Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Buffet Cart At Century's End

During the my placement for the final year of my journalism degree, I stole food - regularly.
It was the end of 1999 segueing into 2000 and my journalism placement was with a national news organisation in Malaysia.  My father knew the Managing Editor and nepotism opens a lot of doors.
It was also where the family home was and I was still a citizen at the time, even though we'd all held permanent residency in Australia since the late 80's.

Press events were often held at smart hotels (the Hyatt was the best) and there was always a buffet. Danishes, curry puffs, eclairs, croquembouches, miniature fruit tarts and tiny sandwiches were just... there. People just ATE.  Malaysia is food crazy, and there's no better way to entice the local press than with a generous spread.

Channel V held a three course lunch at an upmarket restaurant for press folks during the launch of an anti-drug campaign.  It was incredibly fancy at the time, the thought of an entree, followed by mains, then gosh-golly dessert was mind-blowing.  The cutlery was expensive and heavy, the napkins were linen and folded elegantly.  Most people in the room were used to eating their meals family-style; all courses on the table at once, shared with others - this is the norm in South-East Asia.
But there was no truffling about here; this was serious, a proper meal worthy of the Anglosphere.
Perhaps they thought a serious issue warranted serious eating?  Drugs are a big no-no in Malaysia.
Growing up, I remember that by the main road going into the city there was a prison, and on the outer prison wall there was a painting of hangman's noose with the word 'Dadah' splashed garishly across.  'Dadah' means 'illegal drugs' in Bahasa Melayu, so drugs = punishable by death.

Anyway, nobody really cared about stupid kids getting wasted and dying by capital punishment - sure, there was some high-falutin' ministerial guy who gave a speech and two smokin' hot VJ's,  but nobody would have stayed if we hadn't been fed.
I remember they served a pasta dish which incorporated seafood, and some lovely strawberry-chocolate thing for dessert.  Speech? Sorry, I can't recall.

The thing that struck me was that nobody, ever, asked any questions at these things.
The drill was simple - go to press event (junket, conference, whatever).
Arrive, greet your journalist buddies.
Grab a plate, fill 'er up.  Eat, chat amongst yourselves.  Some official eventually announces the start and you sit down, settling in to listen to a bunch of talking heads telling you about a product you don't care about, a public figure you don't care about, or some worthy cause you vaguely pretend to care about by nodding your head at the appropriate intervals (your mouth is full, remember?).
The talking heads eventually stop, and there would be Question Time.


Hey, you grabbed a press kit at the door, so why bother?  For your article (I use the word loosely here) you're just going to recycle the information that some PR schmuck so thoughtfully prepared earlier.

More silence.

No questions?  Good.

No questions = no problems.  They were happy for us to keep eating.

And so I ate and stole by the bagful.  It was easy to grab a few extra pastries and sandwiches, wrap them in the thoughtfully provided napkins and shove them in my handbag.
I'd share the plunder with friends I'd made back at the office, the Economics Desk editor that became strangely fond of me, or the stringers and occasional cameraman who I travelled with.
We went everywhere in white vans.  It was a lot of fun, eating, gossiping and smoking in the back.
We placed bets on whether or not Y2K would be an actual pain in the ass and what Abu Sayaaf would do next.

Not exactly Jenny Sparks territory, but as far as shenanigans go, these were pretty good ones to farewell the last 100 years.