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Golden Arches East

Nov
2
2006

Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia was a surprise hit when it was first published almost ten years ago. An ethnographic study that not only advanced the scholarship in anthropology, it also appealed to and enlightened readers outside the academic world. Part of the reason for its success with the latter audience is obvious, at least in retrospect: we may know little about Asian societies but we do know McDonald’s, and the book taught us a lot about these societies by showing how they adapted to an American institution and how that institution adjusted to them.

This book was a fresh study in “localization” as well as “globalization.”

Now in a second edition with a new “Update” chapter by the editor, the Harvard anthropologist James L. Watson, Golden Arches East remains a valuable and accessible book.



Golden Arches East:
McDonald’s
in East Asia

Watson and four colleagues undertook fieldwork–yes, sitting in a fast food emporium and watching people is legitimate anthropology fieldwork–in Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and Japan.

What McDonald’s means to Asian consumers can be remarkably different from what it means to Americans. For example, while efficiency and economy are what Americans expect when they pause for a Big Mac, Chinese customers see McDonald’s as a place to spend hours of leisure time enjoying a foreign experience. And forget economy: McDonald’s is a dining experience mainly for the expanding Chinese middle-class, not consumers on a tight budget. The Chinese McDonald’s also quickly became known as a place for certain family rituals, like the children’s birthday party.

One of the more interesting findings by Yunxiang Yan, the anthropologist who wrote the Beijing chapter, was that “McDonald’s customers spoke in lower tones than customers in other, Chinese-style eateries. They were also more careful not to throw rubbish on the ground or to spit near McDonald’s outlets.” They were even generally “more self-restrained and polite toward one another” than were customers at other similarly-priced Chinese eateries.

McDonald’s apparently encouraged similar gestures toward civility in Hong Kong. It is popularly (if probably mistakenly) regarded as introducing the practice of queuing to Hong Kongers. Before McDonald’s instituted orderly lines – along with monitors to enforce them – would-be diners would jostle in a scrum to have their chance to place an order. The acceptance and observance of orderly queuing in Hong Kong shows that the increased civility in McDonald’s is not, as in Beijing, a practice linked to self-imposed attitudes about dining in a foreign and relatively expensive establishment but something that can be enforced.

Watson, who wrote the Hong Kong study, learned that McDonald’s can be properly credited for introducing a higher standard of hygiene to Hong Kong restaurants. Cleanliness was never a high priority for Hong Kong restrooms, but McDonald’s made restroom cleanliness issue a priority, enforced the practice, and raised consumer expectations. Watson noted that all his informants cited the clean restrooms as part of the reason they frequented McDonald’s. David W.H. Wu found the same effect and expectations in the Taipei McDonald’s restaurants.

If McDonald’s improved politeness and cleanliness in Hong Kong and Beijing–that is, it cultivated more formal behavior – it seems to have encouraged greater informality in Japanese manners. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, the author of the Japan chapter, wrote, “The traditional rules of the game are as follows: One must not touch food with one’s hands when eating, and one must not eat while standing.” McDonald’s had limited impact on the first taboo: most Japanese continued to eat their hamburgers in the paper wrappers. Eating while standing (tachigui), however, largely gave way: in fact, the first Japanese McDonald’s had no seats.

Ohnuki-Tierney is careful to not overstate McDonald’s impact here: the larger foreign influence in relaxed table manners was the introduction of chairs (predating McDonald’s arrival) which was the greatest blow to traditional etiquette, the practice of sitting on one’s legs.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the fascinating findings in Golden Arches East. Readers of the book will learn more about such subjects as how McDonald’s experience in Korea was much more entangled with political symbolism and implications than in the other countries, and what McDonald’s menu has meant for the centrality on rice in Asian diets and dining practices.

Watson’s new chapter is especially valuable in showing how dramatically the “McDonald’s and globalization” story has changed in only ten years. Considered a benign and even welcome institution in the 1990s, in many places McDonald’s is now regarded as the epitome of the unwelcome foreigner. Also, although almost unheard of a decade ago, “obesity politics” is now a major issue; again, McDonald’s is in the crosshairs of that debate.

Moreover, Asian societies are getting older. McDonald’s success in Asia in the 1990s benefited from the replacement of the ancestor-oriented Confucian system by the family-based conjugal system which placed greater value on youth culture. Now, as these societies age, Watson wonders if McDonald’s is up to the challenge of the demographic shift.

In showing how much has changed in only ten years, Watson’s very interesting update on the story makes me wish that all the chapters had been updated. Of course, that is an unrealistic expectation. But therein lies an opportunity: these scholars, or others working in their footsteps, have a model to follow with more research into this fascinating subject.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 4:57 PM | Permalink

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