We lived in a government housing estate near the old Kai-Tek airport where we would go anywhere within 20 kilometer radius of home on foot. My dad used to walk us to the park to throw basketball, to the dock side to watch ferries rolled in and to catch half-priced matinees in the Kowloon-Seng district. Having a dad who’s a teacher gave us plenty of outdoor activities together. As the daughter who showed immense interest in anything edible even at a young age, Dad had endowed me with special trips to home kitchens, snack joints and this hold-in-the-wall tea shop his friend Uncle Wong owned. As much as I enjoyed family playtime, the recollection of those tea shop visits were endeared moments that belonged to just Dad and I. The tea sets, tea stories and the many shades of gold and green colour teas in those tiny tea cups casted the fondest childhood memories.
The tea shop, whose name I never registered, located in Kowloon-jai, the ghetto adults warned their kids about. It housed many strange shops, legal or not, and was the source of many nightmares and crime stories. To be able to go inside was an adventure; to walk through the winding alleys, my little hand in Dad’s big, warm palm, was simply fascinating.
The 5’ by 8’ tea shop, dark and shabby and looked every bit like a closed-in patio, occupied the front portion of a ground-floor suite in an old building. We had to step over a narrow ditch running along the alley-side in order to get in.
The soft-spoken Uncle Wong, upon seeing us, would grin and stand up from a bamboo stool, and fetched another stool for Dad to sit on. Since there’s no more space to put in another stool, and no more stool in fact, I stood and observed. As a kid growing up watching my father perfecting the pleasure of drinking tea; and later on as a teenager learning how to brew and sip different kinds of tea, there was this one tea shop occasion that planted my love of Pu Erh Tea, which I treasure dearly to this day.
While chitchatting with Dad, Uncle Wong started to maneuver around while busy with his two hands. Like magic, he pulled up a beautiful old wooden tray in which a 4” dark colour tea cake in a piece of thick yellow silk wrap, a set of Zhi-za teapot including a bowl and six cups laid. Reflecting a nostalgic glow under the 20 watt light bulb, the brownish-purple tea set was as delicate and adorable as a set of fancy toy we could never afford. Uncle picked up the tea cake and with the help of a teeny wooden hammer, broke off a corner and dropped it into the teapot.
Somehow in the tight corner to the left of the narrow counter, a small kettle started to breathe out hot air. He turned off the single kerosene stove, removed the kettle and poured hot water into the teapot which was then emptied onto the cups. After rinsing and warming up the cups with the tea, he dumped every drop from the cups into the bowl. He filled the pot with hot water once again and then picked up the teapot and distributed into each cup ¾ full of the greenish-brown tea. Without waiting for the invitation, Dad picked up one cup, drank it empty; and the second cup, then the third. “Ahh…” he signed, putting the empty cup back onto the tray. Sitting next to him, Uncle Wong did the very same thing. This they repeated five or six times. The colour of the tea was getting darker and darker but gradually lightened up.
“Wow, such good tea!” They said in unity.
“You still have a few left?” Dad asked, pointing to the cake.
“May be four or five,” Uncle answered. “I left one for you!”
“Thank you!” Dad said with a smile, and to my surprise, handed the cup of tea, now almost dark as ink, to me. “Take a sip!” he told me. And I eagerly obliged.
“You find it bitter?” Dad asked.
“Just a bit, but it’s now getting sweeter!” I took another sip, and another.
“This is one of the best old Pu-er tea cakes Uncle keeps.”
“Oh, may be 50 year-old. That’s why it’s so smooth and delicate. It’s very good for you!” said Uncle Wong, as he brought the cake closer to my nose, he added, “Smells very good too!” Absolutely unprepared, I smelled nothing, but the tea certainly was flavourful.
“It’s OK.” Said Dad gently, turning to Wong, he continued, “this should help settle my upset stomach, too much oily stuff in the last couple days!.”
“You bet!” Wong replied, filling the cups with another round of hot tea.
Their conversation with the 9-year old on that day may be short but the arc-shape, firm Pu-er teacake and the dark-brown cups of tea stirred up my interest in Chinese tea to no end. The more I learn about Chinese Tea culture, the stronger my love of tea.
Years later in Vancouver, I met up with Eliza Lam of Aroma Tea House on Granville (at W. 65th) who shared her immense tea knowledge with readers of a magazine I was editing for. I had the pleasure of meeting her Dad Mr. Lam, a tea master who owned one of the major tea shops in Hong Kong over a pot of Jasmine blossom tea he picked out and brewed for me. We talked about all aspects of tea culture and the different kinds of Chinese Tea, from white tea to herbal tea; for drinking pleasure and for healthy life style; from tea sets to tea ceremonies. With a display of different shapes and sizes of Pu-er teacakes, he explained to me the history and folklores behind Pu-er tea and the significance of the teacakes. The tea dialogue with Mr. Lam that afternoon opened another door that led me into the ancient tea wonderland. Thanks to Mr. Lam and Eliza, the taste of every cup of tea, expecially Pu-erh has never been the same!
Special notes on Pu-erh tea cakes: Eliza told me real Pu-erh tea cakes of 50 years or older are now rare commodities. Anyone who has such tea cakes lying around in the storage room or hidden in trunks but has no desire of ever drinking them, dig them out and send them to Aroma Tea House for verification and if the price is right, sell them! Drop by Aroma Tea House or call Eliza at 604-266-7738 to find out details.