Reform and opening-up changed China, and gave us McDonald's

This week, back in 1994, Shanghai people joined the "lucky" folk around the world who got to enjoy a new brand of authentic American cuisine.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up policy, which saw the country steaming ahead in development at a rate unseen before in the modern world.

It also brought McDonald’s to these shores.

But don’t think for a minute that we’re still following plans made back in 1978. It’s always a work in progress, and plans need to be constantly revised and revisited and reworked for today’s world.

The Shanghai government just released 100 measures this month designed to extend and deepen reform and opening-up here. The policies are intended to develop a number of key industries and encourage continued foreign investment here.

As Shanghai steams ahead in its plans to become an influential and powerful international metropolis by the year 2035, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at just a small part of this city’s reform and opening-up journey: the introduction of American food.

This week, back in 1994, Shanghai people joined the “lucky” folk around the world who got to enjoy a new brand of authentic American cuisine — the first-ever McDonald’s opened its greasy doors in the city, the 22nd restaurant in the country. The first McDonald’s on Chinese mainland opened in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in 1990.


Local residents line up for free breakfast provided by a McDonald’s outlet in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

Since then, around 2,700 Golden Arches have been erected all over the mainland, with plans to host 2,000 more by the year 2022. But it wasn’t McDonald’s who led the way for American delicacies in China, oh no.

Several years earlier, in 1987, Kentucky Fried Chicken began tantalizing the taste buds of Chinese folk. Colonel Sanders had a real head-start, successfully catching the imagination of the world’s most populous nation and lighting the way for other high-quality American brands of cuisine to follow.

Now the country’s major cities, thanks in no small part to the amazing work of Deng Xiaoping way back in 1978, are positively flooded with Golden Arches, the smiling vestige of the late colonel, and that all-too-familiar-but-still-perplexing mermaid wearing a crown.

I’m talking about Starbucks, affectionately referred to as “the McDonald’s of coffee,” who reportedly open a new store in China every 15 hours. The brand’s largest outlet ever is, coincidentally, right here in Shanghai. There are already 3,000 branches all over the country, with plans for another 2,000 in the next few years.

For reasons quite unbeknownst to me (I still prefer instant coffee), people flock in to Starbucks stores all over the country for their caramel macchiatos and pumpkin spice lattes as if they’re going out of fashion. If you want to visit the huge Starbucks Roastery right here in Shanghai — it’s twice the size of the original version back in Seattle — then you’d better be prepared to line up at the door.


People flood into the huge Starbucks Roastery at the HKRI Taikoo Hui in Shanghai.

Alas you can still find areas of this vast country as yet untouched by the proliferation of American food and drinks. How do the people of Zhumadian, Henan Province, survive without their Big Mac fix? Do the Tujia and Miao people of beautiful Enshi in Hubei Province go crazy without their venti lattes?

If I’m being completely honest, I did crave a coffee of some description after waking up in the mornings as the sun shone through my shutter windows near Qinghe River in the mountains of western Hubei. But I can assure you Starbucks was the furthest from my mind.

When I was craving a bite to eat in Zhumadian, my friend’s dad took me to his favorite local restaurant. It serves every variety of zhou, which can only be described in my native language as porridge. “Sweet or salty?” he asked me with a wide and excited grin on his face. “Ting nin de (Up to you)!” I zealously replied. I’d be lying if I told you I enjoyed the taste and the texture, but just seeing how thrilled he was to show me one of his favorite treats was enough to make that bowl of slop scrumptious.

Magic stories like this are just waiting to be experienced, even right here in modern Shanghai, where you can be sure to find tasty treats at every corner. If eating local food is your thing, that is!

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