Wedding banquets in Hong Kong

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I attended a colleague’s wedding banquet recently. In the run-up to this event, I was reminded of how many little questions can pop up for expats who may be going to their first banquet in Hong Kong. It’s actually fairly easy to answer such questions because Hong Kong wedding banquets are pretty much all the same. So I hope these general tips make your banqueting more enjoyable and gaffe-free.

I’ve been given an invitation. Do I need to RSVP? Short answer: yes, especially if you’re not planning on attending. The couple will be busy negotiating with a restaurant or hotel over how many tables they’ll need to pay for, so getting a reliable guest list is pretty important.

Before you reply, though, take a careful look at your invitation. Is the invitation just for you? Often, especially if the wedding in question is a colleague’s, you won’t necessarily be expected to bring a guest along with you. If you do want to take someone along, be sure you make this clear when you reply.

Your invitation envelope will be full of interesting stuff. In addition to the invitation itself, it’ll likely include a ‘red pocket’ with a bit of cash in it, and a coupon redeemable for cakes at a local bakery, so don’t just toss all this stuff without looking it over!

What gift should I give? Give money. Although you may find a few Hong Kong couples who follow the western tradition of having gift registries, and who are therefore expecting to be showered with lovely, tasteful objets to furnish their love nest, I’ve yet to meet any. Most HK newlyweds would much, much prefer you just gave them either one of those adorable bank-issued wedding-specific money orders, or just cash in a red pocket. Most people here simply don’t have the space for a lot of platters, vases, cutlery and knick-knacks. Above all, don’t give a clock, since the Chinese name for clocks sounds like something you wish it didn’t.

So how much money should you give? If you’re attending the banquet, you need to give enough to offset the cost of your presence there, and maybe a bit more. These days, at a run-of-the-mill local restaurant, HKD500-600 should do the trick, but this number goes right up if you’re invited to a ritzier banquet at one of the major hotels. If you’re in doubt, ask a local friend or colleague, and you’re almost certain to get a nicely-calibrated reply.

Please also note that this sum is per person attending, i.e. a couple should automatically double this gift.

If you’re unable to attend the banquet, but have received an invitation and want to acknowledge the couple with a gift, HKD200-300 is probably enough.

What should I wear? You’re certainly not going to be out of place if you decide to dress up for a wedding banquet. But if you’ve got a long day ahead of you, with no time to return home to tart yourself up (a frequent Mr Tall dilemma), just looking respectable is likely good enough. In other words, a ‘business casual’ outfit will not be out of place at most banquets, although again if it's at a high-end hotel, it's likely to be more formal.

That is not to say, however, that even the most modest banquet will be an entirely casual affair. The members of the wedding parties themselves get seriously dressed, and brides change gowns at least twice during the evening.

What to expect at the banquet. Your banquet invitation will likely mention a time at which the dinner will begin, say 8:00 pm. This is an utter fiction. It’s much more likely the first morsels of food will appear an hour later than that. But the invitation may also mention that you’re invited to come early – even some time in the afternoon – to play mah johng.

So when do you actually turn up? If you’re a thoughtless jerk, you can show up at 9:00, and you can probably sit right down to the eats. But you’ll be missing out on a much more important event that precedes the dining: the photo-taking. From about 7:00-9:00 the bride and groom will do little other than take formal photos with arriving guests. If you miss your turn, it’s not the end of the world, but you will obligate the happy couple to come seek you out later in the evening to get a photo taken care of, and they’ve frankly got enough to do without you inconveniencing them in this petty way. So I’d recommend showing up at a reasonable hour – maybe around 7:00 or 7:30; no later than 8:00 – and just putting up with the inevitable delay as others take their photos, too.

The formal banquet program these days usually begins with a male/female team of emcees greeting everyone, and then showing a video with many adorable photos of the couple as children, in university, wearing mouse ears at Disneyland, and so on. Then there’ll likely be a short speech or two; if nothing else, the bride and groom will come on stage to thank everyone, especially ‘Mommy-Daddy’, and a tear or two may be shed.

