Luxury of Leftovers: Why are Chinese Banquets so Wasteful?

Luxury of Leftovers: Why are Chinese Banquets so Wasteful?
Feb 04, 2013 By eChinacities.com

Editor's note: The following article was translated and edited from an article that appeared on wenxuecity.com, an online portal for overseas Chinese. The article summarizes a series of recent reports that have appeared in domestic media about the huge food waste generated at banquets for Chinese officials and businessmen. Although new regulations on curbing lavish banquets for government officials were recently passed, the article suggests that such extravagances have not diminished all that much, and, in fact, have caused the practice to become even more secretive.

Last December, new regulations were passed to stop Chinese officials from throwing frequent, lavish—not to mention, publicly funded—banquets for themselves; a practice that has been all-too-commonly seen across the country in recent years. In mid-January, reporters from certain media websites, interested in documenting the effectiveness of these new regulations, visited several catering sites in cities across China. According to their reports, while it appeared that the number of extravagant banquets being held had decreased, the practice itself was still quite prevalent. And at a time when “frugality” is being heavily promoted nationwide, such scenes of continued lavishness are all the more infuriating.

Official banquets become more secretive

Following the recent calls for "practicing strict economy", reporters conducting interviews in Chongqing, Guangzhou and Lanzhou found that, true to form, the extravagant banquets targeted by the new regulations appeared to have been contained somewhat: a number of restaurants and hotels told these reporters that there had been a marked decline in attendance to such events since the announcement. However, reporters noted that some banquets had been quietly transferred to “internal” restaurants that were off-limits to non-officials, so it is difficult to say how successful the new regulations have been. Furthermore, reporters found that some banquets were providing their attendants with false names, to keep their participation secret.

On January 20, a reporter conducted interviews at the Seaview Garden Hotel in Qingdao. A waiter, who asked not to be named, told the reporter that this year's reservations for the main hall have been abysmal so far, but that reservations for the 2-3 table banquet halls and smaller private rooms had been in much higher demand than before. On the same day, a separate reporter in Kunming learned that the banquet halls at the prestigious Wyndam Hotel were still booked solid. A hotel staff member told the reporter that it was mostly for corporate functions, however there were a number of official banquets booked as well. When pressed for future details, the staff member flat out refused to disclose their names or any other information.

Shocking amount of food goes to waste

Back in Qingdao, this time in the Ocean Hotel on January 18, a reporter managed to sneak into several 20-person banquet rooms after the parties had left. The reporter noted that the attendants in each case had left behind a myriad of dishes: untouched crabs, whole chickens and fish, plates of fried rice and more. The reporter asked a waiter who was cleaning up one of the rooms whether any of the guests ever take leftovers home with them, to which the waiter responded: “Basically, whenever a banquet is held for a big client, no one takes anything home with them. We have no choice but to throw everything away. These people are so wasteful!"

On January 19, the reporter poked around a larger event that had just concluded in the Qingdao Seaview Garden Hotel’s main banquet hall. It was there that a company had held its year-end gathering, with a total of 25 tables. Following the banquet, the reporter noticed that many dishes on a majority of the tables were not even half eaten. And at the main table, where esteemed guests from the banks and official departments had been seated, plates and plates of sea cucumber and abalone, both incredibly expensive courses, sat completely untouched. The reporter asked one of the waiters, "What you do you with all of this food?" to which the waiter responded, "What do you think I do with it? I throw it out!" As a follow-up question, the reporter asked whether throwing so much food away bothered him, to which the waiter snapped, "How could this not bother me? That single fish dish cost more than I earn in a week!"

The other extreme

Wang Yizong lives in a small village outside Longnan City in Gansu Province. In this photo, taken in his kitchen, Wang sits next to a small basket of mantou and baozi, which is his entire ration for the week. “For years, I haven’t been to a restaurant. I eat meat maybe 10 times a year,” says Wang, who turns 64 this year.  His house only has a small vegetable plot. The monthly income for Wang and his wife, including old-age insurance for rural residences and subsistence allowances, is only about 200 RMB.

What can be done about the “leftover banquet” phenomenon?

