Granny Zhao's grand birthday party was building up to be an event to remember.
On the fifth day of the first month of the Chinese Lunar New Year, Granny Zhao celebrated her 66th birthday and all her family flocked to attend the celebrations.
In a small coastal city in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, it is a long tradition for seniors to celebrate their 66th, 73rd, and 84th birthdays.
Why? Nobody has been able to tell me, but tradition is tradition and Granny's banquet was held in one of the city's few luxurious restaurants.
It was a very big party with eight tables, each sitting 10 relatives, who had travelled from across the province to see their beloved granny.
The banquet started 10:30 am sharp and Granny Zhao sat at the main table, receiving congratulations and red envelopes from her guests. Each red envelope had a minimum 660 yuan ($85) (10 yuan for each year), however there was no maximum limit.
As soon as all guests were seated, the banquet began and soon, everything became a blur.
Within a minute, the waiting staff had served 10 starting dishes, but before most of the guests had time to touch the food, the waitresses cleared the first course off the tables and began serving more dishes. Chinese people pride themselves about their culinary knowledge, however nobody could recall any details about the first two courses.
As more dishes were rushed to the table, guests realized they needed to eat up quickly. Unfortunately they could not match the speedy waitresses.
"Hurry up, you are supposed to leave in 10 minutes," one of the waitresses said. The next birthday banquet was scheduled at 11:30 am.
Some of the guests whipped out big plastic bags and emptied their plates as quickly as possible. It would be a shame to waste such good food.
Granny Zhao's son-in-law, who is in his early 30s, said the fast-food banquets had been all too common in his local town.
"I have taken part in several similar banquets within the first month of this year and have given at least 10,000 yuan ($1,290) in gifts," he said.
Restaurant owners are the big winners in the birthday banquet rush.
"You know, there won't be room for any banquets before the end of August 2008, starting from early this year," said a waitress, proudly.
"The situation is the same with all the big restaurants in the city, most are booked out for birthdays."
Every day banquets are booked from 7:30 am to 9:30 pm.
The small city has a population of 100,000 in the city proper. That means many of the residents would attend different banquets everyday and hand over those red envelopes.
That also means they have to give away what they received. The cycle is passed on from generation to generation.
"When will I get back the amount of money I have given away?" cried Granny Zhao's son-in-law, who has 38 elderly relatives in the city.
"I dare not to do the sums," the young man said.
(China Daily 03/16/2007 page20)