有一次，我接到一份港督府的晚宴请柬。在1997年香港回归前，港督府向来是历任港督的官邸。那一年大概是1985年或1986年，时任港督的尤德爵士（Sir Edward Youde）是一位倍受敬仰的中国通和外交家。请柬规定要着正装，于是我穿上了燕尾服。
Forks Versus Chopsticks
Western-style. cutlery (ie knives and forks) and chopsticks both have their intrinsic advantages as eating utensils. One of the best things about chopsticks is their simplicity and efficiency. Once you master the basic technique, there is no question of “which chopstick to use” in a typical dining situation. I like that.
There are obvious questions about hygiene in the SARS and swine flu era when you have ten people around a table digging into the same serving dish with their individual chopsticks, but — as with hand washing and other measures — customs have changed in many places and ‘serving chopsticks’ have become more common on table settings.
With western cutlery, it is a bit more complicated. Customs differ from place to place. Once I encountered a new level of complexity, which brought home to me the advantages of the good old chopstick.
I received an invitation to dine at Government House, the traditional governor’s residence before Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. The year was 1985 or 1986 and the Governor at the time was the late Sir Edward Youde, a much respected China hand and diplomat. The invitation specified that the dress code would be formal, so I donned my tuxedo.
As I arrived at the grand building, surrounded by a lovely garden, I wondered it if was a special occasion. Upon entering and mingling with the 30 or so other guests I realized it was more of a routine gathering. Other guests included government ministers, opinion leaders in Hong Kong, business leaders, etc. Most spoke with an accent heralding from the British Isles, whether they were British or Chinese. Most guests were British, although there were some Chinese people, and this one odd Yankee (me).
“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
I was reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s famous comment “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” I was definitely a minority in the group. People were friendly, if a bit stiff and formal.
After cocktail chit-chat in a drawing room, we repaired to the dining room and proceeded to take our assigned seats, with English language name cards at each place indicating where each guest should sit.
As I took my seat I was greeted by a dazzling array of silverware at my place setting. I counted 14 items of cutlery in all: knives, forks and spoons of various sizes, as well as an array of six crystal glasses of various shapes.
Hmmm, I thought, which fork to use first? Better wait, wait, watch, and follow the guy next to me. I’d been to formal dinners before, but never seen such a broad variety of eating tools on the table. The thought then crossed my mind that chopsticks are so much simpler.
The meal began, and conversation was genteel and polite.
After the dessert course was served and finished, Governor Youde stood, and in line with custom, proposed a toast to the Queen. “To the Queen” echoed around the room as all present joined the toast. I happily “Queened” along with the rest.
Afterwards, Lady Youde arose, and gave a ceremonial sweep of the hand, which signaled that it was time for the ladies present to retire to another room for coffee and tea, ostensibly (I guessed) leaving the men to talk about serious matters. They duly followed Lady Youde into the drawing room, leaving a room full of men.
Without delay, port and after dinner drinks were served (at least to the men), ashtrays were placed on the dinner tables, and cigars were offered. Conversation took a decidedly livelier turn. Less genteel, still polite, but more free-wheeling, including jokes and anecdotes told in a way which would probably not have been considered appropriate had the ladies still been present.
The custom of toasting the Queen was obviously taken very seriously, as a turning point in a formal dinner prior to which vices such as smoking, brandy, and colorful stories should not be enjoyed.
After awhile it was time to go. Farewells and thanks were offered all around. For me it was a fascinating and enjoyable evening.
In hindsight, though, I reflected on the practical, user-friendly advantages of one pair of chopsticks versus 14 items of silverware. And just think about the carbon footprint implications!