McDonalds: A Post-Mao “Place”

Why do Americans eat at McDonalds? What comes to my mind is convenience, speed, affordability, and satisfying hunger. However, in 90s Beijing, one ate at McDonalds for modernity, leisure, an enjoyable environment, and socialization. Although fast food is now treated differently in China, why did people in 90s Beijing feel this way about McDonalds? By reading “Of Hamburger and Social Space” by Yungxiang Yan, I realized that McDonalds was a cultural and social phenomenon for post-Mao China.

McDonalds is less of a “space” (defined boundary where human activity operates) than a “place” (a space with meaning). In other words, citizens of Beijing ate at McDonalds for what it said/meant about them. McDonalds restaurants are clean, techno-savvy, brightly lit, play cheery music, and have friendly service. Eating at McDonalds symbolizes participation in American modernity and culture; a culture that is inclusive of all ages, genders, and classes.

“I want my daughter to learn more about American culture. She is taking an English typing class now, and I will buy her a computer next year.” Apparently, eating a Big Mac and fries, like learning typing and computer skills, is part of the mother’s plan to prepare her daughter for a modern society. -“Of Hamburger and Social Space”  

Under Mao, the restaurant system of Beijing had no proper place for urban youth, children, or women except as the dependents of men. McDonalds provided a cultural and social experience of independence for these groups by allowing them to order for themselves, eat alone or in groups, and engage in public celebrations. This is another instance of McDonalds as a “place,” providing meanings of independence. McDonald’s success in 90s Beijing can be attributed to the revolution in social values of the post-Mao era. Fast-food establishments allowed for public communication in a social context previously discouraged by the state. Therefore, the political/post-Mao setting of China made McDonalds a “place” rather than a “space.”