Wednesday, April 26, 1995

China's first McDonald's

Do you remember the international brouhaha that was raised late last year because McDonald's 20 year lease on the corner of Changan Avenue and Wanfujing Street, arguably the most coveted address in Beijing, was suddenly in jeopardy? Most China wise folks would know that Changan is the main east-west thoroughfare that runs by the famed Tiananmen Square. The intersecting Wanfujing extends northward and has historically been known as the premier street of commerce in Beijing.

Many a homesick visitors in Beijing for an extended stay have probably eaten at the 700 seat restaurant, said to be the world's largest McDonald. After a gala opening in 1991, it was to vacate prematurely in favor of a big time development financed by Hongkong money. Going by recently, I see that the restaurant was still standing, though rather forlornly because everything around it has turned to rubble.

As the locals tell it, Li Kaishing, one of Hongkong's richest billionaires, made the deal with the Beijing municipal government, which normally would have been sufficient. The envisioned project was going to be so huge, that it was going to dwarf the 17-story Beijing Hotel across the street, dominate the nearby Tiananmen Square and cast a shadow over the grandeur of Forbidden City, the finest imperial palace in China,--movie goers will remember it as the back drop for Bertolucci's Last Emperor.

In January, cooler heads from the central government reconsidered the matter and ordered the project put on hold, but not before all the buildings on that long block from the corner of Wangfujing eastward along Changan had been razed. Maybe the fuss over McDonald contributed to stopping this project, but it was too late to save the street. From the most desirable location, the restaurant is now next to one of the biggest eye sores in Beijing. With reduced foot traffic, McDonald did not exactly win.

As of April, the government has asked Li Kaishing to proceed at a reduce height comparable to the neighboring Beijing Hotel. Whether the Hongkong investors would still find the project economically attractive is not known at the time of this report.

In any case, students of Chinese tradition would not find the refusal to allow the development to proceed as surprising as the initial approval. For dynasties, no building around the palace is permitted to look down into the palace grounds. After all the site of the imperial grounds was carefully chosen to ensure long and stable reign. This and other traditions involving the palace and its powerful fengsui are observed by the current regime with the tall Beijing Hotel being only a slight stretch. Fengsui is the Chinese term for their science of geomancy that basically says location is everything. (Maybe the first Chinese geomancer was a real estate broker.)

If you don't think the current regime is a keen observer of traditional fengsui, next time in Beijing look at the prime real estate on the avenues that radiate directly north and south away from Forbidden City. You will find no tall buildings. Why? Because, as it was explained to me, the central nervous system of the imperial dragon lie underneath the north-south axis, and nothing heavy should be allowed to press on it.

People that do not understand China, which include many in Washington, tend to think of China as a tightly controlled state in which everybody moves in sync. This kind of go/no-go happenings, which occur with regularity, should persuade otherwise.

Other explanation for the go and stop and maybe go again of the Wangfujing project attributes the cause to political in-fighting between the central and the municipal government. Whatever the case, it does reaffirm the maxim about China, namely "nothing stays the same and nothing is as it seems."

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