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China shifts to a drive-through culture

As Asia adopts American meals-on-the-go, our reporter laments the loss of sit-down dinners and its social rituals.

By / May 12, 2006



Lunchtime in China's footwear capital, where giant factories spit out shoes for sale on four continents, is an object lesson in globalization and the evolution of a brash boomtown.

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While the Brazilian cafes cater to homesick migrants who work in the leather trade, the chic Japanese sushi restaurants and Italian pizza joints aim squarely at China's newly rich. There's a Spanish tapas bar, half a dozen Thai options, and plenty of local and regional Chinese restaurants. And the marble-floored luxury hotels have international buffets.

Did I mention the new McDonald's?

No, not just a regular run-of-the-mill McDonald's. Dongguan already has those, along with all the other imported fast-food franchises that are multiplying fast across China. Instead, this car-crazed city of industrial fortunes is getting its first taste of another all-American habit: the drive-through.

Ever since China cracked open the door to foreign capitalism in the late 1970s, it has been shifting gears at a furious pace. At times, the breathless rush of development can be disorienting, not to say destructive.

But there's comfort in the unbending traditions that endure in China. Until now, I counted among them family mealtimes, the clatter of chopsticks over communal plates. For my own Chinese-American in-laws, this is the social ritual that trumps all others. Scoffing down a burger at the wheel is a poor substitute, and I found it odd to imagine a nation of convivial diners surrendering their birthright.

It's no accident that McDonald's opened its first drive-through in Dongguan last December. Local newspapers have estimated that one in three Dongguan households, excluding the vast migrant workforce, own an automobile, making it one of the highest rates in China. Slick new highways cut through the city, dotted with speed cameras that catch out-of-town motorists unawares.

The new McDonald's, which also has a sit-down restaurant, occupies the corner of a suburban street of salmon-pink apartments and low-rise malls. It's a world apart from Dongguan's gritty shoe factories where migrants sleep in crowded dormitories and line up for canteen meals. Even the smoggy skies are softer on the eye, and a green hillside pokes out behind an electricity pylon that towers overhead. Out past the downtown cluster of skyscrapers called, with utter frankness, "Central Wealth District," Dongguan's famous shoe leather meets the gas pedal, and there's not an iron bicycle in sight.

In short, it's an ideal locale for the all-American meal in your car. McDonald's calls it a natural response to the "fast-paced lives" of many Chinese who they hope will embrace this "next generation" of restaurants. A second drive-through has opened this year in Shanghai, and more are promised.

So far, the signs are encouraging. Around 400 cars a day are using the drive-through in Dongguan, a McDonald's manager tells me, and the concept of eating on the go has caught on. Workers are no longer posted at the entrance to guide customers through. At peak hours, meals are delivered in under two minutes.

Eager to get some local reactions, I linger with my interpreter at the order counter. In China, interviewing ordinary people on the spot is a fine art, subject to much misunderstanding. At a drive-through, with seconds to spare, it's a washout. Most drivers are too busy digging for change or passing around their burgers to say much, though the sight of a foreigner jogging alongside does get their attention.

What do they think about this American custom? Convenient. Quick. Modern. "I'm always in a hurry," says a smartly-dressed man in a white sedan, before zipping away with his burger.

A young couple approach on a motorbike, and the woman dismounts and strolls up to the order counter. She gives her order to the clerk - "two Cokes, two ice creams" - who interrupts and asks her to get back on the bike. The woman scowls beneath her bleached hair. "Look, I'm here now. Why don't you order what I want?" she asks.

Alerted to the holdup, the manager comes outside, but the boyfriend has already cottoned on and he rides his bike into position. The clerk rings up the order, the couple drive on to the next counter, and Dongguan's drive-through flows again.

Inside the restaurant - about half its business is sit-down meals - it's easier to talk. There's plenty of praise for the drive-thru and the promise of convenience and efficiency. Some customers say they pick up food to bring back to their workplace, not to eat in the car, though they have no objections to doing so, if they're busy.

Finally, I meet someone who shares my skepticism. Liu Huandong, a doctor, had brought along his two young sons, who sat twirling their fries in pools of ketchup. He's a regular at McDonald's, but says he doesn't understand all the fuss about the drive-through. Surely it was better to enjoy mealtimes. "When you can sit at the table with your family, that's much better. It's the right atmosphere," he says.

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