Heavenly Brew

On its one-hundredth anniversary the oldest extant teahouse in Chengdu has rediscovered the sublimity of Sichuan’s ancient philosophy. It comes repackaged in a new look: a symbiosis of the old and the modern played out in the décor and the service and the shows. The teahouse now serves all types of teas – including pu’er from Yunnan and oolong from Fujian, two of the world’s best brews – but it’s the two daily shows that thrill even the fussiest connoisseurs. In the first, two performers strike various body-twisting poses as they pour tea into cups from kettles with one-metre-long spouts. And in the second, a gorgeous girl prepares tea ceremonially, her hands seemingly floating in flowing, graceful and pointed movements that are reminiscent of the elegant demeanour of herons or egrets.  


“In Sichuan philosophy, the tea cup symbolizes the connection between earth and heaven,” whispered Zhang Shiming, a Sichuanese writer with whom I was watching the show. “The saucer touches the earth and the lid represents heaven – only in Sichuan do people drink tea from cups that have lids. And the show builds up on that theme by inducing serenity.”  


The show conjures divine desires and warm fantasies, and Bang Shou You Ming, as the teahouse is called, is probably the only place in China that puts up the performance. It’s a fitting tribute: it was in Sichuan that the culture of tea drinking arose 3,000 years ago.  


Sichuan and tea are in fact synonymous. Many Sichuanese carry a tea thermos everywhere they go, and tea drinking is a metaphor for Sichuan’s famous laid-back lifestyle. The affinity to tea has shaped Sichuan’s ethos of life: the perfect afternoon involves nothing more than lounging at a teahouse, engaged in chit-chat or playing mahjong. But now teahouses are now evolving from simple courtyard settings to more exquisite places where the culture of tea is taken to new levels of refinement.    


In Chengdu, some of the traditional teahouses do survive, and their quaintness has made them a tourist sight. Most famous is He Ming, whose old-style bamboo chairs sprawl under Chinese parasol trees and weeping willows in People’s Park. Its prices are egalitarian: 10 yuan gets you green tea and unlimited refills of hot water. And for a group of four, 10 yuan each gets tea, lunch, and a mahjong game set all day long – a deal that attracts lots of pensioners. Even the ear cleaners who charge 5 yuan per session do brisk business.  


Another similarly atmospheric teahouse is found in the grounds of Wenshu Temple, Chengdu’s largest Buddhist monastery. And Yuelai, another old teahouse, continues to do well despite the drabness of the interior – with walls devoid of any décor other than “no spitting” signs – thanks to its free entertainment shows (orators of folk stories, traditional music concerts, and Sichuan opera every week).  


Some of these traditional teahouses will endure for the social purpose that they serve, but most have had to modernise in an era of dearer land and rising standards of living. The new style of teahouses are sweeping through all Sichuan’s cities, including Chengdu, in a similar template that includes funky décor, lofty music, premium teas, good service, and of course commensurably more expensive prices.  


A handful of these new wave of teahouse belong to a young man called Lin Lee. He opened his first teahouse five years ago, and it proved so successful that within three years he had another three branches. “The income in my teahouses,” he told me, “is equally divided between people who drink tea in-house and other customers who simply buy tea to take it home or to the office, or to give as a present.”  


I met Lin at the branch in Wuhouchi Street, one of Chengdu’s funkiest neighbourhoods, an area of tourist sights and restaurants and all manners of fashionable shops. The teahouse, called Ye Olde Tea Game, has dense and rich dark wooden décor, and it’s softly lit by lampshades carved in Chinese geometric patterns. Cups and other paraphernalia for serving tea are made from special clays and rocks, as well as glazed ceramics. The teahouse is full of curios made from wood or clay or bronze, mostly depicting animals and figures from Chinese folk fantasy and mythology. A flutter of zither music, delicate and uplifting, completes the mix.  


As we talked, Lin was brewing ooling tea in the kung fu style that’s become a new standard for all modern teahouses. It’s a ritualistic and skillful way of brewing that brings out the optimum in the aroma and taste of the leaves, pepping up the culture finesse of tea-drinking. “With tea,” Lin said, “you first check the colour – oolong ought to have a soft yellow colour – and smell the flowery aroma.  Then, as you sip, close your mouth to taste the flowery and earthy flavour. Oolong tea needs the water to be bubbling hot, but other green teas are best if the water is 80 degrees Celsius.”   


Then he showed me the correct way of holding the small handle-less cup. A girl needs to hold the rim of the cup with the thumb and second finger, and put the third finger underneath – this gives the girl a stylish and charming poise. A man, on the other hand, ought to hold the cup’s rim with thumb and index finger, with the second finger propping the bottom, thus a poise that’s handsome and masculine. 


Oolong tea, grown in the mountains of Fujian, is considered one of the tastiest. At the Ye Olde Tea Game, a standard oolong costs 400 yuan for 500 grams; the variety we were drinking costs 4,000 and the most expensive costs a whopping 8,000 yuan (equivalent to €800) for 500 grams. “The difference between standard and premium tea is determined by various factors,” Lin explained. “Premium teas are made from tender buds of the plant, and the trees are planted at a lesser density in the best location for moisture and quality of soil. Another factor is the skill of the tea maker: how the leaves are dried, the extent of drying, the packaging and aeration, and so on.”  


Another teahouse that stands out in the circuit of connoisseurs is called Huang Cheng Lao Ma, an outfit that also includes an upscale hotpot restaurant. The teahouse is in a courtyard with a glass roof and air-con for an all-season setting. Its rustic bamboo chairs are fitted with cushions; wireless internet and electricity sockets at each table completes the modern makeover. Old prints hanging on the walls capture Chengdu’s historical street bustle, and customers can also sip tea in a library and peruse historical books about Sichuan. The menu features a large selection of teas, as well as wines, coffees, beer, ice-creams, and simple grub. “Most customers still only drink tea here,” told me Liao Chunyan, the public relations manager. “We get a mix of locals and tourists, and many come for tea first and then have a hotpot dinner. We’re doing very well as a business model.”  


In this manner, Sichuan’s long association with tea continues, a love affair that is heavenly in its aspirations and earthy in its flavours, played out in brews that are ever more sophisticated. 


© Victor Paul Borg. The above article was published in Beyond, the magazine of American Express Platinum Card holders in Thailand.


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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