Battle of the bills

Author: Kelly Eng
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

One thing makes me proud to be Chinese. It's not our ingenuity with cooking obscure animal parts or our ability to squat in impossible places. Rather, it's the way we pay restaurant bills.

This curious ritual unfolds in Chinese restaurants worldwide. Take one large group of people. Have them order an outrageous amount of food. Soup is followed by oysters that beget Peking duck that begets lobster perched atop egg noodles that begets vegetable hot-pots and quivering tofu. Silence reigns as rice, vegetable and protein are swept into open mouths. An hour later, over-nourished Chinese sit flossing their teeth with toothpicks, gazing into the ether, senses dulled. But don't be fooled by the dazed exterior, for inside lies an athlete with the agility of a tiger.

It's bill time. The waiter approaches, placing it warily on the turntable. Twelve paws pounce. A fight ensues and suddenly it's Mr Wu versus Mrs Chung versus Mr Lee. There's shouting, pushing, pulling and berating of the waiter. The showdown is whittled down to two contestants, both clutching the bill. There's movement, a shuffle of four of five metres through the restaurant, both parties unwilling to let go and Mr Wu's just put Mr Lee in a headlock.

Forget ping-pong. Bill paying is the sport at which we excel. This custom is about pride, honour, generosity and a belief that what goes around comes around. There is no splitting of bills, no tallying up of entrées and mains, and definitely no "You drank more wine and I didn't eat the garlic bread". Simply, it is an honour to treat your beloved friends and family.

Bill paying is both brawn and brain. To triumph you need speed, strategy, stealth and often the brute strength of a warrior. Mr Wu's seemingly innocent cigarette breaks between courses give him the chance to put down his credit card. This can be inadequate, as Mr Lee has pre-empted this move, arriving at the restaurant early to finalise payment before anyone's said, "Chrysanthemum tea?" Then there's the cunning move I call the "switcheroo". Mrs Chung feigns a toilet trip. At the register she discovers Mr Wu's credit card is down. Horrified, she puts down her credit card in its place, taking Mr Wu's card hostage until she has triumphantly signed on the dotted line.

Other tactics include making a covert deal with the waiter or trapping fellow diners in corner seats. If persuasion is your game, then some arguments include: "But you're in my postcode", "I'm older then you", and the classic, "I'll pay this time and one day I might need a favour from you". (Note: these so-called favours are never redeemed.)

According to custom, the person who extends the invitation or is the highest-ranking person (oldest, richest, wisest) should pay. So what's a cash-strapped person to do? To save face, you must look as though you want to pay. Make exaggerated movements that advertise, "Attention! I am now reaching for my wallet". Look disoriented while you do the pocket-fumble and the bag-fossick. Create noise. When it's too late, suddenly locate your credit card and wave it around. Finally, concede defeat and heartily thank the winner. If you're a bill-paying black-belt, no one will be the wiser.

As a child I found this custom absurd. Why were these rational adults throwing their cash around like confetti? But now I appreciate the simple joy of extending generosity to the people you care for. This is why I was locked in a furious bill battle with a friend on Saturday night. Our bodies were contorted, tense, veins a-popping, and it was game on.

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