In 1995, actor Zhao Benshan, during a Spring Festival event, performed a skit called "Uncle Niu is Promoted to a Cadre" (《牛大叔提干》), as a satire of the waste produced by official banquets, social corruption and other "bad practices". Needless to say, it was an instant hit with the public. Yet today, nearly two decades later, such wasteful habits remain, and most people simply consider the "leftover banquet" (剩宴)—the act of ordering more food than people can eat and then leaving it there—a staple of modern Chinese society. While experts have long advocated for changes to this element of China’s dining culture—one that rationalizes past the whole "worrying about face" element and thus puts an end to the wasteful practice of the "leftover banquet"—such a large scale social reform would require all sides to work together, which is to say that it’s something easier said than done.

Yu Changjiang, an associate professor in Peking University's sociology department believes that people are well aware of this waste problem, and know that it is caused by everyone struggling to “save face” (i.e., no one dares to take the food home with them). Yu adds that, "this concept of extravagant dining also stems from the country's poverty-ridden history…over-ordering has become a way for people to express their happiness that that period is finally over." However, cultural implications aside, Yu suspects that many people are beginning to view modern dining culture more rationally: "Unless it’s obvious that the host has only invited people to flaunt his wealth, in most situations people will act like more rational consumers, and won’t consider taking the leftovers home to be a loss of face.” But according to Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor in Renmin University's sociology department, the “leftover banquet” phenomenon is still most common at the publicly funded banquets held for officials: "At this kind of event, the subordinates are all worried that the banquet is part of their official evaluation, so, of course they're going to over-order the most expensive dishes."

As a public resource, food wasted during these extravagant banquets detracts from the overall social wealth, in addition to polluting the environment. More over, there are still tens of millions in China who live below the poverty line and have limited access to food resources. According to Yu, “…this habit of wasting money on banquets is backward, ignorant, old-fashioned and downright absurd…A simpler, more frugal eating style would lessen our carbon footprint and create a oneness with the environment, as is the trend of the times." And while people had previously thought that price increases would help eliminate some of the waste generated by the “leftover banquet” phenomenon, this has proved to be incorrect. Yu believes that it’s not until the deeper-set social and cultural contexts, which work to rationalize the wasteful behavior change, that the problem of “leftover banquets” will be resolved.

 

Source: wenxuecity.com

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Keywords: Extravagant banquets for Chinese official dinning culture in China food waste in China

4 Comments

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1

Guest938014
comment|35451|104223

It is really sad to see that the younger generation in China are not aware or not educated by the elders on food wastage and its impact........many Chinese think that wasting food is right because it makes them feel that they are not deprived of it.......but this view must change, an awareness should be created where people realize the impact of food wastage.....many people in China cannot even afford food...

Feb 04, 2013 14:07 Report Abuse

2

DaqingDevil
comment|35443|58569

I didn't realise it was as such a huge problem as this article has pointed out. In my first few months in China I was astonished at the amount of food that was wasted at some functions I attended and I commented on this a number of times to those that invited me and colleagues who had attended. It was a few months later that I noticed that we were actually able to arrange "doggie bags" (as we call them in our country) so that we could take the leftovers home. Since then regardless of who orders the meal I have no hesitation in asking for bags to take home the amazing amount of leftover food these days. One public function I attended and a Chinese wedding of a friend were two examples of indecent waste I witnessed. I always secretly hope that the poor waiters and workers at the restaurants have a darn good sit down meal after all these wasters have gone home!

Feb 04, 2013 07:51 Report Abuse

3

13david
comment|35442|228230

It's not just the rich at banquets it happens right through Chinese society with the exception of the rural poor. I am always horrified watching many Chinese leaving their tables with a mountain of food left. This is the rule not the exception. Presumably when the middle class can afford rich banquets they carry their extraordinary bad habits with them. The Standard Chinese meal with so many dishes leads to this waste. Nearly always even with my wife one has to have at least 5 dishes with rarely one dish completely finished. I never saw "doggie bags " either. Surely some people have pets at least. Throwing food away is obscene when many go hungry. In the west the likes of chicken and pig farmers come for the waste. I wondered if this was happening , I saw no evidence of this and this article confirms this. The west throws away half of its food. Maybe the Chinese think this must be a good idea.

Feb 04, 2013 07:35 Report Abuse

4

eurotrash
comment|35448|74446

Pig farmers come after the restaurant is closed, but still...

Feb 04, 2013 13:13 Report Abuse