Joining the bun fight

IN PACIFIC Palace last Sunday, I did something rarer in my life than a white rhinocerous sighting: I approached a McDonald's ''point-of-sale''. McDonald's would have been proud of me describing it that way. Unlike a Filet-o-Fish, there is nothing as banal as a ''counter''in the McDonald's operation.

''We are a food factory,'' declares managing director Daniel Ng, with the thigh-slapping gusto of A Victorian Mill owner.

The production and sales figures, which regularly awe the snacking world, bear him out. In Hong Kong, 22 billion eggs were cracked and two million kilograms of beef were grilled in 1992. According to its publicity hand-out, McDonald's staff also served six million kg of ''French fires'' (sic), doubtless kindled by triad pyromanics in tricolour rosettes and danced around by karaoke public relations hostesses in frilly knickers doing the can-can.

It was the public relations tract that pulled me into McDonald's in the first place. It promised me an unusual concentration of happiness - ''McHappiness'' - and service from university graduates.

Some sort of force was needed. In a town of Hong Kong's snacking plurality, going into McDonald's felt like defeat to me. If it is, 600,000 Hong Kong people surrender every day, according to Mr Ng's scriptures. Since I cannot believe that almost 10 per cent of the total population, including toothless infants (no problems for them, come to think of it) and once exclusively stinky bean curd grannies, clock into McDonald's every day, I have to conclude that for thousands the capitulation is so craven, individuals limp from outlet to outlet several times a day.

This would explain why there were, last time I looked, 65 of them in the territory. Their numbers increase faster than a taxi meter on the Eastern Corridor.

I went through the Pacific Place door because today is ''McHappy Day''. It barely matters what it is about. The title is another example of the brilliant and brazen effrontery of the outfit. With the simple-minded corniness of Eisenhower America, they take the two letters of the Gaelic name prefix and stamp it in front of everything. And the whole English-speaking world laughs with them instead of at them.

We must assume the chain's founder, a Mr Kroc, did not have the McGall to name it after himself. But, there I go, too.

''McHappy Day'' is a fund-raiser for children. Kids are an inevitable public relations target and critical to McDonald's. Understanding that it is difficult to advertise a ''McMuffin'' as a serious adult concept and, working on the principle of that bilious lyric ''the children are our future '', much of its attack is fired in that direction. Its aim is helped by Ronald McDonald, a pantalooned Michael Jackson substitute in the colours of Citybus and against whom no allegations have been made.

''Ronald is a very special person,'' they told me at McDonald's headquarters in McQuarry Bay. The woman executive beamed in brilliant belief. ''Every region has one. Of course it is a secret who he is. No, you don't know him.'' The original Ronald, who made his debut in 1966, is kept in controlled circumstances somewhere in America and visited for laughs. ''Believe me, the humour is adult,'' confided the woman.

On this McHappy Day, $2 from every burger goes to Ronald McDonald House, a residential facility next to the Prince of Wales Hospital which accommodates parents who need to sleep close by their chronically ill children. A horror lives with me from my fourth year when my parents had to be expelled from the side of my hospital sickbed for 24 hours at the end of every visiting time.

In aid of the House, district board members, gnarled village headmen and variations on a theme of ''Miss Housing Estate'' will crowd behind their local points of sale in daft hats, shouting in McCantonese and seriously getting in the way of the supply of chewy buns and chemically approved burger slices to the 600,000 addicts.

Commercial Radio is sending Angel Leung to the Heng Fa Chuen outlet to tell customers that, whatever they are doing, it is ''McWay to go!'' Six entertainment big shots will auction signed CDs. At the time of asking, their names were so big, it was thought lese-majesty to confirm who they were. Rumour has it that there is a strong chance of Rick O'Shea appearing.

In theory, the celebrities should be dishing up hash browns alongside store managers who graduated from McDonald's Hamburger University. I also went to a university and, to this day, I wonder if there is some mechanism for claiming back the three wasted years from the state. I was told the central Hamburger University in Chicago has, by the oddly coloured lights of American education, fully accredited food management course units. McDonald's claims there is a mini-version of this seat of learning in NorthPoint.

I envisaged lecture courses in Bun Mechanics, Beef Burger Integrity Law and the Philology of French Fries with special courses on Fruit Sundae Criticism. I was keen to set eyes on young people who had experienced purely career-related tertiary education.So, last Sunday, I strode up to the sale point ready to place an order and a Socratic discourse on the advantages of a Cheeseburger over a Maxim's ham and egg.

