Learning about Zen and the art of preparing a perfect brew at a tea house in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, when my guide Fred Chang offered to take me to a celebrated tea house for a tea appreciation session, I was a bit apprehensive about the endless rounds of tea decoction I would be made to drink. It certainly can’t be my regular adrak ki chai (ginger tea) that I often miss when I am away from homeland. But I was curious about the tea house and tea culture and readily agreed.

Song Cha Xie (the Pine Tea House) is located in an idyllic setting, at Diamond Hill, Kowloon. You could hear blissful chants from the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery. Overlooking the Blue Pond, in the Nan Lian Garden is the tea house with long corridors, a fine example of the Chinese timber architecture. We were ushered into a cubicle, where our graceful tea hostess, Vivian Wong, sat with her paraphernalia neatly arranged. After the formal introductions, she spoke in a soft voice, about tea history and traditions.

The tea culture in China embraced the Li (rites and etiquette) in Confucianism. For the Taoists, tea was the elixir that would transform the mortal body to attain immortality, while Buddhism emphasised on the concentration of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind during the preparation and drinking of tea. Tea was used for entertaining guests, as betrothal gifts and sacrificial offerings. Through the proper drinking of tea, one would learn “to control oneself and observe the rites”, “to cultivate virtue and morality”.

Tea drinking was introduced to the royal court where it was transformed into a kind of court tea ceremony with emphasis on ritual. The emperor would host tea banquets and entertain foreign diplomats with tea. Tea has become an intrinsic part of Chinese culture, its influences spreading to neighbouring countries such as Japan and Korea.

To this elaborate introduction, Fred nodded in satisfied approval. Vivian commenced the procedure, by first warming the tea set with hot water. Holding the dainty, white porcelain tea cups with matching dispensing jars, she poured out the first infusion that had a pleasant orange hue. As she handed me the cute little cup, she said earnestly, “Observe, smell, take in the fragrance…keep it in the mouth for a long time.”  

I followed her instructions to a T, but no miracle happened. Then came the second infusion, I took in that too. By then Fred turned contemplative and explained that in the Chinese culture, the taste of the tea is more important than the Tea ceremony — the stress is on the ambience, while the Japanese rigidly follow the steps.

Vivian pointed out that the best taste comes in the third infusion, as she poured out the next cup. By now I steered my mind away from ‘masala chai’ and began  to enjoy the decoction. I concentrated more, to comprehend the taste. The decoction with a taste of  cinnamon, had the aroma of green and black teas with a smoky flavour.

 Vivian deconstructed it for me. The flavour is unique, because the tea is grown in the mountains — the best of Oolong teas. The rock tea of Wuyi Mountains is cultivated in the fissures of the cliffs.  And tea produced from different cliffs varies in quality. As we went on with the subsequent infusions, Vivian enlightened me on tea etiquette. I learnt to use the cup with lid, tea dispensing jar and the right way to hold the small tea cup. Soon I realised that the quality of Chinese tea is based on the aroma that stays in the mouth. During the process of drinking, you seem to learn about Zen and the art of tea tasting. We went up to seven infusions as the music from two Guquins played unobtrusively in the background, as one touched the higher octaves, the other strummed softly, creating a perfect harmony, like Yin and Yang. Soon I realised that tea was not just ‘kadak chai’ but a cultural, social and spiritual brew.