Collision courses

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am


Ever wondered what a cockroach-like insect tastes like when crunched between the teeth, whether boiled camel's paw is tender or tough, or if gulping back Chinese liquor guarantees a head-splitting hangover?

A mainland-style banquet is the place to put these whimsical musings to the practical test, as shoving a plate or glass to one side with an expression of distaste is still considered the height of bad manners. A grateful guest, particularly one who wants to seal a business deal, will appreciatively nibble every one of the 10 or more dishes served and drink baijiu (grain liquor) with a beatific smile, not a curled-lip grimace.

Moments in history have turned on foreign politicians' successful navigation of formal banquets.

China may have changed radically in the past two decades, with its major cities boasting classy restaurants that serve the finest Western fare, but the traditional Chinese banquet remains the first choice - indeed, the only acceptable choice - for a deal-making dinner, or any other celebratory event. Suggesting an alternative venue would be a major faux pas that reveals immediately the would-be host's lack of understanding about the way things are done in the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese banquet, with its multiple courses and arcane rules for eating, talking and toasting, can be a minefield of etiquette blunders, especially when the brain is muddled by multiple shots of baijiu.

'Baijiu looks like gin but tastes much stronger,' observes author Tim Clissold in his book Mr China, a wryly funny account of his life accompanying a big-shot American investor wheeling, dealing and banqueting his way to deals.

'The problem is that drinking baijiu at a Chinese banquet is compulsory; it is slightly viscous, has a smell like exhaust fumes mixed with a trace of chocolate and seems both fiery and sickly at the same time,' he says. 'It burns the inside of your mouth and throat and leaves you with a sensation rather than a taste. There is an immediate feeling of heat and tingling that creeps up the back of the neck and radiates out all over the scalp.'

Not the most appealing of drinks, then. And there is no real hiding from the baijiu toasting process: the longer the banquet goes on, the more frantic the drinking becomes.

'In China, you never drink alone, you always propose a toast to people, it is a 'ganbei' [cheers!] culture,' says Singaporean Damien Shee, who attends scores of banquets annually in his capacity as China general manager for Torres, the Spanish wine giant.

'It is considered impolite to drink alcohol by yourself,' says Shee. 'The worst for me was up in Harbin [capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang], at the head table. There was baijiu and red wine, and even before the chopsticks moved, I had finished a bottle of baijiu by myself with all the toasts ... [But] I am obliged to try the host's baijiu, which is part of Chinese culture.'

It is natural that hosts would want to introduce guests to their local specialities, dishes that were unaffordable, or unobtainable, during the nation's bleaker periods. So as the mainland becomes more affluent, more elaborate banquets are becoming the norm and, depending on the region, the menu could feature camel's paw, stewed goat's feet or casseroled turtle.

Among the more exotic items Shee has sampled over the years is lamb's penis, served as part of a hotpot dish, offal from different animals and a silk-worm-like grub, considered a delicacy, that was barbecued. 'It was almost like you were roasting a cockroach, the sound as it was grilling,' he recalls. 'But at a banquet, you have to eat it.'

Banquets have become big business for international hotels. About 1,500 will be held this year at the five-star Astor Hotel in Tianjin, which is managed by American-Chinese Leon Lee, a veteran observer of banquet behaviour.

'At one banquet, I was seated next to a German guest, and although I am Chinese, I did not fancy eating the crisp-fried scorpion on lettuce,' he says. 'However, when the German guest ate it, everyone was delighted, and then he offered to eat mine. I had to eat it and discovered that I love scorpion and crunched through the course.'

Shee advises: 'If you really do not want to eat a dish, you can tell your host that you prefer other dishes or taste the food first and then politely inform the host that it is not to your taste. In general, guests should always follow the host's lead; a guest does not make the first toast.'

Veteran businessman Jim Spear has sat through more banquets than he cares to remember. An American, Spear, who now runs a hotel and country cottages by the Great Wall, spent more than 20 years in the China corporate world.

'There are lots of books and guides on etiquette but, in my view, there is no substitute for common sense and genuine hospitality and courtesy,' says Spear. 'People can tell when it comes from the heart, and that is the way to bond in China, just as in my own home country. Respect your guests and, as a guest, respect your hosts.'

He says that his teacher on how to put together a banquet was C.B. Sung, one of the pioneer consultants and investors in China. 'I worked for him in the mid-80s and participated in many dinners with senior Chinese officials and leaders. C.B. was - still is - a big-picture thinker, but when it came to making a private dinner come off, he paid attention to every detail, from the menu to the drinks served, and most especially to the seating arrangements.

'Eventually, he delegated this to me and would spot-check before the guests arrived. Occasionally, he would make a change and explain his reasoning, usually something to do with personal dynamics and how best to accomplish the mission of the event. To sum up, know your customers and guests and don't forget the 'seven Ps': proper prior planning prevents p**s-poor performance. They are not C.B.'s words by the way; I learned them in the army originally!'

Switching between Chinese and Western cultures comes naturally to Harvard University graduate Zhang Mei, who runs the upscale adventure travel business Wild China, bringing wealthy, mostly American tourists to China.

But even Zhang can occasionally be wrong-footed. On one such occasion, Zhang inadvertently insulted a government official turned entrepreneur by paying scant attention to the expensive dishes the host ordered.

Recalls Zhang: 'He had picked a hugely expensive Chinese seafood restaurant frequented by government officials and traditional businessmen and ordered for both of us; I wasn't even presented a menu. I didn't want to eat abalone. I grew up in the mountains and am happy with vegetables rather than exotic seafood, but he insisted, saying the baby abalone cooked in a porridge was particularly good.

'When the dishes came, the only dish I didn't like was the abalone porridge. Worst of all, I drank the porridge and left the baby abalone in the bowl. Thinking back, I probably insulted my host to an unbelievable degree. The abalone I left in my bowl probably cost a migrant worker's monthly salary. And I just left them for the sewer.'

A Western-style dinner is just as much of an obstacle course for some less worldly local Chinese. Even at the most sophisticated of gourmet gatherings, there is a tendency for the boss to buzz from table to table with his acolytes in tow, insisting on a down-in-one ganbei of fine wine.

It is intended to demonstrate the host's boundless hospitality, but can display his unfamiliarity with Western dining norms, where top wines are savoured, not quaffed. Part of the reason is that the custom of drinking grape wine, as it is known, is still a new phenomenon.

One piece of acceptable China banquet etiquette that is guaranteed to shock Hongkongers and others is the habit of lighting up during the meal. In theory, smoking is banned in China's restaurants and bars; in practice, people still puff away enthusiastically almost everywhere. And - guess what? - there are etiquette rules here, also, as wine importer Shee explains.

'If you are a smoker, never smoke alone. You have to offer cigarettes to everyone,' he says. 'What is peculiar to China is because banquets have a huge table, and you cannot reach across, it is acceptable to throw it across the table to make sure it is personally directed to the recipient.'

Tips on top-ups

So, how can someone deal with the relentless topping-up of baijiu glasses and an endless succession of dishes?

Beijing-based Justin Downes reckons baijiu sometimes gets a bad rap: high-end vintages can be eminently palatable. 'It is prized as as highly as Western-style wines, smooth to drink and does not have such severe after-effects,' he says.

The Canadian, whose job as a consultant for new golf courses and ski resorts takes him all over the country, advises drinking plenty of water, or even discreetly substituting the baijiu glass with a water-filled glass when toasting.

'When it comes to banquet food, I have stopped asking what is on the plate, to be honest. You only have to take what you want from the table itself. If someone places something on your plate directly, it is only polite to at least try some.'