East meets West in funny ways
Western restaurants are popular in China, but not always for the reasons that Americans would expect.
Thanks to an American restaurant chain, savvy Shanghai residents now have one more English word to add to their fast-developing international lexicon: Hooters. But here, unlike in the US, the refrain is more along the lines of "Hey, let's take Grandmom and the kid to Hooters tonight!"
Shanghai, China's largest and most commercial city, was chosen as the country's launching pad for the company, even though Hooters gals in Shanghai differ from their American counterparts. As local branch manager Cameron Jiang notes, "The servers here are not so busty and curvy," a fact that matters not one hoot to the Chinese.
Instead, Hooters Shanghai succeeds in a completely different way: by emphasizing welcoming friendliness, not sex appeal. In a country where overworked and underpaid wait staff are not known for their sweetness, Hooters offers something new: courteous, attentive service with a smile. And local patrons love it.
Hooters is a recent example of the concept that all things Western and formerly forbidden are big in China now - although not necessarily in the same way they are in the West.
Last month, Nina Zagat, of the Zagat guidebooks, paid a visit to Shanghai to assess the city's nightlife and culinary goings-on. Ms. Zagat discovered that international chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has opened an outlet on Shanghai's elegant riverfront, yet his modus operandi has been changed somewhat to succeed locally. In the West, the customer is always presumed to be right, justifiably or not. But in China, regardless of whose name appears on the menu or marquis, a different ethos is at work: If a diner complains about something, a Chinese waiter will go to great lengths to come up with an excuse, instead of simply replacing the dish. The obstacle of faulty, careless service is one of many irritating, ingrained habits that Mr. Vongerichten and his compatriots are working to overcome.
McDonald's has managed to bridge the cultural divide not only with Big Macs and double cheeseburgers, but also with a triangle-shaped tortilla wrap holding sliced beef, teriyaki sauce, and hash browns, as well as with a new pork-patty sandwich smothered in black pepper sauce (the sauce has been a Western-style favorite in Shanghai since the mid-19th century).
KFC was one of the early and most successful American imports into China. But it's the Colonel's bony wings that sell best here, not the white-breast portions preferred in the US. KFC has further modified its menu to include local favorites such as congee (rice gruel soup) and stubby cobs of unbuttered, unsalted corn.
Food is not the only community where differences appear. Wedding salons here are not what the average American bride would expect. Think elaborate, gold-encrusted, one-stop shops for hair, makeup, gowns, and, after the actual civil ceremony has taken place at a courtroom, photos.
Western-style historical museums are also catching on in Shanghai, but with a few twists to appeal to locals and their spoiled only children. Thus, bugs are big here. On Dec. 6, Shanghai opened a Bug Museum with more than 1 million specimens on display, including the big draw of 3,000-year-old lice collected from the hair of ancient corpses.
Hair salons in China now offer the big names in hair care products - L'Oréal, Paul Mitchell, and Vidal Sassoon - but they insist upon giving every customer a traditional head massage, free of charge. It would be unthinkable for a Chinese salon to offer a shampoo and set without a gratis head massage, and this has prompted various hair product manufacturers to create special scalp-soothing products for the Chinese market.
Chinese patrons getting their roots touched up also demand that the color never touch the scalp. "Unlike in America where I had a salon, Chinese clients are terrified of hair dye on their skin," says Wang Lei, owner of the successful Shanghai chain of Commune Hair Salons. "So we've had to change our application style considerably."
Self-tanners are not the popular item they are in the West. In China, white skin is in. A tan face signifies the status of a lowly peasant who has worked in the fields all her life. Thus, the whitening products from Chanel and Kanebo sell well here.
Looking for a convenience store in China? As long as you don't expect what you get in the States, you can go to Lawson's, the Chinese equivalent by way of Japan. But be prepared for steaming vats of broth and skewered tofu wafting into your face at the checkout counter, with hordes of after-school kids pushing you out of the way to get at it while you try to pay for your milk and Pepsi.
Christmas may be one of the biggest Western imports of all. In Shanghai, it has been adopted in a big way, with gift-giving and partying. Ask any average Chinese on the streets of Shanghai what they think Christmas means, and they will likely reply, as Xu Ma Ling did, "Well, it's a very big Western holiday that signifies the birth of some god. But we also know that the main thing is to give extravagant gifts and shine bright, twinkly lights."
Jan. 1 is also wildly celebrated here, with fireworks and set menus at every upscale hotel in town, even though the Chinese excitedly celebrate their own more culturally relevant New Yearin early February.
Perhaps Rudyard Kipling got it only partly right when he said, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." They do seem to be meeting in some unexpected ways.