Dinner as usual, but cigarettes not on the menu

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily)
2007-12-12 07:06
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We had just feasted on a sumptuous seven-course Cantonese dinner and I was about to enjoy my usual dessert - a soothing cigarette - when all hell broke loose. "Do you mind Patrick?" my Chinese friends shouted. I was stunned. They were Beijingers, we were in a Beijing restaurant and they were protesting against me lighting up. This had never happened before and suggested to me that China is changing.

Dinner as usual, but cigarettes not on the menu

I wonder if smoke-free restaurants will one day become a "Chinese characteristic"? I live in a nation where it's normal for a diner to be equipped with chopsticks in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I've even seen someone light up in a crowded elevator.

I respect the rights and lungs of non-smokers and inside a confined space. I wouldn't dare light up in front of my non-smoking friends, but in a designated smoking area (ie, all of China) I will smoke to my heart's content.

A non-smoker will say my heart is not very contented at all, but that's my business. If a militant non-smoking crusader feels the need to tell me how to behave, I usually feel the need to point out their many shortcomings. Everybody has one bad habit or another and mine is smoking. I smoke because I am addicted to nicotine and have been for about 20 years. One day I'll stop, but I know I must really, really want to. Maybe if I have children. But it will be hard because I love the process so much, especially with a fellow smoker.

Last week I enjoyed a Sichuan hotpot with a Beijing police officer, and we both sweated like pigs and smoked liked chimneys.

Officer Zhou Bo had attended a seminar in Australia, where he befriended one of my childhood mates, a senior Sydney cop. I was given Zhou's number and when I arrived in Beijing, we hooked up.

Zhou is good company and we both enjoy a smoke or four during our hotpot sessions. We always seem to order too much food and dinner takes a leisurely two hours. Both of us pause during the meal and light up. Zhou holds a cigarette like a candle, and smokes it from the side of his mouth. He enlightens me about the fascinating world of a Beijing police officer and we exchange gifts. I gave him New South Wales Police Service badges and he gave me a carton of YunYan smokes made at the famous Kunming Cigarette Factory.

When I first arrived in China, I waltzed through the duty-free shop and bought Pandas, the smokes Deng Xiaoping used to enjoy. I tried about 10 of the 100 brands out there before I settled on my beloved Hong Ta Shan. When cigarettes cost 7 yuan ($1) a packet, compared to 80 yuan ($10.80) back in Australia, it's even harder to quit.

When my friends protested against me smoking at the Cantonese restaurant table, I was shocked, because nobody had ever scolded me for smoking in a restaurant in China. But I agree with them 110 percent. Why should they have to breathe in my smoke? I praised them for speaking up and told them their unusual directness and straightforward candor was a call for celebration. "A cigar maybe?"

(China Daily 12/12/2007 page20)