Soaking up a cultural experience

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 October, 1995, 12:00am

THERE are some aspects of Western culture the Chinese have embraced with unexpected passion.

They are not the ones you would think of if asked to do so. There is no cafe society to speak of in Hong Kong and the convenience of the queue has never caught on, probably because pushing is generally quicker.

In a record store at the weekend I stood patiently in line at the counter, only to have a transaction carried out over my head by the salesgirl in front of me and the gentleman behind me.

My pathetically British intervention (excuse me, but some of us are waiting in line, you know!) was greeted with a withering look from both of them that clearly said: 'Stop whining, honky.' Bach must have spent as much energy composing The Brandenburg Concertos as I did buying them.

So how gratifying to see that at least one of the Western World's greatest cultural contrivances has taken root in Asia. I speak of the beer festival, where men and women of all creeds can remove their vestments in public without fear of ridicule.

The Germans can be blamed for many things - the invention of the Mercedes-Benz automobile springs to mind - but credit where credit's due; the beer festival is a teutonically efficient way of getting the maximum number of people completely plastered in the minimum amount of time.

It is anarchy with sausages, a great leveller. What a shame its staging is limited to October, a tradition linked no doubt to something as boring as the Bavarian harvest, or the day in history some fortunate individual discovered that when you mix malt, hops, water and sugar, the liquid that results has a liberating effect on your bladder and your personality.

My first experience of the beer festival as staged in Asia was in Chongqing, a Chinese city famous for heat and smog, both of which follow you around all day as surely as if they were stuck to the bottom of your shoes along with all the other unwelcome accoutrements that get stuck to the bottom of your shoes in China.

The Oktoberfest is held in the evening, shortly after smogset, and features local girls in revealing costumes, a woman who balances hula-hoops on her nose and beer-drinking competitions.

It is the beer-drinking competitions that the Chinese have taken to a new level of refinement. For a number of years now the Chongqing champion has been Mr Chan the Beer Man, who can put away a stein faster than you or I could say: 'Mine's a pint of the usual please barman'.

In 1993, the last time I was there, a pretender to Mr Chan's throne completed the drinking part of the competition in a respectable enough time, but then lost serious face by throwing projectile vomit halfway across the stage and over the panel of judges.

The panel was made up of hotel management and functionaries from some obscure branch of local government. The audience roared its appreciation. This was what living was really all about.

Visitors to Oktoberfests in Hong Kong (one of the most well-attended is at Omni the Hong Kong Hotel, which is no worse a hotel for having a silly name), undergo the same dramatic personality changes as their contemporaries in China when confronted with cheap beer in large glasses.

They are a little more shy about it than Westerners are, but at the end of the day, as Robin Parke would say, the Hong Kong Chinese can get out of their heads as quickly and as comprehensively as the next man.

I know it's true because I watched it all with professional detachment, nursing nothing stronger than a tomato juice, so I could report my findings to you.

There were office girls present, delicate things in tailored suits, who were actively involved in an attempt to disprove the adage that you can't fit a quart into a pint pot. You can indeed, as long as the lavatories are well signposted.

If you don't believe me, ask my Hong Kong Chinese colleagues, if you can find them. They were last seen wandering around Tsim Sha Tsui with underwear on their heads singing Ooh-Ah Cantona and telling perfect strangers their life stories.

My usual policy at beer festivals is to make a dignified egress before the beer starts flowing the wrong way, as it did on stage in Chongqing.

If this proves impossible there is a further litmus test: when you start enjoying the oompah band, you are most definitely drunk.

Oompah bands are designed only to sound musical to people whose timpanic membrane has been lubricated to the point at which it can no longer function in a discerning manner. Their popularity in these parts can be put down, I believe, to the fact that after Cantopop, even the flatulent musings of middle-aged men in tight leather shorts are melodious by comparison.

Of course there is such a thing in Britain as a beer festival without the oompah band. They call it a pub. Hong Kong, at the cutting edge as always, holds a beer festival without the band and without the pub. Tickets for the Sevens go on sale soon.