The very architecture of Hongkong reminds the visitor that this was an unlikely supercity. It got its start as a colonial outpost, built on the illicit trade of British opium for Chinese tea. In 1781, the only Chinese port open to foreign trade was Canton (modern day Guangzhou), and the Chinese would only trade tea in exchange for silver. Procuring enough silver became a huge problem for European traders (to the extent where Mexican silver dollars became a common currency in Canton!). The British needed an alternative trade good, and they found it in opium. Ironically, whilst tea enhanced the productivity of the British working classes, opium devastated Chinese industry & society. Chinese officials desperately tried to ban the opium trade, confiscating & burning all the British opium in Canton. In retaliation, British forces inflicted defeat after defeat on the ill-equipped Manchu navy & army. The Manchus were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty, opening more ports to foreign trade and ceding Hongkong to the British. It was the beginning of the end for the Qing dynasty, but Britain’s insatiable thirst for tea had directly led to the birth of modern Hongkong.
I have been privileged to visit Hongkong more than 10 times previously, but always as an ad-man, never as a tea-lover. This trip was different. I had scheduled an entire day to dedicate to teaware appreciation.
First stop was the Teaware museum at Flagstaff House, ex-residence of the head of the British garrison. Situated in Hongkong gardens, it is an oasis amongst the towering skyscrapers of the financial district. The two storey white-washed building now houses teaware, arranged in rooms by chronological period, so you can walk through time, seeing how tea preparation techniques evolved with each Imperial dynasty. Entry is free but the museum is closed on public holidays, so don’t make the mistake of visiting on Boxing Day like I did!
Stunning teapot at the Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware
Qing dynasty gongfu cha equipment
Inside, there was an interesting video demonstrating the southern style of gongfu cha. After warming the teapot with boiling water, I was surprised to see the tea master place the lid of the yixing teapot on top of the teacups, and then empty the teapot on top of the lid, so the hot water cascaded evenly into the teacups. He also had a special container to hold & drain the teapot after serving. This container allows the remaining few drops of water in the teapot to empty out, preventing any bitterness from accumulating in the pot.
Upstairs are works of contemporary Hongkong ceramics artists. The museum has held 8 teaware competitions since being founded in 1986, and the winning entries are housed here. In true asian style, the winners are predominantly cute & whimsical. My favorite piece was this ceramic version of the competition entry form, shaped to form a cup & saucer!
"To Museum of Teaware" by Tsang Cheung Shing
"A Victorian Afternoon Tea" by Annie Chung
Another creative entry shows a couple sitting at a table, enjoying a pot of tea. This convivial scene is actually a teapot in disguise. The table forms the body of the pot and the spout is hidden under the girl’s ponytail. Nearby tables are the cups!
I picked up some English books on Puer at the museum gift shop. The English is obviously translated from Chinese by non native speakers, but with a bit of perseverance, a world of rare & unusual Puer is illuminated for the reader. Did you know there is a parasitical grass called “crab pincers” which grows on the puer tea tree? In Yunnan they pick & dry these “crab pincers” and infuse them in water. The “crab pincer” infused water can then be used to brew puer. Bana Tea Co. has put a nice little video of crab pincers on Youtube. You can also check out Phyll's tea blog for a review of this unusual brew.
After spending the morning admiring teaware, I really wanted to drink some tea! We proceeded to the Lock Cha tea shop, located in the adjacent building, but the building was under renovation and the overpowering smell of paint turned us away. Luckily, Lock Cha has a second tea shop off Queens Road, on the stairway up to the Man Mo temple.
Mr. Ip Wing Chi of Lock Cha 乐茶轩
There I was lucky to meet Lock Cha’s owner Mr. Ip Wing Chi, and his apprentice. Few young people in fast paced, materialistic Hongkong are willing to invest the years required to become a tea master. Mr. Ip said he is ready to pass the baton on to the next generation, but there is a shortage of students!
With his wispy white goatee and traditional Chinese long shirt, Mr. Ip certainly looks the part of a Hongkong tea master. He considers himself lucky to be in the tea business because it threads together all the things he is interested in – scholarship, history, art, philosophy, craftsmanship. Like many other tea store owners, he wistfully told me “It’s hard to make money in tea. You need a lot of passion to follow this path.”
We sampled four of Lock Cha’s best sellers - a fruity lapsang souchong with a hint of longan, a Yunnan white tea with rose aroma, an organic misty cloud green tea, and a Yunnan golden pekoe. Did you know “pekoe” can be used to describe any tea where only the bud/tip is used? Mr. Ip bemoaned the speculative investors that are driving up the price of high quality teas. In 2011, he plans to do a grand tour of China’s tea fields in search of hidden gems, tea that tastes great but is relatively unknown. I look forward to drinking the teas uncovered on this expedition! (There is an excellent account of one of Mr. Ip's previous tea buying expeditions at Saveur.)
Lock Cha's selection of bamboo tea accessories
Yixing teapot for sale at Lock Cha tea shop
A porcelain maker from Jing de zhen turned up with a batch of custom teaware Mr. Ip had commissioned. Stacks of porcelain wrapped in newspaper were spread out across the floor, and samples brought to the table for close inspection with a ruler. My eye was drawn to an yixing teapot on a matching stand, which Mr. Ip designed himself. With only 100 in existence, it would’ve made a perfect souvenir! Another pot on display featured an incredibly lifelike little frog. So very, very tempting. Yet in the end, we chose a simple but elegant gaiwan set decorated with hand painted goldfish. Fresh from the ovens of Jing de zhen!
Bidding adieu to Lock Cha, we proceeded up the hill to the antique shops on Hollywood Road & Upper Lascar Row (aka “Cat Street”). Hunting for antique gaiwans, I found instead a grave robber’s treasure trove of Song dynasty pottery, funereal statues, and mammoth ivory carvings.
Ivory carving made from a 10,000 - 40,000 year old mammoth tusk
Gaiwans for sale on Hollywood Road
As an extra bonus, after dinner at the IFC mall, I came across the Fook Ming Tong tea shop. Unfortunately, it was closed, but I was able to snap a few photos of the exquisite jing de zhen pieces in their window display.
All in all, not a bad catch for my first Hongkong teaware hunt!