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Visitors to China, Japan and other Asian nations are often surprised to find that tipping is not customary in restaurants. But in China, at least, that is changing, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The name of the restaurant is A Very Long Time Ago. The decor is sort of upscale Paleolithic. The clientele is not so fossilized. They're mostly 20-somethings who roast skewers of food over hot coals.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language).
KUHN: Every few minutes a prerecorded message plays in the restaurant. It tells diners that if they like the service, they can use their smartphones to scan barcodes, which the wait staff wear on their sleeves. This generates a tip of about 70 cents. Diners can tip as many times as they want.
SONG JI: (Through interpreter) To customers, that's just like a game.
KUHN: The restaurant's owner, Song Ji, invented this system, which he claims is the first of its kind in China. The important thing, Song says, is to keep the tips small in proportion to the bill, so the bonus doesn't become an onus.
SONG: (Through interpreter) Where the average bill is $30 per person, I recommend a tip of no more than 75 cents.
KUHN: In other words, he recommends tipping the wait staff about 2.5 percent. Song is 32, and he runs a chain of 36 eateries in three cities, including this one.
He's just back from the U.S., where he visited restaurants in Chicago and Los Angeles. He says he felt that tipping has not only become a burden on U.S. customers, more importantly, it's lost its meaning.
SONG: (Through interpreter) No matter how bad the service gets, you still have to give a 15 percent tip. That's no good.
KUHN: This restaurant's top tip-taker is 20-year-old Liu Enhui. In addition to her base salary of about $450 a month, she says she can get as many as 60 tips in an evening.
LIU ENHUI: (Through interpreter) It's important to me. I take in anywhere from 15 to $30 in tips a day. Over the course of a month, it really adds up.
KUHN: At A Very Long Time Ago, most of the customers tip. Feng Enyuan, deputy director of the Chinese Culinary Association, points out that forms of tipping did exist in China before the Communist revolution. But the practice was wiped out along with private enterprise in the 1950s. Feng has this advice for restaurateurs who want to reintroduce tipping.
FENG ENYUAN: (Through interpreter) Don't ruin a good thing. Whatever you do, don't make things difficult for customers or make them feel uncertain about what to do.
KUHN: Winning public acceptance of tipping will take time, Feng adds. For now, he predicts, tipping is likely to remain limited to young, smartphone-equipped customers of trendy restaurants in China's top cities. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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