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Old 11-08-2005, 07:52 PM
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Default Chinese Try to Break a Chopstick Habit

Chinese health officials are trying to change the way people eat,
pushing a utensil they hope will stem disease outbreaks: an extra pair
of chopsticks.

August 11, 2005
This Chopstick Habit May Be Hard to Break: Double Dipping
Hong Kong Tries to Change How Meals Get Served; A Kung-Fu Hero's Advice

HONG KONG -- From a stage at a busy shopping center, Alvin Yee-Shing
Chan broke out in song, reminding people to use gong fai -- Cantonese
for "serving chopsticks" -- when they eat.

"Dine with serving chopsticks. Thou will not be sick," crooned Dr.
Chan, who is also a pediatrician. On the same stage, pop singer, actor
and former Olympic swimmer Alex Fong led kids in a contest called "I'm
the Smartest at Using Serving Chopsticks."

Chinese health officials are trying to change the way people eat,
pushing a utensil they hope will stem disease outbreaks: an extra pair
of chopsticks.

At restaurants and homes, Chinese meals are dished up family-style,
with serving platters in the center of the table. Most diners pluck
their dumplings and stir-fries out of the platters and onto individual
plates or bowls of rice. They use the same chopsticks to put the
morsels in their mouths, often going back to the serving platter for
seconds and thirds.

Following an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS,
two years ago, officials worried the habit can transmit diseases.
There's no evidence that SARS spread through chopstick use. But medical
authorities here -- including doctors at the Hong Kong Medical
Association which is spearheading the drive -- say serving chopsticks
make for a more hygienic meal.

It's as if doctors in the U.S. tried to abolish the practice of
double-dipping chips in the salsa bowl. Doctors say the risk of passing
along diseases with chopsticks is probably low, although lots of
ailments, including herpes, flu and the common cold, can be spread
through swapped saliva.

Medical authorities say using serving chopsticks is just good, common
sense. Chow Pak-Chin, a doctor leading the campaign for the HKMA,
points out that the mouth is one of the dirtiest parts of the body.
Using the utensils is "a hygienic way of dining," said Dr. Chow.

Serving chopsticks aren't new to China. Usually, they look exactly like
regular chopsticks, although they sometimes come in different colors.
They have long been used for special occasions like business dinners or
banquets, or by families who eat their meals more formally. But most
Chinese eating at home or at restaurants shun them.

In China, sharing food is all about strengthening family and business
bonds. Using a separate pair of serving chopsticks can be a bit of an
affront -- a little like showing up at the family table with a surgical
mask. A few diners stake out a middle ground and flip their chopsticks
when they serve themselves or others at the table.

Eugene Sun said he remembers a dinner with family friends in Hong Kong
last year. Just as the 30-year-old investment banker reached across the
table with his own chopsticks to start serving food, a fellow diner
asked the waiter for serving chopsticks. "They obviously were not very
close family friends," he said. "For me personally, it takes a little
bit of adjustment" to use them, he said.

Indeed, officials are finding they may have bitten off more than they
can chew by trying to alter centuries of Chinese eating habits.

At the height of the SARS outbreak, the government in Shanghai asked
restaurants to supply serving chopsticks, called gong kuai in Mandarin,
which is spoken across most of the mainland. Restaurants said they had
difficulty complying since the practice offended some diners, according
to local media reports.

Choi Tit Koon, 72 years old, left the chopsticks rally at the mall in
Hong Kong halfway through. "If everyone's healthy, there's no need" to
use serving chopsticks, she sniffed. "If someone has an illness, maybe
we'll consider using them."

Some doctors doubt the risks. The high temperature of some Chinese
dishes would likely kill many germs, said Julian Tang, a professor at
the Chinese University of Hong Kong's microbiology department. And even
if germs make it from one diner to the next, the amount would likely be
too small to cause illness, Dr. Tang said.

And proper chopstick usage takes care of the problem altogether, said
Josh Tse, who lives in Hong Kong and maintains a Chinese food Web log.
Used skillfully, chopsticks only touch food that the diner removes from
a serving dish, minimizing the chance of spreading disease. "Serving
chopsticks are for chopstick losers," he said.

Shortly after SARS subsided, the HKMA tried changing that sort of
attitude by giving away 150,000 pairs of neon orange chopsticks at
hospitals and doctor's offices. (The recommended place setting includes
two pairs of chopsticks laid out for every diner -- one for serving,
one for eating.)

The association then went after kids, with coloring contests in
schools. Now they're targeting restaurants, slapping stickers in the
windows of establishments that provide serving chopsticks and serving

Actor Leon Lai appears in a public-service television ad as an ancient
kung-fu master who turns up his nose at restaurants that don't offer
serving chopsticks. Astride a black steed, Mr. Lai gallops past a
fly-ridden restaurant. "Heroes used serving chopsticks," proclaims a
voice-over as Mr. Lai expertly snatches a flying pair of chopsticks
from the air.

It's not the first time Chinese authorities have tried to clean up the
way people eat. In 1984, reformer Hu Yaobang, general secretary of
China's Communist Party, launched a campaign to get diners to eat with
knives and forks -- "in the Western way," he was quoted as saying. "By
doing so, we can avoid contagious diseases." The drive fizzled.

Instead of abandoning chopsticks, today's campaigners are trying to
tweak the way they're used. Serving chopsticks already carry
connotations of formality and privilege. Hong Kong restaurateur and
socialite David Tang said he remembers a photograph of 19th-century
Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi dining alone with a plethora of dishes,
each with its own pair of serving chopsticks.

"How incredibly grand that you should be lunching alone and have gong
fai for all the dishes," he said. But even he doesn't always remember
to use them.

Mr. Tang, who also founded the Shanghai Tang fashion brand, was
recently chastised by his children when he plunged his chopsticks
straight into a steamed fish. "They said, 'Daddy, please use the gong
fai,' " he said. "I gave them a nasty look, and we carried on."

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