Drinking in China

I came across an article from The Guardian (via Mark Brown’s Buffalo Trace Newsletter) with the headline – The Rise of Binge Drinking in China. The sub-headline was even more intriguing:

Binge drinking is increasingly common for Chinese professionals – often it’s even in the job description.

We’re not talking about people in the booze business either.

It reminded me of my brief sojourn as head of marketing for Asia Pacific/ Global Duty Free.

The assignment was, as they say, good news and bad news. On the one hand, it was my first head of marketing position, global in scope and in a new frontier – Asia. A dream come true, what’s not to like?


While there were offices throughout Asia, headquarters was in New York. No relocation, but when you travel to the markets you’re not going for a week at a time. No… more like 2 to 3 weeks (and weekends) a month away from home.

The guy running the operation was a smart executive but very strange. Let’s leave it at that, for now.

Two strikes but easily offset, at least initially, by the terrific people and the excitement of the new frontier. The drinking was another matter. Let’s go back to the article:

Drinking to develop and cement relationships has a long history in China. “When one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough,” runs one traditional saying.

I would not have put it so elegantly when I was there. For me it was fear of the words Yam Sing that literally mean, “Dry your cup” or “Bottoms up.” Oh, how I hated those words!

The big push in China at the time was Martell Cognac recently acquired by Seagram. The presence of Cognac in the portfolio, then as now, is important for business development in China. And, man oh man; our people loved their Cognac. At dinners, we had Cognac as cocktails (straight) with dinner (no wine) and of course after dinner. Every glass was accompanied by those two dreaded words – Yam Sing. Someone would stand up, raise a glass, say some words in Mandarin or Cantonese and end with the fearful Yam Sing. It was bad face not to drain your glass/tumbler even if it had been filled to the brim. No sniffing, no swirling, no gazing at the golden hues – just down the hatch.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Cognac in small amounts, in a snifter, maybe by a fireplace on a cold winter night after an exceptional meal. Down the hatch or bottoms up are not the ways in which I enjoy it. After a few weeks of this, the migraines set in.

I asked my colleagues in the region why Cognac before and with meals. The answers were not helpful. They ranged from “strong food needs a strong drink,” or “Cognac is very western and very masculine,” and the all time favorite (said with a wink of the eye) “excellent aphrodisiac.” All the time I was thinking in response to each reason 1) Chinese food is best with good beer 2) western and macho means cowboys and whiskey and 3) what good is an aphrodisiac when you have a throbbing headache.

Finally one day the solution occurred to me.

At most dinners I made it a point to sit near a potted plant, pretend to take a drink when no one seemed to be looking and down the hatch was the plant’s problem. Must have destroyed more plants than any disease had ever done. Hey, I’m not proud of it, but it was either a headache or the plant.

Fortunately, a few months later, the US head of marketing position came up and it was Joi gin from this Gwailo.


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  1. And so you lived the other famous saying by Lao-tzu, A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…or did he mean a single cognac. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

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