ALONG with why the stomach does not digest itself and the popularity of rap music, one of the greatest mysteries of the universe is the cocktail party. Nobody seems to want to host one and nobody seems to want to attend, yet in Hongkong alone we hold hundreds of these peculiar gatherings for the upright and uptight every evening. They provide a fixture in the social landscape which: Gives everyone a reason to be late for dinners that are even more tedious than the cocktail party we say we have to go to. Gets gweilos off the hook when we are invited to a Chinese wedding banquet that is preceded by 29 hours of the incredibly awful mahjong. Allows married men who have asked a girl out for a ''drink'' to call the lady in the late afternoon and ask her if ''dinner'' would be OK (because I have to attend a cocktail party etc). Provides stand-up dining facilities for those who enjoy spearing papier mache -tasting prawns with a toothpick. This for the cost of being given 167 business cards from people named Wong whom you have never met before and hope you will never see again. Provides a perfectly safe environment in which to showcase your image only. (''Image only'' is an unwritten law on the cocktail circuit and has been since The Outrage of '83 when someone attempted to draw a group of local business people into a discussion unrelated to making a lot of money and the 1997 question. In defence of cocktail party-goers it must be said they are an honestly dishonest form of social interaction, as opposed to taking a girl out for ''drinks'', ''dinner'' or ''coffee at my place later'', all of which are dishonestly dishonest. Honestly dishonest or dishonestly dishonest, these metaphors are socially acceptable, ensuring nobody says what he or she really means, cares about deeply or truthfully wants. How do cocktail parties happen? The manager of the Royal Bank of Botswana gets a call from his chairman who will visit Hongkong (because his wives want to go shopping). To justify the expense he asks to meet the local branch's clients. The branch has not seen a client in years, so the manager decides on a cocktail party. He gets a direct mail outfit to send out 5,000 invitations to people he doesn't know and gets a five per cent return. On the night a queue of 94 suits shows up to shake hands with a reception line that's twice as long. Everyone eats, grins, drinks, talks a load of forex and 1997 hogwash and departs. No one asks what anyone else is doing there because no one cares. Everyone wins. Well, almost. The hotel makes a buck, the local manager looks good, the chairman's trip becomes an allowable business expense and 94 freeloaders get dinner. The only losers are the bank's shareholders, but since when did they count for anything? Some things you can do to make a cocktail party less boring: Move along the reception line in the wrong direction. Tell everyone you're with the CIA and hand out blank business cards. Go to the food table where the shelled prawns are hanging, pick each one up, smell it, then put it back. Find a Japanese guest. Bow and introduce yourself. Continue bowing non-stop for 45 minutes. Join a circle of about a dozen people. When you are asked how long you have been in Hongkong, say 37 years. Then speak depressingly and without pause for 20 minutes on how much better it was here in the 1950s. Fall on to the floor clutching your stomach and point to the smoked salmon. Some things you can do to make a cocktail party more boring: Not much. Admire the ice carving. Speak to a banker. Say ''pleased to meet you, and what do you do?'' 27 times. Let it be known you have an incurable and contagious disease. Tell everyone you are unemployed. Be an unemployed newspaper columnist with an incurable and contagious skin disease. Cocktail parties are a drag, even for French people. At least according to Marcel someone-or-other who was a famous writer. ''Goodbye, I've barely said a word to you, it is always like that at parties, we never see the people, we never say the things we should like to say, but it is the same everywhere in this life. Let us hope that when we are dead things will be better arranged.''