Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
Chinese waitresses dance the Hokey-Pokey Friday in front of guests during the pre-opening of Hooters in Shanghai, China.
updated 10/22/2004 4:01:08 PM ET 2004-10-22T20:01:08

The beer is flowing, John Fogerty is singing on the stereo and six scantily clad young Chinese women are doing the hokey-pokey.

Hooters Shanghai is open for business.

The American restaurant opened its first China outlet on Friday night, bringing its highly successful combination of cold beer, chicken wings and skimpily dressed waitresses to one of the world's fastest growing economies.

Located in an upscale mall in the foreigner-friendly Hongqiao district, the outlet adds to the more than 375 stores now operated by the chain famed for its busty waitresses clad in clingy low-cut tank tops and high-cut shorts — an image the company describes as "delightfully tacky, yet unrefined."

“The people of Shanghai deserve something fun with good service and we're happy to bring it to them,” manager Cameron Jiang said as smiling waitresses whisked plates of chicken wings and glasses of cold lager to guests at a launch party.

Hooters' arrival marks another milestone in Shanghai's rise as China's commercial hub, but also underscores how growth is challenging traditional conservative views on sexuality.

For decades after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, traditional male-dominated culture and communist prudishness combined to make showing skin or publicly displaying affection verboten.

These days, however, Shanghai boasts hundreds of hostess bars, massage parlors, sex shops and telephone chat lines. Couples kiss and hug openly, while public opinion surveys show broad acceptance of premarital sex among young people.

"You see young women on the street wearing skimpy outfits on hot days. I don't think anything could be wrong (with Hooters), as long as customers and waitresses have the right intentions," said an office worker with an American pharmaceutical company, who gave only her surname, Fang.

Hooters' investors are betting those changing attitudes will take its “Hooters Girls” in stride.

Since opening its first store in Clearwater, Florida, in 1983, the chain has expanded across the United States and into more than a dozen foreign countries ranging from Taiwan to Venezuela.

While critics deride its portrayal of women, the Atlanta, Georgia-based chain has overcome a U.S. federal investigation and several lawsuits alleging discrimination to become a cash cow. Along with aggressively expanding its restaurant chain, parent company Hooters of America, Inc. now runs a discount airline — Hooters Air — sports events, and a planned Las Vegas hotel and casino.

Waitresses at the Shanghai store are mainly college students or recent graduates — English proficiency is a must. While the chain says appearance is less important than attitude, youth and comeliness appear to be prime requisites for the job.

“It's a really happy place and I love this job,” said waitress Lily Shang, 23, who earned a college degree in English and heard about Hooters over the Internet.

“The uniform is no problem, it's very beautiful, and there are chances of moving into management,” Shang said.

Jiang said plans call for eight Hooters in China in all, but marketers were still testing the waters.

A number of well-known American food chains are already competing for increasingly choosy Chinese diners, and chains in a similar category such as Chili's and Hard Rock Cafe have found the going tough.

Kentucky Fried Chicken already operates 1,000 stores in the country, McDonald's 567, and the TGI Friday's chain five. With China's economy growing at an annual rate of more than 9 percent, all plan further expansions.

And while Hooters may have name recognition among foreigners, it's unclear how the native Shanghainese, increasingly spoiled for dining choices, will respond to the newcomer.

“The market share is only so big for American food, and chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's won't easily give way to Hooters,” said Xue Yuanqing, a director with the Shanghai Culinary Association.

He added: “I don't know much about this restaurant, but generally, American food is not known for any particular virtues.”

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