Hong Kong: Beliefs and Etiquette
“A Chinese dinner host will not expect a visitor to know all the traditions associated with a Chinese meal. But the visitor who knows some of them will gain ‘face’ and give ‘face’ to his host!”
Investigating those traditions is part of the fun of a Hong Kong visit, where English-speaking friends or business associates will happily tell you the whys and wherefores of seemingly arcane rituals. You may even hear different versions of how a particular diining tradition originated!
Foreign visitors will be forgiven for not knowing dining etiquette, just as they will be good-naturedly offered a knife and fork if their chopstick prowess is not up to par. Just as Chinese food, however, seems to taste better when it is eaten with chopsticks, so the whole meal will be more enjoyable if one knows a little of the ancient traditions and beliefs that place the meal in a 5,000-year-old culinary heritage.
Although Western customs have innfluenced dining habits in Hong Kong, the majority of old traditions still live on. The guest of honor will usually be seated facing the door of entry, directly opposite the host. The next most honored guest will be seated to th
The host sits near the door, as in Western practice, so that he is nearest to the kitchen. If the meal is held in the host’s home, he can then bring each dish to the table more quickly. He will himself serve his guests portions of food, on the tacit understanding that they are far too polite to help themselves.
But for some dishes, especially fish, the host would never do so – for the good reason that the dish would be inedibly cool by the end of the service. Innstead, each guest is expected to help himself.
If a Chinese dinner has been arranged in a restaurant, the host will usually sit nearest the kitchen or service door. Then he will be in the least-favored position – sitting where the waiter will stand while serving individual portions of food (the waiter’s “mark” being his serving utensils laid on the table). Some hosts, however, seat their most junior guests or family members at this slightly awkward spot so that the host can ta
Should you find yourself in one of the “junior” seats on either side of the server’s position, take comfort from the fact that your fellow diners are either even more “important” or older than you and you are honored to be sitting with them, or your host has flattered you by deciding you are one of the least status-conscious guests!
Whatever your table position is, you may be expected to make at least one toast during the meal – to the course which is about to commence, if necessary, when everyone else has used up all socially-acceptable topics of mutual esteem! Every person stands up for a moment, raises his or her glass, and finds out who has the strongest constitution!
Taking one’s turn is also expected for tea-pouring at smaller gatherings where each guest leans over or rises to fill fellow-diners’ tea cups. The almost surreptitious finger-tapping on the table that greets the pouring service is said to date back to a ploy invented by a Qing Dynasty emperor. While making an incognito tour of
Other, older habits have been known to make some visitors a little uncomfortable when not used to fellow diners slurping their soup, laying discarded bones on the tablecloth, and audibly making a meal of a meal.
The second habit is dying out now that most restaurants provide side-plates for bones but it is still possible to see waiters clearing a table by sweeping everything into the middle of a tablecloth – rice bowls, chopsticks, bones and all – in order to have a vacant table as quickly as possible.
As for meal-time noises, they are considered sounds of culinary appreciation, the slurping of soup also being an
The guest of honor naturally receives the choicest morsels, and is expected to lead the way when necessary. With a fish course, the fish head would be left for the guest of honor – and it is the most nutritious part (the eyes and lips are the valued delicacies offered to the senior lady present). The platter holding the fish will always be laid on the table in such a way that the fish head points towards the guest of honor (at family meals, the head faces the head of the family). If visitors find that they are the guest of honor and are unwilling to accept the duties involved, they should always delegate the honor to the person on their left, or politely turn the platter so that the fish head faces the host.
At the end of the meal, when the guest of honor feels that everyone appears to have had their fill of post-prandial brandy or ceremonial final cups of tea, he should rise. In theory, no other diner can rise until the guest of honor has, and such a social nicety has often resulted in a meal being very lengthy! Nowadays, however, the host will usually give an appropriate, discreet hint to the guest of honor.
In a restaurant, the signs that a meal is ending are more obvious. A bowl of fruit will be presented, fresh towels will be provided for wiping mouths and hands, and the final pot of tea – a ceremonial farewell greeting – will not be refilled.
When in Hong Kong, visitors should do at least one thing that is quintessentially Cantonese – have morning or afternoon tea.
Hong Kong restaurants cater extensively to the territory’s seemingly insatiable appetite for tea and snacks. A visit to one of the better-known dim sum restaurants will reveal why the Cantonese tradition of yum cha endures so well. Yum cha literally means “drinking tea.” After 5,000 years of cultivating tea plants and brewing their leaves and those of other shrubs or herbs, the Chinese can truly be said to have a tea culture. Tea is more than a refreshment in China and Hong Kong. It is a medicine, a tonic, a social stimulant, a digestive aid – a way of life.
Whereas the Frenchman has his coffee and his cafe, and a Briton has his beer and his pub, a Chinese has tea – and teahouses. In Imperial times in Northern China, the teahouse was the meeting place for gentlemen of leisure. They brought their pet birds along, savored their favorite teas, and passed the time of day. Drinking tea was a very serious business for them. Music and dancing were not allowed in the ancient teahouses, nor was food. In the 3rd Century AD, Hua To, one of the most respected Imperial physicians of ancient times, advised that “Eating food and drinking tea at the same time only results in excessive weight gain.”
Following their customary anti-authoritarian approach to life, the Cantonese of South China ignored the physician’s advice. They developed their unique culinary art of dim sum, and turned sedate teahouses into boisterous eating places where the merits of particular dim sum chefs and their culinary prowess would be enthusiastically debated. The Cantonese, like the French, proudly proclaim that they live to eat, not eat to live. It is no coincidence that dim sum literally means “to touch the heart”!