If, like me, you grew up in postwar Britain, you probably had at least one formidably severe, intimidating maiden aunt by whom you were occasionally invited to tea. I had several, all great aunts and all incredibly ancient (from the perspective of a five-year-old). And only too ready to administer a sharp slap across the side of the head if you were foolish enough, cocky enough, to transgress any of her rules of polite conduct. Even if you couldn’t help it.
Take a simple situation such as spilling tea on your aunt’s (starched white linen) tablecloth. Ouch! To paraphrase George Orwell (Such, Such Were the Joys, in which he relates how being flogged for wetting the bed at his prep school ‘cured’ the problem), it is a mistake to assume that this kind of treatment doesn’t work. It does. I’m sure that there is a whole generation out there who wince inwardly every time they see someone spill tea (or anything else) on a tablecloth.
That’s how I felt on my first visit to a Chinese restaurant, soon after I arrived, wide-eyed, in Hong Kong in 1974. What’s all this? People spilling tea all over the tablecloth. I was shocked. Horrified. But then I noticed that everyone else simply ignored these flagrant violations of what I’d been conditioned to believe was polite behaviour and carried on with whatever else they had been doing. Well, I thought, if no one else is bothered, why should I be?
In any case, trying to avoid spilling tea on the tablecloth in a Chinese restaurant turns out to be almost as difficult as attempting to empty the Pacific Ocean armed only with a plastic bucket (and an infinite amount of patience). The problem is the teapots and their design. This does vary, but only within narrow limits; the fundamental form and function are always the same. And something else that is always the same: it is impossible to adequately control the rate at which the tea issues from the spout. Tip the pot so far and all you get is a trickle; only slightly further and out it comes in a torrent, overshooting the cup and saturating the immediate hinterland. This gives rise to the golden rule for tea drinking in a Chinese restaurant: never hold onto your cup when the teamaster is about to top it up.
However, some Chinese use the tablecloth for less acceptable purposes, such as a place to spit out bones. This is a by-product of the Chinese method of preparing meat: individual pieces may have quite a few bones, and the meaty bits of such pieces aren’t easily extracted with a knife and fork. The best place to separate the edible from the inedible is the mouth, from whence the unwanted pieces need to be removed periodically. I was relieved to discover that most Chinese also find the spitting method uncouth, except, possibly, in the privacy of their own homes. The polite alternative, and considerate if within sight of other diners, is to use your chopsticks to transfer the bones from your mouth to the side of the small dish upon which your rice bowl stands.
Both standards of behaviour can still be seen in Hong Kong, but nowadays what you see is heavily context-dependent. If you’re eating at a street stall, you will be sitting at a folding table with a laminated top, so it’s natural to spit any bones straight onto the tabletop. When you’ve finished, the proprietor simply wipes the table with a cloth, although it has to be said that in many establishments most of the debris ends up on the ground.
And it is possible to delineate a hierarchy of restaurants based on their tablecloth policy. In the more upmarket restaurants, you get a freshly laundered tablecloth every time, and you will never be required to share a table. Moving downmarket, you will still get a clean tablecloth, but if the restaurant is busy you may have to share a table. This presents an interesting logistical problem. Take the situation where two couples sit at a table for four. They start with a clean tablecloth, but when one couple leaves, the tablecloth is rolled up to expose half the table. A clean tablecloth is then spread across the exposed half of the table. When the second couple leaves, the old tablecloth is removed and the unused half of the new tablecloth is rolled out across the rest of the table. This process continues for as long as there are new customers.
At the bottom of the scale are restaurants where the tablecloth is changed only when it is visibly soiled. Our local restaurant, which I described in slow food, falls into this category. It even has tan-coloured tablecloths, which don’t show the tea stains, although I have to confess that this takes the fun out of it. You see, in what might be seen as retrospective rebellion, spilling tea on the tablecloth, which I don’t do deliberately (I didn’t then either), has become something of a guilty pleasure. Auntie Ginny would have been mortified.