A product of the jazz age, cocktail parties took off internationally in the 1920s and have remained a firm feature of Hong Kong’s social and business life ever since. These soirees allow hosts to offer hospitality to far larger numbers than a dinner party would allow; better yet, a few minutes’ conversation politely disposes of individuals for whom a couple of hours at a dinner table would have been simply too much effort for too little reward.
Other than nuts, olives and other canapés handed round as blotting paper for the booze, little else needs to be offered by way of food. Some cheapskates eventually make a full supper out of the “small chow” in circulation, especially if – as happens in the cocktail party season – several such events are attended in the course of a single evening.
In the past, drinks offered were invariably spirits cut with mixers; whisky-soda, gin and tonic and brandy with ginger ale were the usual combinations. Until recent years, wine was seldom consumed, and anyway, spirits provided a quicker kick, which helped rapidly anaesthetise Hong Kong’s repetitive, gossipy, small-pond conversational tedium.
Seemingly innocuous questions stereotypically asked at such gatherings – “How long have you lived in Hong Kong?”, “What do you do?”, “How long will you stay?”, “Where do you live?” – allow rapid social filtering of new acquaintances into important/potentially useful/avoid-at-all-costs categories. For women, the noxious question “And what does your husband do?” automatically implied that the woman being interrogated had no professional life of her own. And if, perchance, she actually did, then that fact marked her out as an oddball to be avoided. If a young, attractive, otherwise unknown female admitted that she wasn’t married, then that fact immediately labelled her as a potential predator, an adventuress on the make, in ardent search of other women’s husbands.
For decades, Hong Kong’s business life – particularly for Europeans – was largely conducted around the cocktail-party circuit. Unsurprisingly, these gatherings were a health trap to those with alcohol problems. One leading post-war tycoon, unfortunately also a severe diabetic, was frequently tanked up with booze at cocktail parties by unscrupulous business associates, with a view towards getting agreement for commercial deals which – when sober – this otherwise astute man might not have entertained.
Alcoholic overindulgence was an occupational risk that could be short-circuited by the shrewd. John Boyer, the no-nonsense HSBC deputy chairman in the late 1970s, once explained to me how he avoided the pitfalls of Hong Kong’s near-nightly cocktail-party circuit.
“You didn’t need to stay long at these things,” he recalled. “And it certainly wasn’t about me personally being there. People only wanted ‘The Bank’ to be ‘seen’ there for face reasons. So I used to walk in, be handed my drink, chat for a few minutes to my host and say hello to anyone else I might wish to acknowledge, and then head straight out the back door. Usually about 10 minutes spent at a party, end to end, was quite enough.”
Boyer’s secretary issued firm instructions to the host beforehand that her boss was to be given a glass of neat tonic or soda water on arrival, well-iced and camouflaged with slices of lemon to look like a gin and something.
“It was the only way to get through evening after evening of these events intact! At the very last cocktail party of the evening before heading home – if I felt like it – I might have asked for a real drink.”
Hong Kong cocktail parties – ultimately – are all about work.