At the end of one of our first family dinners on returning to Beijing after five years in Europe, I automatically handed the cheongsam-clad waitress in the restaurant a 10 yuan tip. Clearly agitated, she pushed the money back. 'We are not allowed to take tips here,' she said. Then I remembered: no tipping in China. The lesson had been forgotten after my time in the west. Deep down, I still knew that tipping was not acceptable, but I assumed that this changed, along with so much else. I was wrong.
Or was I? The Guangdong China Travel Agency recently announced that it was introducing tipping for guides on domestic package tours. The reason given by senior manager Wang Jian was that it would increase employees' income when company profits are low.
'It is on a totally voluntary basis,' he said, adding, however, that holidaymakers were encouraged to give 20 yuan per day of service - if they were satisfied with the guide's performance.
With the communist revolution in 1949, tipping officially became an unwanted reminder of China's feudal past, a remnant of the master-servant relationship and inappropriate in a people's dictatorship. But as the economy began to grow in the 1980s, so did the service sector, and people working in it began to find other - sometimes annoying - ways of increasing their usually low salary.
Guides dragged tourists off to souvenir shops, or arts and crafts factories, often springing the trip as a surprise at the end of a long day's sightseeing. They received commission for delivering the group and, often, extra money based on how much was spent.
'I will be very glad to offer generous tips to my tour guide if he can meet my real needs and wishes, rather than taking me to numerous shops which I really hate to go to,' one tourist was quoted in the China Daily as saying.
Of course, tipping never died out entirely - especially if it happened in places where no one could observe the transaction. And overseas visitors never really stopped. 'Frankly speaking, we receive tips from foreign guests, but there are very few from domestic tourists,' said one tour guide in Fujian province.
The change is still in its infancy. Most mainlanders do not see the point of tipping. In one online survey, nearly 58 per cent did not think tipping was a good thing, although nearly as many agreed that it would improve the quality of service.
Getting out of a taxi recently, I tried to get the driver to keep the two yuan change as he had been very helpful with my luggage. 'Miss, your money. Don't forget it,' he said as I got out, handing me the two grubby red notes.