I saw the other day that McDonalds has opened its 2000th restaurant in China. To think that there are now 2000 Golden Arches in China because when I first lived in China there was one, in Shenzhen. The first McDonalds outside of Shenzhen opened in China in Beijing in 1992 and I was fortunate enough to have been there.
I remember a few things about that first visit to McDonalds in April,1992, namely how crowded it was (according to McDonalds there were 40,000 customers on that first day), the line of people taking snapshots of the Ronald McDonald statue outside the restaurant and how I had to summon my courage to eat a Big Mac with cheese because the person behind the register could not comprehend a special request to make a Big Mac without cheese. After explaining to him that I did not like cheese I looked behind me at the great wall of people waiting to order and decided that I had better dispense with the special request lest it bottleneck production and create a major incident in what was billed as the largest McDonalds in the world. .
Thinking back to my first time at McDonalds in China I can remember how in those early years of Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms about the only two American foods you could find in stores, not counting the ubiquitous Coca Cola which had been in China since the 1930s, were Tang and Nescafe instant coffee. The popularity of Tang in China was hard to fathom since it had not been popular in the US in 20 years. I can only speculate that someone in the Nixon entourage had brought over a jar back in 1972, ( maybe someone in the State Dept thought it sounded Chinese as in Tang Dynasty ?) and the Chinese were hooked from then on. Who knows.
In those days then there was a buzz in the foreign community anytime an American brand was spotted in Shanghai, whether that was a short-lived Sees candy store on Jin Jiang Lu or a box of Ortega Taco Shells that somehow had found its way into the Soviet era grocery store on the corner of Wulumuqi and Hua Shan Lu. There was a randomness to it all that was exciting.
Beginning about 1992 or 1993 western style supermarkets started to sprout up all over Shanghai. They were big but did not offer much variety meaning you might find an entire aisle dedicated to one brand of hot sauce. The locals were slow to accept the supermarkets because they were more expensive than the local markets, did not except grain coupons and there was a tendency to distrust anything new. Imagine a local Chinese shopper in those days trying to figure out what a jar of Skippy was. I remember vividly how big but how eerily silent and empty the supermarkets were in those early days. You wondered if they would catch on.
If you really had to have that box of Pop Tarts or some Gray Poupon then there was the Wellcome Store, the Shanghai ex-pat equivalent of the Army PX, located in Shanghai’s most well-known ex-pat compound, the Portman ( now the Ritz Carleton Shanghai). But everything was expensive in this store so we did not go there but on the most special occasions or maybe after we had had a bad “China Day” and just needed a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate to keep our China life in perspective.
Nowadays when you go to Shanghai you can find anything everywhere. Whenever I go to Shanghai and pass by a bakery I like to recall those Sundays when I would get up early and embark on a two hour journey via bike, ferry and bus to the middle the old French Concession. There was a bakery there and they had a rare commodity that I was after. It was called bread.