Is this rude?
No, it's not, say diners who dismiss students' campaign against using tissue paper packets to reserve seats. -ST
By Cheryl Tan and Cara Van Miriah
Newly arrived expat Kenneth Wong, who is from Hong Kong, experienced a culture shock when he first visited Maxwell Market for lunch.
He was puzzled by the many tissue paper packets placed neatly on empty tables and seats at the bustling hawker centre.
And office workers were circling the empty tables, clearly looking for somewhere to sit.
What the 27-year-old health planner encountered was the Singaporean practice of reserving a seat by placing a packet of tissue paper on the table, known by the colloquial term 'chope'.
The practice made the headlines last week when seven students from the Singapore Management University (SMU) launched a campaign against the act, branding it 'socially ungracious'.
They placed 1,000 packets of tissue paper on the seats in Chinatown Complex food centre last Saturday. Written on the packets: 'This seat is not taken, it's yours!'
But many people reckon there is nothing rude about reserving one's spot with a packet of tissue paper.
Indeed, Mr Wong, who arrived in Singapore last month, said: 'It is a practical and creative way to reserve seats instead of standing around with a tray of food turning cold.'
The students' campaign drew criticism and a few chuckles when LifeStyle interviewed 25 diners last Wednesday at popular food centres in the Central Business District (CBD) such as Maxwell Market, Golden Shoe Complex and Lau Pa Sat.
All but one diner disapproved of the campaign. IT assistant Vijay Padam, 30, griped: 'It's irritating as I don't know which seats are empty with all these tissue packets on the tables, so I end up buying take-outs to eat in my office cafeteria.'
But time-pressed office workers find it practical to chope, eat and leave.
On why she plonks down a packet of tissue paper, engineering firm trainer Winnie Kwek, 34, who was eating at Lau Pa Sat with a friend, told LifeStyle: 'I need to prioritise with only one hour to beat the crowd and finish my lunch before going back to the office. Why waste time queuing for food and then waiting for seats later?'
Yet the group of SMU students, who call themselves Tissue Parody, now plan to push their chop-the-chope drive into eateries in the CBD frequented by the likes of Ms Kwek.
The campaign, which started as a classroom project, has received the support of the Singapore Kindness Movement, which aims to encourage Singaporeans to be more gracious through simple acts of kindness.
However, most diners told LifeStyle that the students' initiative lacks substance.
Office manager Terence Hong, 33, said: 'What the students have done at the Chinatown hawker centre is childish. If tissue reservation is ungracious, they shouldn't do the same, confusing people with their own tissue packets.'
Headhunter Vinod Balagopal, who is in his early 40s, said: 'Students are an idealistic lot. Only when they get into the working world will they realise why we have such ways.'
A spokesman for the students, V.Kumar, 21, said that instead of using personal items such as tissue packets, they would prefer people to 'leave a person behind' at the table while the others order their food, as 'it is more socially gracious that way'.
However, sociologist Paulin Straughan disagreed with that option. She said 'there is no sociability' for the person left behind, as 'it is irritating' to repeat that the seats are taken, to diners eyeing the empty places at the table.
Tissue 'choping' seems to be uniquely Singaporean. Housewife Ivy Ong-Wood, in her late 30s, a Malaysian now living in Hong Kong, told LifeStyle: 'At the tea cafes or cha chan tengs in Hong Kong, people queue outside and are told where to sit. In Malaysia, there is no problem getting seats at the food centres.'
It is so pervasive that companies even have tissue packs specially made with the word 'chope' for marketing purposes.
It is not known how or when the tissue reservation system came about, but anecdotal evidence from diners and hawkers suggests it has been going on for more than five years, with many describing it as a 'time-saving' and 'civilised' mode of reservation.
Still, etiquette consultant Raelene Tan pointed out that it is much 'nicer and more dignified' to have someone reserve a table.
And a spokesman for the Singapore Kindness Movement noted that while the students have been criticised for not showing empathy, there is merit in debating such issues in the open. He said: 'It raises awareness about how such practices promote a 'me first' attitude.'
On that wider issue, Madam Christine Tan, 40, an executive secretary, said: 'There are ungracious diners who irk others by hogging the tables at cafes, restaurants, hawker centres and coffee shops. A campaign against such ugly Singaporean behaviour would be more productive.'
Additional reporting by Anjana Krishna Kumar
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 16, 2008.
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