China branding

One clear sign of China’s integration into the globalised world is the presence of international brands and companies. The most visible are multinational food and drinks franchises, like Starbucks, KFC, Coke and MacDonald’s.

Chinese streets are lined with them – Binjiang Jie, the big shopping street in Tianjin, must have about three MacDonald’s, two KFCs, and three Starbucks. But these franchises made efforts to adapt. The main step for them was to find a Chinese name, adapting that core element of their brand-image – the name-logo, with its unique font and colour. Starbucks here still has green characters, but presents itself as 星巴克 – read ‘Xing Ba Ke (‘Star’ Ba Ke)’.

Choosing a Chinese brand-name is a tricky exercise. You want to mimick the sounds of the original, and Mandarin phonology does not always allow for it. But mostly, the characters chosen to transcribe the brand name will have a meaning of their own, and carry all sorts of associations. Brands must have found good marketing experts here. Carrefour has become 家乐福 – read ‘Jia Le Fu‘ – family happy and rich. Coca Cola became 可口可乐 – read ‘Ke Kou Ke Le‘ – the possibility of a mouthful is the possibility of happiness.

The menus also adapted to local tastes. McCafés serve green tea cheesecake; KFCs offer a congee option, with Chinese doughnut and soy milk, in their breakfast menu.

Global integration went even further. The principle of franchising itself has spread to China, and local brands emerged, like Vanguard 24h supermarkets, Bengon’s cake shops, and Xiabu Xiabu hot pot restaurants.

These local franchises, along with multinational ones, give Chinese streets their new colours. Who knows, maybe we’ll see them appear on Melbourne streets soon, like Taiwanese EasyWay bubble tea and Malaysian Kopitiams already have.


There is nice popular drink in Beijing – ‘SuanNai’, a kind of liquid yogurt  wich I think is traditionally from Inner Mongolia. It comes in a nice, recyclable clay pot. You drink it on the spot with a little straw, then leave the pot on the shop counter.

You don’t always have to drink it on the go. I’ve seen people having it around a nice table, in the shade. Chatting around it.

Interesting, I found, how the pots were not immediately taken away, but kept on the counter or the table. It’s actually quite appealing, in a way: if so many people have enjoyed a pot of Suan Nai, I should have one too!

This is also some sort of smart ecological thinking: recycling the empty container; using it as a marketing tool, meanwhile.


Is it years of abstinence, is it the crowds, or is it something else? I don’t know, but there is a definite aesthetics of abundance at play in Chinese shops. I noticed that while walking around the ground floor galleries of the E-mart centre.

Some of it could be just the old kid’s dream of a mountain of lollies and toys.

Or sometimes, the shop will display a teenage girls’ luxurious fantasy of absolute indulgence,

But it’s not just about having it all – it’s about the commodities having a certain life of themselves, and, somehow, being part of a composition – a family. The chair you buy is not just ‘eekström’ or ‘Hjallkäd’. It has a history of its own, it lives its own life, among other chairs, and then comes into your world, like a pet – or a friend.

In a country that, still, when religious, will worship multiple gods – literally idolatrous – it is not surprising, after all, that objects should have a certain aura. The statues of the gods are on sale two shops down from the chairs, right after the pillows, opposite the lollies.

But is it surprising, or sacrilegious, that it should be so? After all, the purpose of these household gods was to bring fortune inside – like the famous Japanese paw-waving cat at the entrance of many Asian shops, also on sale. But is it an element of decoration for home or shop, or a genuine religious item?

So shouldn’t the experience of shopping, somehow, have a religious side to it? And why shouldn’t a chair be, somehow, on a continuum with a god-statue?

Beijing cool

Beijing is definitely cool. It’s violent, it’s impractical, it’s too big, I hate it – but it is cool. I spent an afternoon with Niklas around the Houhai area, a bar, restaurant and shopping district around two connected lakes. Later, Kenyen came to meet us, and we walked over to Nan Luo Gu – a small street in a hutong area with all sorts of bars and cafes, designer shops, a foot massage place, and an experimental theatre. A kind of Beijing Fitzroy, where the grey stone replaces the Victorian iron lace.

Coolness is a consumerist category. We look for it in shops. Its aura will spread from objects like this notebook.

Is that what my – very cool – Melburnian Chinese friend had in mind when he told me ‘I miss Beijing, I really miss Beijing – I love it so much – it’s the best place in the world for shopping!’

Another sure sign of Beijing cool is the full assimilation of world pop culture. You know you’ve made it to coolness when the little red soldier is interchangeable with Barack Obama, Marylin, or Che Guevara.

Final sign: the shop with a concept. Here, you can choose from hundreds of designer post-cards on the walls, sorted by style and theme, and write it in the shop – who will post it for you.

Niklas insisted they stole the idea from a shop in Suzhou. Who’s coolest? One more step, and they’ll start rating their lattes.