For a crucial five seconds, the crew member allowed me to stand there while she finished her conversation with her colleague. The Watson's cosmetic girls would have been proud of her, though lipstick had never touched those small camp guard features. No smile had cracked her cheeks. I ordered the breakfast in the styrofoam box. It came. The young woman stared up at me. ''Then what?'' she said, simply and solely. Of course, she must have graduated from the school of Fast Food Logic.

I had not ordered a drink and everybody who eats fast food orders a drink, for only a drink with sugar to the power of 10 has the clout to shift the solids down to the bowel before serious clinical damage is done en route - as taught in the foundation year of the Department of Digestive Mechanics.

The girl will go far. Mr Ng intends that she and her generation should do. He disappointed me by more or less admitting they do not really have a Chicago-style Hamburger University here. They just call it that, presumably to excite the interest of embittered anti-intellectuals. Chicago has the full Advanced Operation courses from which 32 Hong Kong managers have graduated in the past 10 years.

In Hong Kong, the training is at Basic Operation level, mostly on the job, with a couple of classrooms, an overhead projector and a chart on correct bun shades in North Point.

Mr Ng plans a full-scale regional university when he can get other McDonald's commands like Japan and Taiwan to come in with him on it.

''We take anybody,'' says Mr Ng disarmingly. ''Then we train them. We encourage them. We give them responsibility, irrespective of age.'' Mr Ng hates the local habit of ''capping potential'' because it has not reached a certain age. ''Seniority on age isvery Chinese and very British. Actually, if you wait for someone to be a certain age, they will have become useless in the meantime. Everybody in McDonald's is part of a team - a crew.

Nobody is ever allowed to be addressed as foh gei in our restaurants. Call a man that, and he is condemned.'' In McDonald's, youths fresh out of pimples give orders. Despite the unavoidable piles of equestrian droppings I was given about ''a people organisation'' and customer relations, McDonald's in Hong Kong has long given up on the pretence of ''have a good day'' and settled into the image of a spankingly fast and efficient car repair shop.

That is why even the vestigial habits of the restaurateur are absent from the Golden Arches and much of the staff training is mechanical and electrical.

The place is a machine. They took me around the back of the Quarry Bay branch.

There is no serious food preparation beyond the scrambling of eggs, and even that is done by coursing a unit of metal rectangles over a hot plate to minimise human whimsy.

All the ingredients are pre-prepared in America. The French fires (sic) are chipped there to precise splinter dimension and, frozen-in-waiting, stacked out the back in baskets of exact quantities waiting be brought back to life and rise from the fryer.

The meat is in small solid discs waiting to shine dark and angry with pent-up juices on the stainless steel bed hotplate. The cheese felting sheets come from America waiting to be squared up.

Given Hong Kong's bakery tradition, only the bread buns are unfortunately local. They are run through size calipers on delivery and are returned if they do not fit the specifications.

The operation is more akin to machine assembly. One expects at the end not a sandwich but a sparkling machine tool fired in the computer calibrated deep fryers. Mr Ng's ''factory'' is so clean I would prefer to eat off his proverbial floors in the kitchen than out front, next to the other customers' mastication problems.

After my Pacific Place breakfast, I decided to head for the novel and solitary Hardee's near my home to consume its version.

It was very good. They gave you bacon rather than a burger slice and a fluffy ''biscuit'', which is not a biscuit, instead of an English muffin, which is not English. But, in terms of its genre, they had it fatally wrong.

The food supply dried up on the serving slides. I had to wait five minutes for my ''Big Breakfast'', while the staff member looked alternately in anxiety at the kitchen and in smiling terror at us.

At McDonald's there is a production caller who is trained to have greater foresight than a futures dealer on how many Big Macs will go in 10 minutes. The delay would never have happened at McDonald's which, I suppose - Ronald McDonald, giggles with Gaelic and university educations notwithstanding - is what still makes the difference.

Mr Ng was pleased about that. ''Why do we succeed? Because we take the hamburger business more seriously than anybody else.'' Small-time Hardee's can expect no mercy, let alone complacency. ''I take the view of Inspector Clouseau,'' said Mr Ng. ''I suspect no one but I suspect everyone!''