Sunday, March 11, 2012

All the tea from China

AT the wood-panelled Lock Cha tea-house in Hong Kong Park, on the Island side in Admiralty, teamaster Terrance Cheng is explaining the intricacies of myriad types of classic cha, from health-giving green and flowery jasmine to the delicate phoenix oolong. 
Our little group forms an arc around Teamaster Cheng at a long wooden table; his utensils have been set out with surgical precision and he explains slowly and lovingly the procedure for proper teamaking. I am pleased to see that rinsing and warming the pot -- he refers to the process as "seasoning" -- before adding the tea leaves are crucial steps.

I grew up with a mother who insisted on the ceremony of tea-taking and would have quite liked to put on gloves and a hat if she had neighbourhood ladies in for afternoon tea in the front parlour (savagely dusted, reserved for "best" and if the Queen should happen to pop by).

Lock Cha, sometimes spelled as Lok Cha, was founded by Ip Wing-chi, a tea trader and connoisseur who retails pure, single-harvest, estate tea from a handful of China's provinces in green, red, greenish oolong, white, the increasingly rare yellow and twice-fermented black varieties. He also runs a larger tea shop on Queen's Road in Central, and prettily wrapped packets of leaves are sold at both outlets.

Teamaster Cheng explains that green tea contains a high amount of antioxidants and says that connoisseurs prefer theirs served in a glass "to better see and appreciate the delicate shape of the leaves".
He makes our pot of green tea with water of a lower temperature (just off the boil, I would say) than the phoenix oolong that follows.

The consensus among our group of novices is that the latter is more delicious, with distinct floral notes. Teamaster Cheng further advises that the longer the tea is steeped, the richer it becomes; I get the sense one could "grow" a pot all day, replenishing the leaves to form almost a kind of stock.

Our afternoon session is one of many free activities on offer as part of the Hong Kong Tourism Board's Cultural Kaleidoscope program, which gives visitors insights into various Chinese traditions, such as tai chi, feng shui and even making festival mooncakes.

With its calligraphy scrolls hung like vertical banners and ornamented room dividers, Lock Cha tea-house is a fragrant sanctuary that seems far removed from the purposeful metropolis on its doorstep. Also in Hong Kong Park is the uniquely specialised Museum of Tea Ware, housed in the 1840s-built Flagstaff House, the oldest surviving colonial building in this one-time British territory.

In a series of tall-ceilinged rooms with french doors is displayed a 600-strong collection of all the utensils and paraphernalia of oriental tea, including precious ceramics from the storied Ming dynasty and humble but pretty little Yixing purplish clay teapots that would have been passed down through generations of rural families.

Some of the more decorative pots have melon-stalk or animal-shaped lids or are designed like fish, with pouting lips for spouts. It's a curious collection and entry is free; you may never feel the same about teabags again.

Susan Kurosawa was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.


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