Can China save its struggling fast-food industry?

Mr. Lee, the fast-food chain formerly known as “California Beef Noodle King,” is a source of annual bemusement for my overseas relatives on their visits home. “What do beef noodles have to do with California?” my father or uncle ask, without fail, each time they encounter the restaurant’s signs in a Chinese train station and airport lounge.

The answer—quite a lot. Mr. Lee, which calls itself China’s oldest domestic fast-food brand, has its roots in a Los Angeles beef noodle restaurant founded in 1972 by P. C. Lee, a Chinese-American businessman born in Chongqing. Corporate lore claims that an unnamed “major American fast food chain” approached Lee in the 1980s, when he already had a small empire of seven shops with top reviews in the Los Angeles Times, and asked him to be its partner in China, the emerging market already being eyed by industry juggernauts like McDonalds and KFC.

Instead, Mr. Lee decided to move his entire business, head office and all, to China. According to one customer’s reminisces on Weibo, the 1988 opening of the first “California Beef Noodle King USA” in Beijing drew lines comparable to the city’s first KFC, which launched the year before. Despite its unremarkable food, already available at hundreds of thousands of mom-and-pops and ordinary homes, the restaurant seduced diners with its sleek interior and Western cachet—the name, the machine-like efficiency of its preparation system, and its claim to be the first Chinese restaurant in the country to offer canned soft drinks.

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author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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