There comes a time when an important figure of the village wants to hold a banquet. He may have had a boy, he may be celebrating his son’s wedding, he may have purchased new factory equipment. But today, that important figure is celebrating the purchase of a new home, together with the acceptance of his son into a university, on a duck farm. Being a successful duck dealer, he held through the SARS crisis to become a virtual monopolist of duck and affiliated products, making [•] a month. Moreover, it explains why he has over 20 tables ready to celebrate these two significant events.
Knowing of the event is easy – just follow the crowd, but entering is another matter. Useful items include cigarettes, exotic fruits, spirits red packets, and of course, some knowledge of the host himself. The objects of the banquet (the son and the house) become auxiliary once the banquet is held. To enter, you either have to be a family member, a butcher, an egg seller, a pillow maker or a close friend. I chose to be an egg seller to pass through reception. Asked why I didn’t bring any eggs, I replied that I got my eggs here and there was no point to bring back what 老總 sold to me. Better to give them fruits “from Thailand” instead. “Oh, and here’s a cigarette too”. The ticket was a red plastic bag containing peanuts and, surprise, a pack of Double Happiness.
The banquet had already started when I came in and the air was thick with smoke. I sat down at one of the tables and revoked my egg-seller identity. I became another friend’s son, who is working in a Shanghai law firm. The table was heavy with fish, prawn, crayfish, smaller shrimp, sliced cucumbers, dumplings, and of course, duck and all sorts of related bits and pieces. I managed to hide my grimace when the double-broiled turtle was served and it was some time before I realised the tempura I was having was actually bits of toad. The taste of those was entirely acceptable even if the idea was not.
Although table manners may be disregarded at such formal banquets, there are some rules to be followed. For example, one must stand when the host comes around to down his drink (just follow suit). One must also fill others’ glasses before filling his own. To drink from his glass, or bowl as the case may be, one must address the entire table by holding his receptacle as if to drink and do a turn around the table; others will acknowledge and together, you can commence the ‘cheers’ procedure. Other than that, you may smoke, talk on your phone, cut your fingernails, spit and gurgle your drink.
Later, as the food began to disappear from the table, bowls and bottles made loud noises as they crashed against the floor. People began to laugh before they could finish their sentences and raucous laughter ensued, rattling the faux Versailles ceiling of the staff canteen. Learning that there was to be a continuation of the banquet in the evening, I took the opportunity to escape through the back door, where on both sides, the fish they used to feed the ducks were kept.
I am still trying to wash off that smell before I head off to dinner on the duck farm.