Conspicuous consumption

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2003, 12:00am

A Hong Kong tycoon recently entertained his guests in Xian with an elaborate feast featuring imperial recipes. The bill, including the finest Chinese liquor, came to 366,000 yuan (HK$345,000).

The extravagance has stirred debate, with reactions ranging from outrage to approbation. There was also extreme curiosity: how on earth could a banquet for 12 cost this much?

During an interview with CCTV, restaurateur Wu Ji dismissed speculation that he had ripped off the tycoon, who had ordered the banquet to entertain his business associates from Hong Kong and Australia. There were no mainland officials among the guests, he said.

Mr Wu said that the banquet did not feature bear paws or any animals that were on the list of endangered species.

In fact, the ingredients were deceptively commonplace, he said. For example, for a dish named 'Divine Crane', the chef, with the aid of a watchmaker's magnifying glass, tunnelled through fresh bean sprouts and stuffed them with minced bird's nest and chicken, creating the effect of translucent feathers. The price tag for that particular dish was 12,000 yuan. Mr Leung had no problem with that, he said.

An official investigation was launched to find out if the banquet's pricing was out of line. Mr Wu was not able to give an estimate of the cost of the ingredients. The mark-up, he said, reflected the added cultural value of high cuisine.

An official from the National Association of Consumers said this was not an issue for government concern, saying it was entirely within a consumer's rights to knowingly enter a transaction.

In a market economy, consumers are encouraged to spend in restaurants; the catering industry contributed 5 per cent to China's GDP last year.

However, such conspicuous consumption was difficult for many Chinese to stomach. CCTV did a few calculations. A Chinese person can eat quite well for 36 yuan a day - which means the cost of this banquet could have fed the tycoon for almost 28 years.