Image: Patric Lin
AP
Patric Lin, manager of Tenmu Donuts, chooses doughnuts at a Tenmu Donuts shop in Guangzhou, China. Lin is sure he can succeed where others have failed, and get the Chinese hooked on doughnuts.
updated 2/15/2010 1:46:18 PM ET 2010-02-15T18:46:18

Patrick Lin is sure he can succeed where others have failed, and get the Chinese hooked on doughnuts.

But the doughnuts this entrepreneur is selling, in the city that gave its name to Cantonese cooking, won't be readily recognizable to Westerners. They're shaped like pearl bracelets, and toppings include ham and cheese, red spaghetti sauce, salmon, spicy beef and seaweed flakes.

Although the Chinese love McDonald's hamburgers and Starbucks lattes, they have yet to develop a craving for those glazed, deep-fried rings that Americans — and more recently snackers in many Asian nations — find irresistible.

Dunkin' Donuts tried, gave up, and is trying again. Lin, however, feels that being a Taiwanese and therefore familiar with Chinese tastes, he has an edge.

He isn't the first to tweak doughnuts for a different palate. He's riffing off a recipe developed by the Japanese, who began rethinking the doughnut decades ago when it was imported from America.

If it's true that the doughnut was brought to North America by early Dutch settlers, China and its 1.3 billion people represent the crowning milestone on a journey that has led across continents, showing how a simple treat morphs from culture to culture, overcoming memories of war and political grudges.

Many of Lin's doughnut lines follow the Japanese approach of using rice flour for a dense, chewy texture, much like Chinese desserts made of sticky rice.

"The American-style doughnut doesn't sell well in China because it's too much like bread," said Lin. "It just won't be accepted. You can't justify selling it at a price higher than bread. It's also too sweet."

In China, Lin said, the snacks need to be marketed as something special. "We're not just selling doughnuts," he said. "We're selling a concept, a new form of enjoyment."

Lin, 32, has spiky hair and glasses whose frames are encrusted with fake diamonds. The doughnuts in his showcases look like deep-fried jewelry. The chocolate, strawberry and vanilla frostings give off a plastic sheen.

"People often stop and ask me if they're real," said Lin.

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Chinese love fillings so he pumps red bean paste into some of his wares. He's selling a confection like a jelly roll, stuffed with vanilla pudding. A traditional glazed doughnut is sliced in half to add a wedge of cheesecake.

Lin was studying for a doctorate in law but gave up in 2007 to concentrate on his business, "Tenmu donuts," named after a district of Taipei, capital of his native Taiwan.

China and Taiwan are constantly at loggerheads politically, but that hasn't stopped China's burgeoning economy from taking full advantage of Taiwanese know-how, and Lin's competitors recognize the advantages.

Dunkin' Donuts opened several stores in Beijing earlier this decade, but soon retreated. Now it is back, this time opening seven stores in Shanghai with the help of a Taiwanese franchise partner, Mercuries and Associates.

"We are operating 30 Dunkin' Donuts stores in Taiwan, and Dunkin' Donuts wanted us to run the mainland stores, using our Taiwan experience," said Angela Hsu, a manager at the Taiwanese company.

Chinese are drinking more coffee and are ready for doughnuts, she said, and Dunkin' Donuts plans to open 150 more shops nationwide in the next 10 years.

"Dunkin' Donuts has dropped the sugar level as the Chinese, like Taiwanese, don't like snacks that are too sweet," she said. "It has also added new varieties, such as one with pork."

Another chain, Japan's Mister Donut, also has aggressive expansion plans. Once an American icon, the franchise has most of its stores in Japan, Taiwan and other parts of Asia. It recently opened six shops in Shanghai and plans on 66 by 2013, also working with a Taiwanese partner.

Newspapers have written up Lin's product, but they don't have a word for doughnuts and call them "tian tian quan" or "sweet, sweet rings." Nor do they touch on the American connection, or the Japanese one.

"When I first entered the market, I didn't mention that these were Japanese-style doughnuts. The Chinese still have a lot of hatred of the Japanese," said Lin, referring to Japan's brutal occupation of China before and during World War II.

He got another boost from "Love Around the Corner," a Taiwanese TV series that is hugely popular in China and features mega-star Barbie Hsu, whose character binges on doughnuts.

Chinese merchants tend to be cagey about financial details in case competitors or tax collectors are listening, and modesty is considered a special virtue in Chinese culture, so Lin will only say his business is doing "OK," without revealing specifics.

Guangzhou is the right place to start the doughnut revolution. The booming city of 10 million, once known as Canton, is one of China's wealthiest. It lies close to Hong Kong and is used to absorbing the latest trends and fashions from its glitzy neighbor.

Willa Zhen, an anthropologist writing a doctorate on Cantonese food, said traditional doughnuts are too sweet for Chinese palates, but notes that cake shops are catching on.

Therefore, she said, "I definitely think doughnuts have a fighting chance."

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