Fred Schneiter spent 30 years working in and around China, and came to recognise the value of keeping an open mind and learning something new every day. You’re likely to learn something too if you read this excerpt from his book, Getting Along with the Chinese.


Chinese Mice Don’t Eat Cheese

IN THE EARLY DAYS of our wheat food promotion in Asia, the story was the same virtually everywhere. People didn’t eat bread because it was terrible. The best that could be said for it was that it kept your hands clean when you ate a sandwich.

Except for what passable fare you might encounter at one of the few new international hotels, hamburgers throughout the Orient defied digestion. The common practice was to prepare them early in the morning (using ingredients of questionable parentage) and then let them stew through the day in a sunny display case until they took on a hard, oily inedibility, with the lettuce acquiring the texture of wet tissue. Asians quickly decided they didn’t like hamburgers. They said they preferred rice, and I had to confess that in Asia, I’d rather eat rice too. Before long our industry was working closely with McDonald’s to establish a beachhead in South Asia. Properly prepared and presented, hamburgers had to be a hit there. After all, a mix of relish, mustard and ketchup is about as close as you can get to sweet and sour sauce without using a Chinese recipe.

I wasn’t surprised when Taiwan’s China Post reported later, “When the first Big Mac was served in Taipei on January 28, 1984 few would have imagined that in less than three years, Taiwan would be transformed into a veritable fast-food jungle with over forty-two fast-food chains vying for the public’s food dollar.” Not only was it affording a more balanced diet to people who’d been eating as much as 300 pounds of rice a year, the new merchandising system (the article noted) introduced “quality control and sanitation procedures.” Seven years later, I journeyed by train just across the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to participate in the opening of the first McDonald’s outlet in the People’s Republic of China. Marketing experts were awed to find the entire week’s inventory sold out in less than three hours. Within weeks that McDonald’s had become one of Shenzhen’s top tourist attractions.

The acceptance of properly prepared and correctly marketed hamburgers illustrates how—by identifying a circumventible consumer attitude and working aggressively toward improved quality, wheat foods have become a staple in Asia’s more developed countries. In urban centers like Hong Kong and Singapore, in stores and shops where food is prohibited, it is now common to see a sign with a line-drawing of a hamburger with a diagonal red slash across it. A decade ago people would have had trouble working out what the picture was supposed to represent.

In the early days of our marketing efforts, we ran a consumer study in Singapore and found Chinese there had only a vague idea of what foods are made with wheat. In Manila, I asked the five-year-old son of a Chinese friend if he knew what noodles were made from. “Worms!” he giggled. And that was the best guess he and his seven-year-old brother could come up with. (Today I find that less surprising than I did back in the 1960s, since a recent survey revealed that half of adult Americans don’t know that white bread is made from wheat.)