Traditionalists, inevitably, insist that traditions should be maintained. Once customs become part of accepted practice, they must go on indefinitely. But like everything else since humankind emerged from the caves, traditions remain subject to modification and – when generally considered desirable – eventual extinction. At their most basic, eating customs, and what are considered good table manners, or otherwise, vary sharply across cultures. Once-universal habits sometimes disappear quite quickly, to be replaced with disapproval. Two obvious examples are spitting and belching. Both were so commonplace in China – and by extension, Hong Kong – that most period memoirs and travel accounts made reference to the practices. And why were these habits mentioned? Not, for the most part, to sneer at and disdain the alien practices of other races, as some contemporary cultural theorists with their own snide axes to grind wearily maintain, but to illustrate and explain cultural difference to those unlikely to ever gain first-hand experience of these places themselves. In A Tear for the Dragon (1958), British business executive and Stanley prisoner-of-war camp internee John Stericker, who lived in various parts of China from 1912, noted, in a clear attempt to explain rather than condemn practices different to his own, that: “The Chinese are an extremely courteous and well-mannered people. Some of the things that we do are strange and uncouth to their eyes, just as some of their customs appear strange to our eyes. “A good hearty belch at the end of a meal is a sign of appreciation and a compliment to the host. It is equally inoffensive to spit, and the louder the clearance of the throat beforehand, or overture to expectoration, the better.” Marine scientist F.D. Ommanney, who worked in Singapore and Hong Kong and attended many Chinese dinners, observed of one occasion in Eastern Windows (1960): “All the gentlemen belched, except for the only other European besides myself, and he was too well-mannered. “But when in Rome I always do as the Romans do, so I belched with the best of them. I belched, they belched, we all belched.” A later memoir, Fragrant Harbour: A Private View of Hong Kong (1962) records similar impressions. But customs were rapidly changing in the face of rising Westernisation; within two decades, different social mores had gained traction. When rickshaws reached the end of the road in Hong Kong An English friend, who came to Hong Kong as a young stockbroker in the late 1960s, once recounted to me – in relation to this subject – his first serious social faux pas in the colony. Taken along to a Chinese banquet, he munched his way through various rich dishes, feeling ever more bloated as the courses progressed. On reaching the meal’s end, he remembered having read somewhere, or been told, that it was considered an accolade to the host’s hospitality to belch loudly. Helpfully aided by a few beers, which had assisted the gaseous build-up, and keen to “do the right thing”, he chose his moment after the fruit plate arrived, and let rip with what was – he thought – a suitably complimentary display of wind. The rest of the table looked on inscrutably; no one made any attempt to follow suit. Food hawkers in Hong Kong: how a city lost its street culture Wanting to ensure that he had “done as the Romans do”, he turned to an older lady sitting next to him, immaculately attired – as was still usual in those years – in an elegant cheongsam, and jovially half-asked whether a fulsome burp was indeed the correct etiquette. The lady gazed at him icily and said that no, it was ill-mannered, boorish and woefully out of date. “That custom, mercifully, started to go out with foot-binding and the queue,” she said. “Don’t believe everything you’re told about us, young man, and you’ll do very well in Hong Kong.” And so he did.