Caixin
Dec 12, 2018 10:00 AM
DOING BUSINESS IN CHINA

Merrymaking With Chinese Characteristics Creates Happy Mix for Holiday Parties

As the holiday season swings into full gear, we’ll glide into the end of 2018 with a look at Chinese year-end parties, including the basic do’s and don’ts as well as how they’ve changed over the years. These particular parties, which go by different names in different places, tend to come in a number of shapes and sizes, depending on the size of a company and whether it’s foreign or Chinese-owned.

But a common thread to all of these festive gatherings is the desire for merrymaking, which is a common theme for holiday parties in both East and West. Exactly how people make such merry differs a bit depending on the culture, though alcohol and music seem to be common denominators that unite European and East Asian cultures for the compulsory year-end parties.

In my quest to provide readers with some entertainment of my own, I queried my usual contacts for tales of unusual holiday practices and outlandish stories from parties past. But the cupboard came up surprisingly bare this time, as it seems holiday parties in this part of the world are fairly formulaic, much the way they are in the West.

The biggest place that parties here in China differ from their Western counterparts is obviously in the timing. Whereas Western parties will reach their peak this week and next, Chinese ones are focused around the Lunar New Year, which this time falls on Feb. 5. The Chinese parties also differ slightly in terms of timing, in that people tell me it’s OK to have the party either before or after the holiday, unlike the West, where it’s always before the holiday.

But that said, after more than a decade in the region, I’ve attended only one party after the holiday, which leads me to believe the pre-holiday period is by far preferred. One contact pointed out that some companies even have parties before and after the holiday, though that was certainly in the minority among people I queried.

To liven the discussion a bit, we’ll take a brief trip into the realm of Lunar New Years past, when things were really quite different from the parties we see today. To do that, I queried one of my older friends about socialist-era practices, and learned such affairs were far more serious and simpler than the ones we see today.

That friend, now approaching 70, recalled that parties were a must, even in those less-prosperous days. They were usually held in a work unit’s dining hall, since the restaurants that usually host such events today were rare back then and prohibitively expensive. In the spirit of the time, those gatherings were also quite serious, with discussion of achievements and shortcomings from the past year, as well as targets for the year ahead.

Lest anyone think these affairs were purely business, my friend added there was still a bit of merrymaking in the form of singing and dancing. But as one might expect, such songs and dances were more revolutionary in nature, from a type that was still quite common even when I arrived in Beijing for the first time in 1987. I still recall a musical performance I attended at a university in Guizhou province in 1991, where class after class got up on stage and sang identical versions of the revolutionary classic “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.”

More Variety

Fast-forward to the present, where the variety one sees in annual parties is much greater and talk of ideology is either little or nonexistent. My own company actually still sticks to the tradition of the “year in review” approach from the earlier era, and requires all of us to attend a full afternoon of speeches and panels where employees and company officials talk about the past year and what lies ahead.

None of the others I talked to mentioned such serious discussion during their annual events, which leads me to believe that today’s Chinese holiday parties are increasingly approaching their Western counterparts in terms of being purely entertainment. But the size and scale of such events did vary, as did the frequency. Several of the Western companies I surveyed said they do something for both the Western holiday season and also the Lunar New Year, whereas the Chinese tended to skip anything around the Western holiday period in December.

In terms of scale, the smaller companies were far more low-key than the bashes thrown by larger ones, which doesn’t come as a huge surprise since it’s hard to throw a bash with just 10 or 15 people present. One Western lawyer said his firm usually just does a small sit-down lunch for staff and their families. Another who runs a small financial consulting shop said he typically holds a catered affair at his office for around 10 to 15 people, including both employees and a few top clients.

Among the bigger parties, one of my contacts who has worked at a few larger firms summarized the usual line-up quite nicely: “They are all the same: Everyone in a banquet hall. Speeches. Baijiu. Employee skits.” For anyone outside China unfamiliar with the local terrain, “baijiu” refers to the local liquor that is quite potent, usually 40% alcohol or higher, and is often an important part of any major party. Move over, eggnog.

The other component of most parties is the raffle, or “lucky draw,” as it’s often called in this part of the world. Prizes vary depending on what’s in vogue, but it does seem like anything Apple, including iPhones, iPads and MacBooks, tends to get a strong reception and is often featured as a top prize these days. At the end of the day, it does seem like the Chinese year-end bash is rapidly merging with the older, more-traditional Western holiday party in terms of style.

For anyone staging such parties, be they Chinese or Western, that seems to translate to a cost of about 500 yuan ($72.40) to 800 yuan per head. It also helps to have a strong stomach for potent alcohol, appreciation of good food and long-winded speeches, and patience for copious employee performances that are well-intentioned — if not always so musically and visually appealing.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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