A few days ago we were invited to attend the annual dinner for our outsourcing partner company. We went to the last year’s dinner, and the cultural impact was a bit overwhelming, so we were even more apprehensive this time around.
The dinner was held in a banqueting venue on the other side of the city about 1 hour away by metro. The venue was a large banqueting hall that seated about 500 people and had a stage overlooking the proceedings. There were big round tables with white table cloths, each table seating about 10 people, and many side/private rooms situated next to the main dining area – in other words, a typical Chinese restaurant. The top management and other VIP’s occupied the private rooms, while the rest of the staff (and us, the only non-Asians) were seated in the main hall.
The dinner was supposed to start at 6.00 p.m. but by 6.15 there were still many empty tables. By 6.30 we all started tucking into the 6 or 7 cold dishes that were already arrayed on the table. The food was Shanghainese, which tends to be quite sweet and can be a bit oily, but on the whole it wasn’t too bad, and there was plenty of it. 7-Up, Pepsi and beer were on the house, but not a cup of tea in sight. There was no official start to the proceedings but about 1/2 hour later the official MC and hostess as well as some of the managers wandered onto the stage and they took turns to sing a few duets accompanied by blaring soundtracks. The arrival of additional hot dishes on the table was interspersed with various performers on the stage, occasionally accompanied by some applause, but always by very loud music.
Other highlights of the evening:
- a lady conjurer (with the sounds of music from Riverdance as her background music) – she made silk cloths and pigeons appear and disappear and also had a few other tricks in her repertoire;
- a traditional Biàn Liǎn “Face-Changing” 变脸 performer;
- some more songs (they were a better selection of performers than last year where every department was supposed to perform an act, including those that had very little talent. This had made for a VERY long evening and a major reason for our current levels of apprehension)
- a skit on speed-dating;
- a dance or two (by some very nervous-looking girls in traditional qípáo 旗袍) ;
- and a few “party games’:
- wrapping up participants in toilet paper to turn them into “zombies” (the accompanying music to this slot was a song/cartoon video “Zombies on the lawn” from an online arcade game). I’m not sure how the winner was determined for this game…
- getting two contestants to gather various items from the audience (including cell phones, wallets, sunglasses, a strand of hair, a tall friend, etc) and then laying them out in a line. The contestant whose items formed the longest line was declared the winner and everyone that contributed to his line of items also received a prize)
At the start of the evening each staff member signed a card and hung it on a “lottery tree” [for some or other reason the two of us weren’t given cards to sign…..]. 30 people won the 3rd prize of a toaster or a humidifier (one of the guys on our team was “lucky” enough to score a humidifier, but had to get called back from his smoke break in order to collect it!). 10 people won the 2nd prize of an iPod-Touch, including the only girl in our team (there were some very jealous male colleagues around our table). However, they were all holding out for the main prize: an iPad – but it was not to be – someone else got that one.
I have always said that I don’t know how Chinese people read each other’s handwriting, and that night it was proved that my concerns are justified. Most names written on the cards on the lottery tree required consultation from up to 4 organisers before the names were deciphered and called out, sometimes with a few mis-attempts before the correct person was found.
As soon as the first prize winner was announced, people started getting up and going home. Someone had started the rumour that there were other prizes hidden in the balloons decorating the hall. A few enterprising souls had tried to pop some of the balloons earlier in the evening, but had been severely reprimanded by one very irate organiser lady. As the first prize winner was trying to make his thank you speech, there was a stampede to get at and pop the remaining balloons. We took the opportunity to slip out and find our way home…