McDonald’s arrived in Hong Kong in 1975. Due to strong cultural views about food, similar to those of the Japanese, the success was surprising. People questioned whether the triumph of the fast food industry meant the local culture was under siege. Anthropologist James Watson set out to find if the food chains were helping to create a homogeneous “global” culture better suited to the demands of a capitalist world.
The conception of fast food was already present in Hong Kong before the entrance of McDonald’s. Time is money and consequently, an entire industry had already been built to deliver mid-day meals directly to workplaces in Hong Kong. The rise of McDonald’s during the 1970’s paralleled the conversion of the nation-state from a modest industrial economy to a booming financial and technological market. A new class of educated, affluent consumers subsequently followed. Before the public accepted McDonald’s as an ordinary meal, the organization fought to compete with the local restaurants by offering American culture in a package. (Watson, 1997)
It was the first-rate management skills of Daniel Ng that propelled the Hong Kong franchises to exploit the existing organizational culture of the American McDonald’s rather than try and compete with local cuisine. Harris (2000) says, “The global leader, sensitive to cultural differences, appreciates a people’s distinctiveness and effectively communicates with individuals from different cultures.” (Harris, 2000:24) Ng was an exceptional global leader in this way. He made critical decisions, defined by institutional values, which affected the organization and the people of Hong Kong. Ng’s idea was to attract locals by using the same business model used in the United States, hoping to draw people looking for a taste of America. His first move was to leave the McDonald’s sign un-translated on the outside of restaurants to emphasize their foreign nature. After they were well established he decided to transliterate the name into Chinese characters. Transliteration is a process in which the sound and syllables of a word are captured in translation rather than the meaning. This method portrayed the company as a Chinese enterprise in order to avoid confusion. (When KFC entered Hong Kong it chose a Chinese name that literally meant “Hometown Chicken” which the people did not understand because the chicken was certainly not from home; Watson, 1997:83)
Like the Japanese, the locals in Hong Kong viewed hamburgers as snack food. The corporate culture of McDonald’s has traditionally been to offer value meals but, Ng decided that it was important to enter the Hong Kong market as a supplier of snacks and slowly try and adjust its image to match that of the American organization. The organizational culture had to adapt to the national perception in order to succeed. Snacking after school or work provides an opportunity for socializing among peers and Ng believed this market, as a start, was worth investing in. Another example of Ng’s superb leadership skills and his ability to balance the organizational culture was revealed through his decisions dealing with the breakfast menu. In the 1980’s morning meals were introduced. The menu did not feature traditional American eggs and pancakes; it was the same as lunch and dinner. When breakfast proved to be a roaring success, Ng contemplated offering more conventional items. Fearing he would push away customers who were accustom to eating hamburgers for breakfast he gradually added new items to the menu. Today, McDonald’s in Hong Kong continues to offer plain hamburgers at breakfast, but the dietary preferences of the locals are now more compatible to American’s.
Ng strategically launched McDonald’s in Hong Kong with the intention of not imposing the company’s values onto the locals. He adapted the organizational culture of the American McDonald’s in order to successfully win approval abroad. Gradually Ng was able to transform the Hong Kong model to emulate the original corporate ideals and so, there was a fusion of cultures. “They have not been stripped of their cultural traditions, nor have they become ‘Americanized’ in any but the most superficial of ways.” (Watson, 1997: 79-80) Only with time did the trendy restaurants, idealized by young people, become part of everyday life in Hong Kong.
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