Preserving tradition in lean times


BEIJING: He has almost stopped eating out since his annual income from a foreign-funded logistics company was cut by one-third last year amid the global financial crisis.

But Guangzhou resident Zeng Hongmin was not about to let his loved ones stay at home for what is arguably the most important meal of the year for Chinese at home and abroad.

The white-collar worker tightened his belt and broke the news to his family – the seven of them would have their reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year at a restaurant, but only for 800 yuan (RM420), less than a third of what they splurged on at the same hotel last year.

“I really hope to continue the family tradition and enjoy ourselves together,” Zeng said.

Zeng is just one of the many Chinese nationwide finding ways to celebrate the start of the new year in these tough economic times.

The reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan 25 this year, is a tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.

The meal was also the most sumptuous one of the year for many Chinese, up until the country’s economic boom started to be felt in modern times.

Before the early 1990s when food rationing was discontinued, most Chinese gathered at home for the reunion dinner, with all members spending days on end around town to shop for raw ingredients. Many Chinese would be able to recall how the best cooks in their families would stay in the kitchen for hours preparing dishes that ran the gamut of local and regional dishes.

But food production soon boomed along with the country’s dramatic growth. Delicacies such as sea cucumber and yuanxiao sweet dumplings that were available only in markets during festivities three decades ago are now filling supermarket shelves year round.

Chinese urbanites saddled with work have also been shying away from preparing home meals and opting instead for restaurants with exhaustive menus.

Zeng Hongmin’s family in Guang­zhou has been eating reunion dinners in restaurants for the past 15 years, he said.

Riding on the back of such increasing demand, the catering industry has enjoyed an average annual growth rate of 22.6% in sales revenue between 1991 and 2005, figures from the National Bureau of Statistics showed.

According to China’s largest food website, www.21food.cn, in 2007, restaurants in 18 cities catered to some 600,000 tables, earning about 10 billion yuan (RM5.26bil) in sales revenue. Last year, more than 160 restaurants in Shanghai served about 13,800 tables, charging an average of 1,699 yuan (RM895) for each table, during the festive period, according to the Shanghai Economic Committee.

Shanghai resident Sun Junhua has also reserved a table at a restaurant for her family of 12, spending about 3,000 yuan (RM1,580) for the reunion dinner. Dining out during this time became routine for her family four years ago when they decided to avoid the hassle of cooking at home.

“Eating out is worth the money; after all, it is a once-in-a-year occasion,” Sun, 33, a senior manager in a foreign exhibition company, told China Daily.

“In Shanghai, people celebrate many foreign festivals. But I think traditional Chinese festivals should be kept. In any case, Spring Festival is the most important of all Chinese festivals. It deserves to be a grand affair,” she said.

Still, the negative impact of the global economic slowdown has hurt diners and the restaurateurs alike, with many inevitably choosing to eat at home to save money.

Shanghai housewife Wang Yuelian said she will cook this year’s reunion dinner for her family of three to help cut down expenses.

“I have to save money amid the economic slowdown,” said Wang, whose family depends mostly on her husband’s 5,000 yuan (RM2,630) monthly salary in a state-owned company.

Wang herself was laid off last October following the financial crisis and her 17-year-old daughter is still in high school.

A recent survey conducted by Dianping.com, a popular restaurant review site, showed only 4% of the 1,800 respondents said they would choose expensive hotel restaurants to host their reunion dinners.

Restaurants are beginning to feel the pinch. Many have reported huge drops in bookings by corporations and families.

“We are not seeing as many reservations as in past years,” said Zhang Jinfu, vice-secretary general of the China Hotel Association.

Hotels and restaurants in Guangzhou and Shenzhen are reportedly hit harder than others in the country, with many offering special discounts to attract diners.

The five-star Shangri-La Hotel in Guangzhou that used to charge a record 198,000 yuan (RM104,000) for a 10-person family reunion dinner last year, is now offering set meals valued at about 3,000 yuan each this year, local media reported.

Zhao Liping, a director of the Guangzhou Restaurant, said prices for family reunion dinners in his restaurant would go down by between 10% and 20%, despite the increasing cost of ingredients like meat and vegetables.

Total turnover of the catering sector in Shenzhen this year is expected to drop by 30% from a year before, Chen Shaohua, secretary general of the Shenzhen Catering &Service Industries Association, was quoted as saying.

But restaurants in Shanghai seem to be bucking the trend.

Shanghai resident Sun Junhua said she has tried several restaurants near her house in Gubei in early December and was told that all the tables had been booked.

“The Shaoxing Restaurant told me that all the tables had been booked even for the five days after Spring Festival,” Sun said.

“While people may not eat out at other times, they make it a point to do so for the reunion dinner,” said Qian Yibin, executive chef at Gutai Restaurant on Yanping Road.

“Our tables have long been booked. I never worry about business. Many people believe that they should give themselves a good treat at year end.” - CHINAdaily.com.cn

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