I’ve come to The Tea Shop on Hollywood Road, one of the oldest tea shops on one of the oldest streets in Hong Kong, to learn the dying art of Chinese tea. Except at the time, I don’t realize it’s a dying art. The year is 2001. It is a quiet, sweltering, lethargic summer day in Hong Kong.
This colonial-era storefront is an urban fossil wedged between towering steel and cinderblock. The interior has the look and smell of an antique store, dimly lit by the warm amber hue of single lamp. A thin beam of sunlight pushes its way between the skyscrapers of Central and leaks through the front window. A wall-mounted air conditioner whirrs softly, struggling to compete with the stifling humidity on the other side of the threshold.
We’re seated at a sturdy Victorian dining table that was long ago repurposed as a workbench, its top cluttered but orderly: stacks of miniature cups of different shapes and colors, clay and ceramic tea pots, wooden tweezers and spoons, a pile of hand-written notes and crumpled invoices, an antique scale and a box of pea-sized lead weights, a tray of almond cookies perched atop a column of yellowed hardcover books.
A threadlike spiral of smoke dances through the shop as a stub of incense smolders on the shelf of an apothecary hutch across the room, tucked amongst pewter-lidded jars displaying an array of tea leaves, dried jasmine blossoms and rosebuds, ginseng root and all sorts of powders and potions that suggest ancient sorcery.
I hear music in the distance. It sounds like it’s coming from a transistor radio in a back room. Old Chinese music of some sort, a twangy string instrument plucked rather than bowed. I wish I knew what to call it. The hypnotic notes fade in and out, ebbing and flowing with the hum of traffic and the occasional jingle at the front door every time another looky-loo pokes her head in.
“If you want to understand tea,” says my host in a wisened, whispered tone that demands immediate respect, “Slow down. You must be present.”
She gently rummages through the supplies on her workbench and produces a small canister. She removes the lid to reveal gnarled tea leaves, as black as soot, which she waves past my nose. She thinks for a moment then selects another canister and does the same. Followed by a third.
“You like this one,” she says, pointing to the second tin. “I can tell.”
The kettle begins to whistle, so she extinguishes the flame. At a languid, rhythmic pace that reminds me of tai chi, the old woman loads a small clay teapot with tightly rolled jasmine pearls from the second canister. She takes the kettle and fills the teapot with water, then to my surprise she pours the freshly brewed tea onto a slatted teak tray, where it seeps into a hidden reservoir below the slats. “Not to drink. Only to clean the tea,”
She starts again. She pours hot water into the teapot, waits a few seconds then strains it into a small ceramic pitcher, which she uses to fill our teacups, each no bigger than a walnut. Following her lead, I lift the cup to my nose and inhale. As I’m about to take a sip, she shakes her head, “No.” Instead of drinking it, she dumps her tea through the slats in the tray again. “Not yet,” she says, “This one is only for aroma and to warm the cups.”
Still moving at the speed of a sloth, she brews a third batch, letting it steep for only 10 seconds, just until a floral fragrance presents itself.
Our cups are full once more.
“Yum cha,” she says, a colloquialism that translates loosely to “Please drink tea.”
I swallow mine in a single gulp, the cup is so tiny. My teacher wags her finger and raises an eyebrow but says nothing. She repeats the process and replenishes our cups.
“Three sips,” she says. I watch more closely this time as she takes three dainty nips to empty the cup. I also notice that she’s swirling the liquid in her mouth as if she’s tasting a fine wine. I mimic her behavior and truly taste the tea for the first time. I place my empty cup on the table. She smiles, and I realize it’s the first time I’ve seen her smile. “Good,” she says.
Before I know it, a full hour has passed and we’re still savoring warm (not hot) tea, three sips at a time. Each successive round is steeped a few seconds longer than the one before it. We now both have cookie crumbs in our laps, and even though we haven’t done much talking I’ve learned how to tap the first two fingers of my right hand on the table after emptying my cup, a discreet gesture of thanks and to show respect to the person serving the tea.
Almost like meditation, there is a mystical quality to the tea ceremony that becomes clearer only with practice and time. An experienced host, I learn, uses only the left hand to handle the teapot while serving and drinking tea only with the right, both hands working synchronistically but independently, filling dozens of cups with the exact measure of tea, never a drop to spare. Tea is brewed by smell, not by time, and the tea in every cup should have exactly the same color. You’ll know the tea is ready once its perfume saturates the air, which happens almost instantly in the beginning, progressing to a minute or longer towards the end. The leaves should never be allowed to steep indefinitely, the way it’s done in most restaurants. “That is not good tea,” she says of the common practice.
I depart the tea shop with more tins of oolong and jasmine than I will ever drink. Yet when I return to Hong Kong a few years later, I’m craving more. I stroll down Hollywood Road looking for the place where I first learned to appreciate tea. But it’s gone, replaced by a tower of offices.
Most of Hong Kong’s traditional tea shops have disappeared. So, too, the art of Chinese tea fades into history. Making tea the old way was never really about drinking tea. It was about slowing down. It was about togetherness. Kindness. Friendship. And renewal.
Nineteen years later, in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic while forced to stay at home on furlough, I’ve been thinking a lot about Chinese tea. For the first moment in a long while, I’m not in a hurry. I have time, as do most of us. And I’m making tea again, the old way.
Note: The Tea Shop expanded to multiple locations around Hong Kong, but I believe they have all closed. If you have any interest in further reading, check out my story for Mandarin Oriental’s Destination MO magazine about The Beautiful Conflict of Tea in Hong Kong, the fascinating juxtaposition of British versus Chinese tea cultures, which also includes background on MingCha, an incredible tea purveyor in Chai Wan whose proprietor, Vivian Mak, hunts down handcrafted teas from independent farmers in China whose dedication to the art and craft of planting, picking and fermenting remains rooted not in economics but in love, lore and antiquity. (That’s MingCha’s beautiful jasmine blossom tea in the header photo.)