To see the original Bradsher NYT article, go here.
According to NYT reporter Keith Bradsher, Starbucks already has 120 stores in mainland China alone. In the above article, Keith Bradsher writes: “What is striking about these efforts, by McDonald’s and KFC as well as Starbucks, is that they have made few concessions to Chinese tastes, instead cultivating in China an appetite for Western favorites, like Big Macs and grande lattes.”
Starbucks itself is modeled on an Italian cafe, from the 1983 travels of Howard Schultz in Italy; he then takes the “coffee bar culture” he saw in Italy back to Seattle, and the rest is history. In making that cultural translation, what Starbucks essentially was doing in the United States was cultivating an appetite for Italian coffee — and now Starbucks is doing that in the land of tea. The question then, culturally speaking, is — what is going on? Is this more cultural imperialism — the Westernization of Chinese culture? Or is something else happening?
Based on my research on KFC in Beijing, I would say something else is happening. Yes, Chinese cultural practices are changing, as coffee tastes in the United States have also changed — gone are the days of the popularity of “instant coffee” and other varieties of once dominant watery coffee. But they are changing because the needs, expectations, and meanings of Chinese cultural ideas are also changing. In the United States, Starbucks is not the “Italianization” of American culture; there are features within Starbucks that Italians would not recognize from their own cafes. Similarly, while Chinese tastes are changing and expanding, as Starbucks matures in China, there will be features in Chinese Starbucks that make it Chinese.
In the meanwhile, Starbucks is making lots of money.
I do research in issues in food and culture, work that I started in the early 1990s as part of projects that my graduate advisor at Harvard (Prof. James Watson) organized. Here are some links that you can check out on how biotechnology shapes our contemporary foodways; they are of course politically motivated and polemical (and funny!), but there is a lot of truth in these animated shorts.
Prof. James Watson is currently conducting research on the impact of biotechnology on Chinese society. While we will not be going to rural areas on this trip, some of the impact will be obvious to us if we pay closer attention to what we see in Beijing and Shanghai.
Analysis of food and popular culture reveals much about the cultural ideologies central to very different societies throughout the world and the initimate dynamics of family life. All peoples participate in some fashion and to varying degrees in the production, distribution, and consumption of food. Food culture can also be seen as the most basic of cultural activities — in the transformation of nature (as raw food or natural products) to culture. The cultural variety of what and how people eat — including the religious, political, and economic constraints on food — provide an ideal lens to study other anthropological issues such as cultural concepts of health, beauty, and body image.
To examine the relationship between food and globalization, I did a study of a particular Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Beijing to examine how global capital provides a new medium for local contestations and self-definitions of Chinese childhood in postsocialist China. My focus on KFC’s relations with children in Beijing is mainly warranted by two considerations. First, fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s have had particular success among children in large Chinese urban centers. Children are often the decision makers in determining whether or not an urban family will patronize a KFC restaurant. Moreover, what children eat is a fundamental part of their socialization, and changes in children’s dietary patterns are indicative of changes in their social environment. Second, children’s consumption of both material and cultural goods are becoming a domain of fierce contestation in many parts of the world and among different social groups seeking to implement their particular visions of the future by shaping childhood experiences. As an organizational actor, KFC is a part of the social life of Beijing children, and influences Chinese experiences of childhood through its becoming part of local Beijing life. Before the ethnographic context of KFC in Beijing is set up for analysis, a few remarks should be made on this essay’s theoretical framework.