COMMENT: Want to be gracious at crowded food places? Chope lah!

Maxwell Food Centre. (Getty Images file photo)

By Gwee Li Sui

So someone thought it was a good idea to start an Anti-Chope Movement. Apparently, it has been around for a year – not that I heard anything before last weekend. Did you know about this earlier?

Well, the Singapore Kindness Movement just recognised it as a commendable ground-up initiative. My Facebook feed has been showing for days photos of anti-chope activists waving their promotional cards. They even had a photo with a minister.

Naturally, many Singaporeans aren’t happy. Just go to the movement’s Facebook page, and you’ll find a myriad of voices pelting criticisms and even unkind words. Which frankly isn’t what the Kindness Movement should be stoking.

“Chope” – assuming you don’t know yet – just means reserve. It’s a Singlish word. (Yup, don’t start me on what our Singlish-disapproving “Gahmen” is even doing with Singlish. But there’s that Ah Lian video last month…so forget I asked.) We use “chope” most often in the context of leaving a personal item behind to reserve a seat at a hawker centre.

And you can understand perfectly why so many of us aren’t reacting well. Chope-ing is a very natural thing to Singaporeans, like speaking Singlish and being kiasu. We have been doing these like forever! Heck, chope-ing is even a feature of our hawker culture, which we're selling to UNESCO as our Intangible Cultural Heritage. Remember?

I know what an anti-chope activist may say at this point: “Doing it for years doesn’t make it right!” (It’s on their promotional cards.) OK, but calling something wrong doesn’t make it wrong either. Touché!

Chope-ing has a very precise history. It has evolved from hawker centre patrons having bowls and plates of food but no seat. Does that sound familiar? Yes, it’s the same situation anti-chope people are now stressing to rail against chope-rs.

Look, if you’re one of those who consider chope-ing a problem, you are quite mistaken. Chope-ing is our communally arrived-at solution. We’ve already solved your dining headache – if only you would chope like the rest of us!

The fuss here is like using a building entrance again and again as an exit and then complaining how people don’t give way. But the signs “Entrance” and “Exit” make the custom crystal clear. We’ve agreed on this.

It’s like using your chopsticks to spear food and then demanding the restaurant management switch to fork and knife to be efficient. If you want fork and knife, ask for them – but don’t insist that everyone who has bothered to use chopsticks properly suit your preference. Do I hear “using chopsticks for years doesn’t make it right”?

And come on: enough with this moral superiority. How is chope-ing selfish? Tell me. The chope-r, by definition, did come first. He or she deserves to eat first. How is chope-ing ungracious? It’s surely kind since it signals in a gentle, thoughtful, and non-confrontational way that someone has use for a space.

How is chope-ing inefficient? Heck, if done in a group, it’s even a time-saver as you don’t need to leave someone behind to turn others away and to get food later, doubling the time of table use.

I do think the anti-chope-rs – and, by association, the Singapore Kindness Movement – are going about this all wrong. Anti-anything – Singlish, kiasu-ism, homosexuality, black metal, etc – is never kind. It can never become kind. The word “anti” itself suggests divisiveness.

But, granting that there are bad chope-ing practices that have triggered such unhappy patrons, the answer must be to educate people on good chope-ing practices. We should be encouraging chope-ing etiquettes, teaching how to chope correctly, considerately.

Here is my short list of guidelines that may be useful for formulating this code for dissemination:

1. Use something of some weight that can be seen from afar: e.g., a bag, a water bottle, an umbrella, etc. A promotion leaflet won’t do. If it flies off, you ought to be fined for littering.

A pack of tissue is debatable since some rightly find it confusing. Is this chope-ing or is it left behind kindly for use by the next patron? We need to agree on this. I am personally OK because it brings business to the old tissue-sellers. Yes, remember the tissue-sellers? Chope-ing gives them a livelihood, anti-chope-rs.

2. Use a valuable at your own risk. I will never recommend you chope with money, handphones, laptops, diamond rings, NRICs, etc. As a guideline, the price of your chope-ing thing should not exceed the price of your hawker centre meal.

3. Chope with one item per person please. This way, you can help others gauge how occupied your table is. Don’t chope a whole table with one mere water bottle – come on! You should likewise avoid using one umbrella unless it’s a big one and you can indicate clearly with it which and how many seats are taken.

4. Place each item at the precise seat area, i.e., on the seat or the table area directly in front of it. No count for something left at the centre of the table – why? Because it doesn’t quite show which part and how much of the table is in use. Your aim in chope-ing should always be this: to give others enough information on the extent of vacancy.

5. Don’t be away for more than 15 minutes. I think that’s about the acceptable amount of time to be spending in a queue? If you’re going for some Michelin-starred dish that can clock up to three hours in waiting, frankly why are you even chope-ing? You have time. Chope-ing is for the time-conscious.

As a by-rule, any item still lying around after half an hour ought to be considered free for grabs. If this isn’t common understanding yet, let it be my contribution to growing polite culture.

A Kind Chope-rs’ Movement – rather than an Anti-Chope Movement – is the way to go. And, if the establishment is reading this, I’d like to offer a few more hawker centre movements for your action. My humble recommendations: Share Your Table Movement, Clean Up after Yourself Movement, Eat and Cabut Movement, Pay a Meal Forward Movement, and Make Dining Pleasant for All Movement.

Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. His published works include the graphic novel “Myth of the Stone”; six poetry books, the latest being “Death Wish”; and non-fiction titles such as “Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporeans Communicate”.

Gwee has also edited several acclaimed literary anthologies and written and lectured on a range of subjects. But he is perhaps most known for his infectious love of Singlish, contributing to Yahoo News Singapore's own Singlish video series.

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