There have been zero new confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections in Suzhou, Anhui since early March, and some dining places have resumed operations. However, 50-year-old Lin Chaoyang, a secondary school vice-principal, has to reschedule his son’s wedding banquet yet again.
Lin told Lianhe Zaobao that the mass gatherings ban has not been lifted from the city’s food and beverages (F&B) industry, and since it is customary for guests to be seated in tables of ten at wedding banquets, they would not be able to fulfil the requirement of sitting one seat apart. He also admitted that truth be told, the practice of everyone tucking into communal dishes with their own chopsticks could be a source of spreading the virus.
Alas, friends and relatives have already given him monetary gifts and the banquet cannot be postponed indefinitely. However, the tradition of chi daxi (吃大席, Northern dialect, to sit and eat around a banquet table) makes one uncomfortable in these coronavirus times.
100 academics seek to spur "dining table revolution"
The F&B industry is badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic that erupted in December last year which has not only wreaked havoc on health and the economy but is transforming the eating habits of the Chinese. A national health campaign has recently been launched throughout the country, with the authorities taking the opportunity to encourage people to use serving spoons and chopsticks and abandon poor dining etiquette.
“Sharing communal dishes is an outdated way of life and has already been abandoned by most countries in the world,” - Professor Wang Xiaohua, Shenzhen University
As the country’s capital, Beijing has included rules on using serving spoons at dining venues and having individually-portioned meals in its civilised behaviour regulations as a legal basis for future enforcement.
Recently, 100 Chinese academics even launched a “dining table revolution” that goes by the slogan: “One, separate; two, serving utensils; and three, bring your own.” “One, separate” encourages the public to have individually-portioned meals; “two, sharing utensils” refers to the use of serving spoons and chopsticks; while “three, bring your own” refers to bringing your own cutlery.
Professor Wang Xiaohua of Shenzhen University’s School of Humanities strongly encouraged people to consider the proposal of individually-portioned meals. “Sharing communal dishes is an outdated way of life and has already been abandoned by most countries in the world,” he said. He added that serving dishes individually, course by course, preserved reasonable boundaries between individuals and was a more modern mode of dining.
The F&B industry across the country is also working hard to formulate standards for individualised dining. Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong and some other regions have released industry guidelines while some prefectural cities such as Taizhou in Jiangsu have even given concrete suggestions on the colour and type of serving spoons and chopsticks to be used, as well as the length of serving chopsticks used.
...after the pandemic blows over, “meal gatherings would go back to normal and there wouldn’t be much of a change”. - Zhang Shuanglin, Beijing’s History and Folklore Society
This reporter discovered while on a visit to restaurants and eateries in Beijing’s Chongwenmen business district, among others, that most restaurants have prepared serving spoons and chopsticks, and pulled dining tables a certain distance away from the next. If a group larger than three come to have a meal, they may be asked to dine at separate tables. Most F&B owners responded when interviewed that serving spoons and chopsticks would not bring about much financial burden to them.
Still a long way to go?
Although individualised dining at dining venues is mostly accepted by the public, it remains a question if it would still be so after the pandemic subsides.
Zhang Shuanglin, vice-chairman of Beijing’s History and Folklore Society (北京史地民俗学会), told us that after the pandemic blows over, “meal gatherings would go back to normal and there wouldn’t be much of a change”. He believes that while people have an increased public health awareness, a full implementation of individualised dining still has a long way to go.
In China’s modern history, Beijing’s Dongxinglou (东兴楼) was the earliest in launching meals served in individual portions, course by course. Citing from this example, Zhang said that in 1931, numerous other restaurants hopped on the bandwagon and also implemented similar dining formats as Dongxinglou. This system had even spread to hotels in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. However, the practice proved short-lived as diners preferred to follow customs and traditional values.
During the 2003 SARS epidemic, the F&B industry had also launched individualised dining but this was ultimately not followed through as it was “not in line with traditional Chinese eating culture”, i.e. communal dining, and it was deemed too troublesome for the public and increased the labour cost of the industry.
Effective curbs on alcohol consumption
With restaurants and eateries big and small alike struggling to survive due to the pandemic, Zhang thinks that it is not the opportune time to promote individualised dining. “Under the current circumstances, who are the Beijing people to share their seasoned millet mush or chaogan (made from pork liver, pork intestine and starch, seasoning with garlic, vinegar and soy sauce) with anyway,” he asked.
While the pandemic is unable to transform traditional eating habits of the Chinese public, it is effective in restricting people from drinking alcohol. An official in charge of commercial activities in Anhui told us in an interview that the pandemic is even more effective than alcohol prohibition — this year, he did not even attend a single dinner party that he was invited to. He explained that prior to the pandemic, dinner parties were hard to reject for fear of hurting relationships or losing face. Now, he need not come up with an excuse anymore as “the pandemic is the best excuse”.
Associate Professor Wang Yunfei of Anhui University’s School of Sociology and Political Science thinks that the pandemic has a much greater deterrent effect than the local ban on alcohol. He told us that officials who violated the alcohol ban could still hide and drink to avoid getting reported and being investigated, but the virus knows no bounds — regardless of where offenders try to hide, there is no escape.
It will take time before a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus can be developed and made available for medical use. Meanwhile, the prevention and treatment of the virus rely on how robust the public health system is. Even if the virus is here to stay for a long time, nurturing good eating and living habits forms a firm line of defence against the virus.