Guess who's coming to dinner
In many parts of the world, dinner parties are a time-honoured tradition. Self-respecting men and women open up their homes to regale friends with home-cooked food and stimulating conversation. The cultural significance of these gatherings is evidenced by the prominent role they play in literature and films. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf devotes the entire book to describing a house party. In the 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the taboo subject of interracial marriage is dealt with at one of Hollywood's most memorable suppers. Dinner parties are also a source of endless intrigue. They provide the perfect setting for a “whodunit” murder mystery, as they do in Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and the more recent Gosford Park. The tradition has even made it to the list of most frequently asked questions at job interviews: If you were hosting a dinner and could invite three people, dead or alive, who would you choose?
In North America and much of Europe, a person's first dinner party signifies his rite of passage into full adulthood. To pull it off, the host needs self-confidence, creativity and an eagle’s eye for detail. And if he looks a bit nervous, that's because his reputation is on the line. He knows too well that when guests admire his book collection and inquire the origin of every piece of furniture, they are making mental notes about his taste and social standing. And so before every housewarming dinner, Thanksgiving feast and Oscars party, stressed-out hosts find themselves buzzing around the house, hiding their boy band music collection and replacing Entertainment Weekly with The Economist on the coffee table. Lava lamps and action figures are put away to make way for scented candles and the crystal stemware he got for his 25th birthday.
While dinner parties are a way of life in the West, they are not nearly as common in Asia. Perhaps Asian people feel a bit squeamish about revealing too much of their private lives. Or perhaps the family unit is so tight it leaves little room for prying friends. Considering many live with their parents until they get married, things can get a little awkward with mom and dad staring at their guests and crimping their style all night long. In Hong Kong, the space issue is enough reason for most people to rule out the living room as a venue for social gatherings. Everyone meets in public places like restaurants, shopping malls and karaoke bars. Chinese New Year is the only time when friends and relatives break the rule and visit each other’s home bearing butter cookies and red packets. But even that once-a-year open house is become a vanishing tradition in Hong Kong, as most people under the age of 50 are eager to skip it and go to the movies instead.
Privacy and space alone, however, do not explain why we haven’t embraced the customs of entertaining. Another key factor is the requirement to cook. Given that one in three middle class households in Hong Kong now has a maid, the joy of cooking has become ever elusive. The availability of cheap domestic help has stripped an entire generation of their domestic skills, from preparing a proper meal to doing laundry and fixing the toilet flush. We no longer set foot in the kitchen except to grab a cold drink from the fridge. Hand someone a turnip or salmon fillet and he will look at you funny and ask, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Because one of the main goals of hosting is to show off the gastro-sexual's culinary skills, those who lack them prefer to save themselves the embarrassment. After all, ordering KFC or having the maid cater a party is considered very bad form.
As much as we are reluctant hosts, we are also reluctant guests. To most people in Hong Kong, attending a house party – typically hosted by an over-zealous Western co-worker – is more a chore than a privilege. The evening always ends up being a lot of work, with all that polite chit-chat about art, foreign cinema, or, the deadliest of all topics, American football. And for those who don’t really follow world news, haven’t read a book since university and fell asleep during Cloud Atlas, contribution to any intellectual conversation is limited to “Hmmm, that's interesting.” Worse still, dinner parties are usually “plus-one” events and we have to drag our reluctant spouse along for five never-ending hours of nodding, smiling and, once in a while, a peal of fake belly laugh.
Since moving back to Hong Kong seven years ago, I have been on a one-man crusade to lift the Asian embargo on dinner parties. I host one at my home every few weeks. Taking into account the various cultural factors at play, I adopt a different strategy depending on the type of guests I invite. Young people, for instance, need to be stimulated at all times and so I bring out the board games and playing cards. Co-workers often prefer themed parties and so I organise wine tastings and trivia nights. Family and close friends are the least work. I simply stock up on wine and let the conversation take us wherever it may. As a general policy, I keep my “circles” separate because mixing them up, based on first-hand experiences, doesn't usually work.
Having hosted dozens of dinners over the years, I am no stranger to the many odd party behaviours in Hong Kong. I have watched guests go through my fridge and pantry (without asking) scouring for snacks. Some jam to their own music from their iPhones, while others sit in the corner playing the video games they bring. Still others show up with ice-cream when I have asked them to bring ice for the cocktails. I once had a young man arrive at 10.30pm with three uninvited companions, all demanding to be fed. And because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, an occasional well-intended guest will bring his own food and turn my carefully planned three-course dinner into a potluck. These are all true stories, the kind that would make etiquette queen Emily Post roll over in her grave.
But no party faux pas is more frustrating than the television phenomenon. Prime time programming is such an indispensable part of our evening routine that we are lost without it. The television is the first thing we turn on when we get home, and the last thing we switch off before we go to bed. If you stand outside a Hong Kong home at 8pm on any given night, you will hear family conversation interlaced with dramatic soap opera dialogue. They are the unmistakable sounds of Hong Kong after nightfall. As a host, I have grown used to guests asking me to have the television switched on during dinner. The more aggressive ones will grab the remote control and do it themselves. When challenged, they will look me in the eye and ask, “No TV? What are we supposed to do all night?”
To prove that I don't only pick on my own kind, I should point out that other cultures too have their party oddities. When it comes to social quirks, the English are the ones to beat. I haven’t met an Englishman (or woman) who isn't obsessed with serving hot beverages. A typical English household is a mini-Fortnam & Mason store, where a selection of peppermint, Earl Grey and Darjeeling teabags lie mise en place on the kitchen counter. “Tea is the appropriate response to every situation in life,” my English friend Louise explains. “I could have just told the hostess that my father had passed away or that I was getting a divorce. Whatever the circumstance is, she will immediately disappear into the kitchen to fix me a cup of tea, leaving me crying alone on the sofa. I may be inconsolable, but that doesn't stop her from screaming at the top of her lungs: ‘MILK AND SUGAR?’” Suddenly, turning on the television doesn’t seem so strange any more.