You go to a Cha Chaan Teng in Hong Kong and the waiter approaches and plops down a plastic up of tea on the table as you sit down for lunch. You are thirsty and tired and – though you’d like a lemon with the tea, you gulp the tea but wait… there is something wrong because the local Hong Kong companions that you are with (or the locals sitting around)… well you don’t see them doing the same. Then someone dunks their chopsticks into the tea
and then you find out that the tea that you just gulped was meant to wash the chopsticks pulled from the communal tin.
Chopsticks are everywhere in local Hong Kong restaurants which means you should take some good chopstick etiquette with you everywhere you go. For instance, as tempting as it may be to stab that slippery piece of pork that keeps sliding around your plate as you chase it with the tip of your chopsticks, maybe it’s not actually a good idea. Although that huge choi sum stalk that’s been a bit over boiled doesn’t lead itself to being eaten in clean cut bites, you know to resist the urge to pull the stringy piece of vegetable from your mouth with fingers rather than use your chopstick as a toothpick.
The ultimate chopstick taboo: never EVER stick your chopsticks upright into your bowl of rice. Even when it was an absentminded reaction to the need to reach out for a napkin. The image of chopsticks poking upright out of food is reminiscent of the way incense is presented in sacrificial and funeral offerings and it’s understandable that you might be inviting death to the table.
There are other taboos that Hong Kong locals know to avoid:
1. Its impolite to pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another.
Not just for purely hygenic reasons but because the passing of food recalls another funeral custom like passing bones of the cremated amongst family members. Its never a smart idea to turn your dinner table into a metaphoric graveyard.
2. Laying down chopsticks so one appears longer than the other is a reference for a a Chinese coffin.
There is a Chinese idiom ‘three longs and two shorts’, a reference to traditioanl Chinese wooden coffins being built with three long woods and two short ones. So you don’t wnat to be laying down your chopsticks so that you come uncomfortably close to building a coffin.
3. Dropping chopsticks on the floor brings bad luck
Since your use chopsticks to eat with, dropping your chopsticks also means that you are losing the means with which to eat with and ru nthe risk of having to go hungry.
4. Tapping the side of your bowl with chopsticks is to simulate what beggars do
Eating at a well heeled restaurant, you don’t want to assume the role of a beggar tapping the side of the bowl for money.
5. Crossing chopsticks in an ‘X’ shape at the table brings bad luck to everyone around you.
Its perfectly ok to lay your chopsticks parallel on top of your bowl or just parallel and flat on the table after you’ve finished as it implies to everyone that you’ve finished eating. Some restaurants will have small chopsticks holder and you can do as everyone else is doing.
Here is something that you’ll only see in Hong Kong:
Lots of restaurants in Hong Kong will offer quick disposable wooden chopsticks which you pull apart and discard after eating. But how do you pull disposable chopsticks apart so that you don’t end up with a one short and one long thats still got the other end stuck on? The trick is to make the most out of the concept of leverage by pulling apart the very tips of the chopsticks in a swift action so that they snap apart still parallel. Is it acceptable to do whats so ingrained in most local Hong Kongers to rub the wooden ends of the chopsticks together to remove the wooden splinters? The consensus seems to be it’s acceptable only as long as it doesn’t your server or the people that you are dining with.