KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- It is Friday lunchtime on Kuala Lumpur's bustling Batu Road.
Malay women in tight-fitting floral kebaya blouses and hip-hugging split skirts elbow their way into the candy-striped interior of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. They stand by a crowded table ready to pounce on the first vacant seat.
Finally, it's finger-lickin' good love at first bite with a $3 ($1.50 U.S.) drumstick, a smattering of french fries and a spoonful of coleslaw.
Elsewhere on the road, traditional fast food fare is being served up as a clang of bells signals the arrival of the Popiah man. A small crowd of shop workers stand and eat the spicy meat and vegetable roll in its delicate rice flour wrapper. There is a good chance they, too, will head for American fast food restaurants in the evening to join a growing number of Malaysians spending an estimated $50 million ($25 million U.S.) on burgers, pizzas, hot dogs, pancakes and fried chicken.
Since America's A and W fast food stores came to town in 1963, boasting of 'real' hamburgers and imported U.S. root beer, more than 200 other fast food outlets have opened in Malaysia.
With the arrival of the Big Mac in Kuala Lumpur recently, the country offers a fairly comprehensive menu of American fast foods.
The battle for the No. 1 spot is led by Kentucky Fried Chicken, with 19 outlets and plans for another 6; A and W has 15 restaurants and Kentucky Fried's arch rival, Popeye's, has three shops and hopes to have 10 more by year's end.
Feathers also are flying between Chicken Fryers, Orange Julius and Texas Fried Chicken. Business is booming at Wendy's, Burger Inn, Arby's, Shakey's and the Godfather's Pizza.
'We offer clean, fast service in a comfortable environment,' said Popeye's spokesman, Garry Balachandran. 'We also offer status, and Malaysians now want somewhere better than the traditional coffee shops and hawker stalls.'
Status appears to be the name of the game in fast food popularity in general. In Malaysia, where a car sticker bearing the name of an overseas university can open doors, and where office workers plunk down a month's wages to buy a belt with a designer buckle, chomping American burgers and guzzling root beer helps promote the wished-for 'man-about-town' image.
'It's classy to cruise fast food restaurants,' a young clerk said. 'I don't mind paying extra and I like the change from nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk with spicy fried fish) or curries.'
Hawkers who pioneered Malaysian-style fast foods find the challenge a hard one. They sell hundreds of kinds of quick, easy and cheap dishes.
Most of Kuala Lumpur's more than 20,000 hawkers are unlicensed and the government is forcing them off the streets into covered buildings.
'When we see an official coming, we just push on,' says a chicken and rice seller whose stall is a three-wheel bicycle. 'The government keeps moving us away from the busy, popular places and if we don't keep up this hide and seek game, Malaysia will lose an eating tradition.'
But the president of the Kuala Lumpur Hawkers Association, Chan Kai Mun, says American fast foods are no threat to hawking.
'If a Malaysian is hungry, he'llgo to the nearest street stall. Fast food restaurants just offer variety from our traditional Indian, Malay and Chinese foods,' Chan said. 'They're also cleaner but they can't compete with our cheap and quick service.'