwork conducted in the early 1990s, many chapters have become completely obsolete or have acquired historical value as testimonies of a bygone era. It is hard to imagine the long queues that formed when McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Beijing in 1994; and the pocket bells or "pokeberu" carried by Japanese school children have long been relegated to history's dustbin. The chapters on Korea and on Taiwan also heavily bear the mark of the times. The first was written during the "rice wars" when Korean farmers protested against foreign food imports, taking McDonald's as a symbol of the loss of Korean identity. The chapter on Taiwan also reflects the politics of identity that opposed cosmopolitans from the mainland to Taiwanese natives reconnecting with their roots by chewing betel nuts.
This historical context may explain why the book somehow overestimates the role of politics and does not devote enough attention to the "theater of the familiar" that fast food restaurants have now become. Meanwhile, yuppies in Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong have upgraded to the Michelin guide, whose publication in select major Asian cities has been accompanied by much publicity and debates. An anthropology of the impact that the famous red guide has had on haute cuisine in the Asian cities where it was launched, remains to be written.