Is street food becoming another Chinese tradition to disappear?
Editor’s note: this post is from January 2014 and some of the info is outdated. I found it buried in our unpublished archives and figured I may as well make it live.
I was standing in front of a KFC in Nanchang. I was standing next to a KFC in Nanchang too. I was also standing across the street from a KFC, around the corner from a KFC, and down the street from three more. I counted them; there were eight KFCs within a few blocks in the downtown portion of the capital of China’s Jiangxi province. The street-scape was gregariously speckled with bright red signs competing against identical bright red signs like the color guard of a conquering invader.
KFC’s China story began in 1987 when it became the first Western brand to open an outlet in the country, with its ground breaking restaurant in Qiangmen, Beijing. The chain has grown from there. In 2008, the company’s CEO announced plans to open more than 20,000 restaurants in China. This hasn’t quite happened yet, but through the 2010s KFC has been opening more than a restaurant per day throughout China, and now have over 4,500.
KFC is a staple that is almost anywhere there is anything in China. If you’re in a town without a KFC here, you’re literally “out there.” So I don’t think twice when I see a KFC across from a KFC. But in Nanchang, I was floored: there was almost nothing but KFCs to eat at in the city center.
Can these people really like fried chicken this much or is there really nowhere else to go?
While walking through a part of Shanghai a while back I was startled when I realized that I literally could not find a place to eat that wasn’t a fast food chain. I walked for blocks, it was the same: KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Subway, and around a dozen of China’s mimic chains — which tend to be nearly as expensive but twice as shitty.
This all out fast food movement happened fast. When I first starting coming to China in 2005 McDonalds was a novelty; I don’t remember ever eating at a KFC, Subway didn’t exist there yet, and I don’t remember ever seeing a Pizza Hut. Then as if a switch was flipped, international fast food chains exploded all over the country.
What are these fast food restaurants replacing?
Street food vendors and small local noodle and rice joints.
Partially, it’s understandable. People are being scared off of street food and small restaurants by fears of gutter oil and other impurities in the food and its preparation methods. In an odd twist of logic, international fast food chains are actually thought of as being potentially being healthy (or at least less dangerous) than reputation-less local restaurants in China.
I don’t mind KFC sometimes, I eat breakfast McDonalds often in China, I sometimes have dinner at Pizza Hut, and every once in a while I enjoy Subway. Rejecting all fast food is pointless, but what I find onerous is the lack of other options. When a city has eight KFCs right next to each other there really isn’t too much room left for anything else, and this not only changes people’s dining habits but the way cities look and function.
China has a long tradition of street food. You can read about street food vendors in almost all of the classics of Chinese literature. It’s just something that’s always been there and always served a social function. Street food vendors here are the eyes of the street.
I can remember when I first began traveling in China in 2005 I would almost exclusively eat at street stalls. They were ubiquitous then: whenever you wanted some stir fried rice, tofu on a stick, octopus tentacles, or a baked potato there would always be someone at your side with a cart ready to sell it to you.
Street food is now becoming a little more difficult to find. Among cities trying to clean up the appearance of their streets, decreasing public confidence, and competition from fast food chains, Chinese street food is disappearing.
It is true that there are still street food vendors in Nanchang within the contingent of KFCs, but they’ve all been corralled onto a grimy side alley, very much out of public view from the main street: