Dim Sum Dialogues: Love & Marriage

Weddings in Hong Kong are big business. In every district, small shops advertise dress tailoring, videography or photography packages, and event planning services. Go into any of the big hotels on a weekend and you’ll find over 300 people congregating in the grand ballrooms, feasting over a ten-course meal that boasts elegance and affluence. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to help a friend shoot two local weddings, and on each occasion got an intimate look at the practices and traditions of modern ceremonies in Hong Kong.

The day starts early. The bride is joined by her mother and a few close friends, quickly nibbling on a light breakfast while a crew of photographers set up their equipment in the humble estate apartment of the Bride’s family. Immediately upon my arrival, I’m given a small gold & red envelope that I later discover holds $100 HKD – a generous welcome.
As the bride sits to have her makeup applied, the bridesmaids start setting up what appears to be a series of games. They pass around index cards, poster-boards, markers and containers of food seasoning. Bright red Double Happiness symbols are hung on walls and windows in the apartment, reflecting the hazy morning sun. We’re told that the groom and his groomsmen are in the lobby of the housing estate, and we rush to join them as the groom is handing out his own gold & red packets.

The men take photos and make their way up the cramped elevator to the apartment. Upon reaching the apartment door, they are denied access and the purpose of the poster-board is suddenly revealed. The groom must play a series of games and tests to gain access to the bride, while she anxiously waits in the back of the apartment with her father. The groom sings, answers trivia, and even outlines a chinese character through layers of mayonnaise, spices, and seasoning with his tongue. This is love.

After twenty minutes of displaying his devotion, the groom is allowed to enter and the bride’s father presents the bride to enthusiastic claps and laughter. She is dressed in a pretty, yet simple red dress adorned with gold stitching and small gems. The bride & groom then kneel on bright red & gold pillows to serve a special blend of tea to the bride’s parents.

The parents present the couple with special jewelry – large gold bracelets for the bride, and a small silver necklace for the groom. Pictures are taken, and then the whole party moves to the groom’s parents’ house for a repeat of the same tea ceremony and the opportunity for the groom’s parents to show their hospitality. After the second tea ceremony, the wedding party takes a lunch break. On my first wedding it was traditional dim-sum style food, and on my second it was gourmet cheeseburgers. Another example why you can never expect to always follow strict tradition in Hong Kong.

The next move is to the ceremony, typically held in a Christian church or in the City Hall, depending on the religious affiliation of the couple. The wedding in the Christian church was like most western weddings that I’ve been to with two exceptions: The groom sang a karaoke-esque song to the bride before she was walked down the aisle by her father, and the couple signed the legal marriage documents at the alter. I don’t think I have ever seen this done in an American wedding, but I could be wrong.

The day is capped off with a large banquet at a nice hotel. Everything has been arranged by the hotel staff, from the welcoming signs and displays to the towering eight-tier cake that stands on top of the main entertainment stage. Perfectly orchestrated lights and music are timed to dramatize the presentation of over ten courses of food. Vegetables, fish, chicken, pork, dumplings, noodles, crab, fruit, and even the environmentally taboo shark-fin soup are elaborately presented at tables of ten or so. There must be at least three hundred people in the room – undoubtedly more people than were actually in the audience at the ceremony. There is more singing, a few slideshow presentations, and a video highlight from the day’s events. The banquet climaxes with the couple making rounds to each table in rapid succession, to toast the guests and thank them for coming.

It occurs to me that the bride has changed dresses yet again into an evening gown, and the bride and groom each make speeches on stage. As everything is winding down, they stand at the ballroom’s exit with their family and form a line to shake hands and say goodbye to the exiting guests. A few red faces stumble and slur their way down the line – the sign of a little too much wine, but all in all the wedding is a success. The extremely tired bride & groom collapse on a couch, take a deep breath and get ready to catch a flight to their honeymoon in London.

Check in tomorrow for a look into the legend behind Double Happiness and it’s prevalence in Chinese weddings.

Dim Sum Dialogues: Family Business

I arrive at the Houston Center of East Tsim Sha Tsui dripping in sweat – a product of the battle between Hong Kong’s unforgiving humidity and my mild-weather Californian blood. I’m here to meet with 23-year-old Ray Lok, a mutual friend and aspiring businessman in Hong Kong. I hope that a quick breather in the air-conditioned lobby will help dry out my shirt, but within minutes I see him step out of the elevator – dressed in a sharp striped shirt – no tie, chequered trousers, and fashionable black shoes. He approaches me with a slight grin and says “Why are you sweating? Did you run here?”

In the elevator up to his waterfront office, we exchange business cards. His reads “Ray Lok, Director – Yulok Company Limited”. He comments on the thickness of my business card, “Where did you get these made? I think this is now the thickest business card in my collection”. We laugh and walk through a series of rooms strung with countless plastic & woven bags hanging from metal racks. Next to the bags are an array of textiles and various clothing fabrics.

He explains that the Yulok Company specializes in manufacturing carrier bags for retail stores around the world – South Africa, Israel, Australia, and throughout Europe. They range from simple bags with printed logos to custom designed bags for carrying bottles of wine. The Yulok Company also mass-produces simple plastic bags found in supermarkets, plastic trash bags, and more obscure products like billions of stirrers for coffee cups – it’s a diverse inventory.

Ray’s parents started the company in 1979, when his mother was employed by a trading company and approached by a client to help start a new venture. The success of the business took off despite the economic downturn in the 90’s – and at one point the Yulok Company maintained three factories in Hong Kong. Because of rising costs and regulations, they’ve since moved their factory to Vietnam – a complicated process that involved completely disassembling the factory machinery, relocating and then reassembling it.

Like many other young people in Hong Kong, Ray went abroad for his education – graduating in 2008 from USC’s International Relations & Global Business program. He remarks that he was impressed by students that were able to work jobs and study full time – and enjoyed his professors in the program. But he argues that the course itself wasn’t interesting and often inapplicable to business in Hong Kong. His real education came from sitting in on meetings as a child and watching his parents run the company.

For lunch, Ray leads me to a fancy Chinese restaurant a few floors below the office. The hostesses immediately recognize him, which is no surprise – he says he’s been coming here for 23 years. I ask whether or not he felt pressured to come take over the family business after school, and he shrugs saying that there was never any family conversation about it – as a male in a Chinese family it was expected of him. I ask him if this bothers him, if he’d rather be doing anything else, and he replies “It’s better than working at a bank” – referring to the large majority of the young, educated Hong Kong workforce.

We discuss the new plastic bag tax that hit Hong Kong’s consumers on July 1st of this year. There’s a 50¢ fee for every plastic bag used at supermarkets and convenience stores. It doesn’t concern him because he’s seen it implemented in other countries only to fail shortly after. He says that consumers often blame manufacturers for the environmental damage caused by plastic bags, but in reality it’s not the manufacturer’s fault – it’s how the consumers use and dispose of them.

Ray wants to expand into larger production of biodegradable bags, but adds that the government isn’t funding R&D enough to make them truly efficient…claiming that biodegradables can be just as bad for the environment as plastic bags are.

It seems that he’s genuinely concerned about environmental issues, but effectively dismisses any claim directed against the plastic bag industry. My ignorance on the subject forces me to return to my crispy noodles, hot tea, and sweet egg tarts. I ask him about his hobbies and aspirations, and he mentions that he’d like to explore an internet startup if he can find the time. His ideal dream would be to own a boat and escape Hong Kong on the weekends, but for now he spends his free time shooting photographs & toying around with fast cars.

It’s hard to pry deep into his personal aspirations – so I revert back to business.

We finish our lunch, and I ask him if he’s happy working so much at his age. He replies that his parents always told him “When you’re young, you sacrifice your health in exchange for money, and when you’re old you use your money in exchange for health.” I laugh to myself, and consider the truth in that statement. Wise words for a young professional in Hong Kong.

Dim Sum Dialogues : Getting down to business

Let’s face it – if you’re an aspiring businessperson or entrepreneur, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll be doing business in China within the next decade. Whether it’s manufacturing, finance, or trading – China has the second largest economy in the world and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

One of the best things about Hong Kong is the speed with which people network. A night out at the hot spots on Wyndham Street could yield a small collection of new business cards – so make sure that you bring plenty of your own. Business cards are usually handed out rapidly and immediately in social situations, and if you’re really serious about making connections here, make sure your cards have English on one side and traditional Chinese (for Hong Kong) or simplified Chinese (for the mainland) on the other side.

A few weeks after I arrived, I became friends with another American that came to Hong Kong to import fresh, wholesome (and melamine free) milk directly from the United States. As a part of his training, he received a document outlining how business with Chinese partners should be conducted, so I took the opportunity to outline the highlights for your reading pleasure here. I can’t verify the absolute truth of these statements or stand by them, so please, take it with a grain of salt.

  • Present your business card with two hands, and ensure that the Chinese side is facing the recipient. Never write on a business card or put it in your wallet or pocket. Carry a small card case.
  • When receiving a business card, make a show of examining it carefully for a few moments, then carefully place it in your cards case or on the table, if you are seated. Not reading a business card that has been presented to you then stuffing it directly into your back pocket will be a breach of protocol.
  • If your company is the oldest or largest in your country, or has another prestigious distinction, ensure that this is stated on your card. It’s an asset to have your business cards printed in gold ink. In Chinese business culture, gold is the color of prestige, prosperity
  • Do not use large hand movements. Chinese people do not speak with their hands. Your movements may be distracting to your host. Do not point when speaking. If one must point do not use your index finger, use an open palm. It is considered improper to put your hand in your mouth. Avoid acts that involve the mouth.
  • Personal contact must be avoided at all cost. It is also highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public.
  • Chinese people don’t like doing business with companies they don’t know, so working through an intermediary is crucial. This could be an individual or an organization that can make a formal introduction and vouch for the reliability of your company.
  • Bowing or nodding is the common greeting; however, you may be offered a handshake. Wait for the Chinese to offer their hand first. Handshakes are typically limp and brief.
  • Greetings are formal and the oldest person is always greeted first.
  • The most important member of your company or group should lead important meetings. Chinese value rank and status. Introductions are formal. Use formal titles.
  • It is considered disrespectful to stare into another person’s eyes.
  • Under no circumstances should you lose your temper or you will lose face and irrevocably damage your relationship.
  • The decision making process is slow. You should not expect to conclude your business swiftly. Negative replies are considered impolite. Instead of saying ‘no’, answer ‘maybe’. ‘I’ll think about it’ or ‘We’ll see’ and get into specifics later. You’ll find that many Chinese partners will do the same.
  • So there you have it. May these tips bring you good health & good fortune…and keep an eye out this week for more on Hong Kong weddings, how to navigate a wet market, and the infamous Chungking Mansions.