Today was Lily and my anniversary. Weiwei got dragged back to her government post to give some motivational speeches at a big meeting so we were on our own. After our long and elaborate breakfast we thought we would take a walk to our favorite old teahouse, along the way pointing out all the ways the city has changed since we last lived here. Blocks that had been holes in the ground were now shiny new apartment buildings. Blocks of apartment buildings were now holes in the ground. Nowhere in America do you see such a breakneck pace of development.
We took our casual stroll down tea street, passing three Ten Fu’s Tea stores. In China, Ten Fu’s is like the Starbucks of tea. They are so all-encompassing that when we give taxi drivers the back-street addresses of some of our tea friends, they shake their heads and say “you should go to Ten Fu’s. That’s where you get good tea.” By the time we got to our favorite old teahouse, we realized it was still only 8:30AM. (We woke up a bit early due to the time difference.) Of course it hadn’t opened yet, so we continued our wandering down the main street of town.
Eventually we reached the ocean, where sixty-somethings were practicing Tai Qi and fan dancing. Along the rocky shore, lots of fishermen were set up, and some people were even hunting for clams. A full choir had assembled, practicing traditional folk music. I had forgotten how active people were in retirement here in China. It was great to see everyone out and about.
After a while the cold ocean wind got a bit strong so we ducked into the fanciest hotel in the whole province, the Shangri-La, looking to see if they had a teahouse. Unfortunately, all we could find was a coffee shop. In China, the most upscale establishments tend to be the most westernized. Coffee is fancy and exotic while tea is normal and unremarkable. The sign of a really fancy establishment is the inclusion of a fork and knife at the table setting instead of chopsticks. In China, all of our western finger foods from pizza and donuts to french fries are eaten with a fork and knife. I learned this the hard way after being looked at like a barbarian for picking up food with my bare hands the first time I went to China.
In our super fancy coffee shop, we ordered tea. To our amusement, we were brought out big mugs and tea bags. This is sadly the direction that mass market tea culture is moving in China. While it seems like more and more people at home are trying looseleaf tea, learning the difference between Tieguanyin and Shui Xian, in China, there is a movement towards the pre-packaged convenience of the tea bag. Of course, tea farmers and tea vendors at the highest level will always have a market- whether it be wealthy Chinese business people, or companies like Verdant Tea sharing with a totally different audience, these producers have nothing to worry about. It is the mid-market tea producer that is going to find larger companies pushing them out of business.
Of course, Chinese philosophy places all movement in cyclical time, so eventually the obsession with convenience and packaging should be overcome again by a resurgent interest in traditional Chinese culture. This is the most likely scenario. Nostalgia and national pride should keep tea relevant in the Chinese domestic market for as long there is tea to sell.
Since we were already at the Shangri-La hotel, we thought we would go to their five star buffet of traditional Western, Malaysian, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food. We both got made-to-order mixian rice noodle soup, and got plates full of fresh caught maguro tuna and salmon sashimi, sliced on the spot for us. Incredible! What a thing to get full eating. After we couldn’t eat another bite of lobster, sashimi, truffles, or any other such delicacies, the concierge got us a driver to take us to the tea market. No fighting for a taxi at the Shangri-La.
Wang Yanxin had stepped out for a half hour to get some food, so we went over to Yi Yan Cha Tang (the One Word Tea Club) to sip pu’er and talk about the synthesis of natural unpredictability and the artistic human touch in tea and tea culture. The boss, Master Bi was in Suzhou, so we chatted with his “disciples.” Master Bi has started making incense sticks and coils for meditation out of aloeswood that he sources himself. Aloeswood costs more than gold by weight, and smells like enlightenment. We might save enough for a few coils of his cheaper incense to bring home. We shall see.
When Wang Yanxin returned, we had a spirited discussion of seafood. (Everyone in China loves to talk about food). This weekend she is taking us to her friend’s one table restaurant by the ocean. Her friend goes out on his own fishing boat, and prepares feasts of fresh-caught crab, fish, abalone and more for whoever is lucky enough to get a reservation. We can’t wait. After talking food, we tried a half dozen sheng pu’ers we bought one to celebrate our anniversary. It was unlike anything else we had tried, made by Haixintang from Banzhang leaf with a real kick to it, and layers of complexity like Farmer’s Co-operative. The only catch is that it comes in a giant 2000g cake. We spent a bit more than we meant to, but we are happy to have it.
After drinking pu’er, Wang Yanxin let me take pictures of some incredible tea pots, cups and more. She was amazed at how well the camera worked compared to her phone camera, and then wanted me to take lots of pictures of her shop to send to her. We even got a few pictures of her and I together, despite her camera-shy nature. I am excited to be able to give people a face to put the legendary name of Wang Yanxin to. She looks so unassuming and nice in the pictures. You wouldn’t be able to tell how formidable of a tea disciple she is.
A call from Wang Yanxin’s kindergartener daughter shows that the intensity streak runs through the family. “Mom, we discussed this yesterday- why is grandma picking me up from school again?” Wang Yanxin could barely get a word in, “you know I close shop at 7PM. I am with the nice people who gave you that pretty necklace and chocolate, so don’t complain.” Daughter says “I have nothing else to say to you about this. You are just selfish, drinking tea while I have to labor in school. Goodbye!” Wang Yanxin laughed and shook her head as the other line clicked.
We took our leave to prevent mother-daughter crises and went to a three-story restaurant with peking opera and acrobatics on the main floor. I had been craving some real Qingdao food, so we ordered “gala,” clams stir fried with ginger and cilantro, shredded potato with vinegar, hot pepper and onion, and scallion pancakes. Perfectly filling meal to combat the sheng pu’er. Plus, you can’t beat strobe-light-ridden hula-hoop twirling opera. Great way to top off a full day. Tomorrow, Wang Huimin arrives from Xiamen. Lily and I miss her dearly, and will be off chatting about life, about sourcing Taiwanese teas, and about getting her tickets to visit America when she can. Very exciting to see such an old friend.