Then it’s time to bring on the grub!

The menu at Hong Kong banquets is almost invariable: you begin with a roast suckling pig (look for ones with flashing red light bulbs in their eye sockets), then there’ll be a succession of dishes focusing on esoteric and expensive types of seafood – a vegetable dish with dried scallops, shrimp balls built up around crab claws, a tureen of shark’s fin soup, a steamed garoupa, and an abalone dish. Eventually the meal winds down with a roasted chicken, fried rice/noodles, and some desserts.

Dishes are served one by one, and everyone is given an individual portion by the waiter. You’re expected to finish what you’re served before the next dish comes along. If you don’t want to eat something, you can either indicate to the waiter that you don’t want a serving, or just take one and let it sit. It’s likely going to waste either way! Skipping courses becomes more and more common as the banquet goes on; by the time the rice and noodles appear, at some tables only a couple of people will still be eating.

In my experience, banquet food is disappointing. It’s usually not actively bad, but it’s frequently not quite up to the standard you’d expect from the level of restaurant you’re at, if you know what I mean.

About halfway through the banquet the wedding party will get up and go around the room en masse, and have a toast with each table. They’ll appear to be swilling away at big ol’ snifters of cognac – but it’s usually just watered-down Coke or dark tea. If anyone’s drinking the real thing – which is sometimes the case with some of the uncles and male cousins in the wedding party – you’ll definitely know it by this stage of the evening!

Toward the end of some banquets the younger set amongst the guests will compel the newlyweds to engage in embarrassing, sometimes sexually suggestive, games. Strings are passed through trousers and décolletages, couples are forced to pose in, ah, awkward positions, and so on. The last couple of banquets I’ve attended, however, had none of these shenanigans, and I’ve been told they’re becoming less and less common. Not a great loss, I’d say.

Finally, after the desserts are served, comes the moment that shocks every westerner at his first Chinese wedding banquet. It’s almost a cliché but, as Homer Simpson says, it’s funny because it’s true. That is, everyone simply stands up and leaves, just like that. There’s no lingering over drinks or standing about saying extended ‘see you so soon for lunch, darling’ farewells or exchanging air kisses whatsoever. You do need to shake hands with the members of the wedding party as you leave – just don’t give in to the temptation to mutter ‘That was an excellent message, Pastor’ to the bride’s father – and you’re out the door and hailing a taxi.


If you’d like to read more about Hong Kong weddings, you might want to check out my account of my own wedding to Mrs Tall. It gives you some idea of the other activities that the happy couple must endure throughout a very long wedding day. This discussion board thread has quite a bit of practical info about getting married in Hong Kong, too.

Comments

Thoughtless jerk? Me?

I've had my own problems with arrival times in the past. The first time I was invited to a wedding banquet here, I checked with colleagues and was warned about the pre-meal mahjong games. The consensus was that 8:30 would be a good time to turn up.

I arrived at 8:30 to find a room full of seated guests, just starting the final dessert course. Oh dear.

The couple were from Taiwan, and as I made my grovelling apologies they told me that Taiwanese wedding meals start quite promptly, without any mahjong before.

Since then I've always asked the bride and groom what time they'd like me to show up, given that I won't be playing any mahjong.

MrB

I definitely agree with the

I definitely agree with the shock at the end of the banquet when everyone just stands up and leave. Being Chinese but "shipped" to UK for schooling since my teenage years, I was shocked in my limited banquet experience since my return to HK.

My first shocking experience came during my brother's wedding banquet in Singapore when I belatedly realised that almost half of the guests were gone by the time I finally looked up from gulping my dessert.

It's a bit like the way where people leaving immediately after the lucky draw in their annual company's dinner, I guess...

Also in the "old" days, food were placed in the middle of the table where people would dive in. Ok, using the "common" utensils as provided. These days, they are "hygenically" divided by the serving attendents and get dispatched to each guest's place, a bit clinical I would say as one of the major element of chinese family eating tradition is sharing.