Fast Food in China: The Men Who Would Be Colonel

Since the first Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its doors in Beijing in 1987, the chain has dominated China’s fast food market, establishing a presence that dwarfs its profile back home in the US.  And so it’s not surprising that aspiring fast food entrepreneurs have been eager to hitch a ride on the Colonel’s coattails.  While Chinese and Western netizens have been entertained by stories and photos of the shanzhai Apple stores and Dairy Queens that have sprouted in the past few months, the phenomenon of imitation KFCs has been a part of the Chinese cityscape for decades.  And while most are little more than local curiosities, several of these Kentucky Fried knockoffs have risen to become major players in their own right in the country’s fast food scene.

Mr. Lee (李先生)

Nearly anyone who has walked down a busy Chinese street is likely to have seen at least one restaurant whose sign bears the lean, impassive face of an elderly man identified simply by the three characters 李先生 – in English, Mr. Lee.  His name and his image are as recognizable as that of Colonel Sanders, but his identity and his origin are less well known.  His full name is Li Beiqi, and he was born in 1932 on the outskirts of Chongqing.  Originally a cadet in the Nationalist air force, he fled the mainland in 1949 at the age of 18 and made his way to the United States, eventually earning his MBA at the University of Maryland.  In 1972 he opened up his first restaurant, “Beef Noodle King” in Los Angeles, expanding to six more locations across Southern California over the next decade.  In time, he would return to his homeland, taking his restaurant to Beijing in 1987, the same year that KFC entered the Chinese market.

While continuing to offer the same Chinese noodle dishes he had cooked up in the States, Li Beiqi emphasized his restaurant’s American origins, playing to Chinese consumers’ infatuation with all things foreign at the height of the country’s “reform and opening” period.  As a not-so-subtle reminder of his LA roots, Li renamed his restaurant “California Beef Noodle King USA.”  Over the following decades, the chain expanded to over 400 branches all across China.  While Li Beiqi himself passed away in 2008, his name and his noodles live on.

Yonghe Dawang (永和大王)

But while Mr. Lee may have been inspired by Colonel Sanders, many other restaurants have taken the path of outright plagiarism.  In 1995, Yonghe Dawang opened its doors in Shanghai, boasting 24-hour service and a logo featuring the face of an old man with a wispy white goatee and a little black bowtie.  Unlike his Kentucky doppelganger – or even Mr. Lee – this familiar-looking figure had no name and no identity.  He certainly wasn’t Yonghe’s founder, the middle-aged and clean-shaven Lin Youao.

In any case, the mysterious old man disappeared in December 2008, when Yonghe was bought by Jollibee, a Philippine company that owns and operates fast food chains across Asia.  In his place, Yonghe now sports a new logo of a steaming golden bowl, with the character “yong” appearing on its gleaming surface.  Since then, Yonghe has proven that its brand can stand on its own, expanding to over 230 stores all across China.

Jiapo (吉阿婆)

The smiling face that greets customers at Jiapo is unlikely to be mistaken for Colonel Sanders.  For one thing, she’s a woman, and her middle-aged face is unmistakably Chinese.  But in other ways, Jiapo’s logo bears a resemblance to KFC’s that far outstrips the bearded gentleman at Yonghe Dawang.  The similarity is in the details: the same red and white color scheme, the same slant to the left, even the same apron and glasses.  The two complement each other so well that Jiapo has earned the nickname “Colonel Sanders’ wife.”

KFC’s offices in Shanghai are said to have officially complained to the city government in 2009, citing copyright infringement after a Jiapo opened right across the street from a KFC in the fashionable and modern Pudong district in the summer of that year.  But the government ruled in Jiapo’s favor.  As an official from the Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Bureau told the newspaper Xinwen Zaobao, while the resemblance of the logos is striking, the two restaurants are so dissimilar in every other aspect that it’s unlikely Jiapo will pose a threat to KFC’s business. Indeed, Jiapo doesn’t even serve fried chicken, but instead specializes in spicy made-to-order malatang.

CSC (乡村基)

If Jiapo is Colonel Sanders’ wife, then their kids can be found at CSC.  The bright and colorful faces of the boy and girl on CSC’s logo have inherited neither of their parents’ looks, but the restaurant’s name makes the relationship clear.  In Chinese, it’s called 乡村基 (compare that to 肯德基, KFC’s Chinese name), which translates roughly as “village base.”  But the official English name is Country Style Cooking, abbreviated as CSC on the storefront logo, in a font almost identical to the three-letter name of its American rival.

Unlike many of the other chains that have taken their inspiration from the Colonel, CSC actually is a fried chicken restaurant.  But while they originally started out in 1996 with a menu of sandwiches and fries, today their cuisine is exclusively Chinese-style.   And although they’re a relatively small scale enterprise, with just over 100 stores found only in Chongqing and Sichuan, they also hold the distinction of being the first Chinese chain restaurant to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, going public in September 2010.

The success of CSC and other KFC imitators has shown that they are more than just another novelty of the shanzhai culture.  To be sure, some may have simply latched onto the tried-and-true strategy of copying a foreign brand to make a quick buck.  But others have developed a more sophisticated and successful method of imitating not only the image but also the business model that made KFC such a major presence in China.  Delivering food that is not only fast, cheap, and hygienic, but also appeals to local tastes, these aspiring colonels have contributed to the birth of a uniquely Chinese fast food experience.