Every morning when I was growing up, my grandfather would meet a group of friends at the same McDonald’s in Chicago. They didn’t need smartphones. Instead, there was an agreement that every morning around 8:30 a.m., this group of elderly Chinese men would be there, sitting in those swiveling chairs in those plastic booths, talking about the fish they’d caught (or hadn’t caught) and their growing families, all the while sipping on Styrofoam cups of cream-soaked coffee.
They weren’t drinking tea, but as I learned while attending my first tea service last month at Portland’s Lan Su Garden, their gathering showed the true purpose of Chinese tea culture: A medium to bring people together, nurture relationships and show respect.
Lan Su’s ornate, two-story teahouse is run by Tao of Tea manager Evonne Tang. Born in Taiwan, Tang grew up drinking tea with her parents at home and with friends at teahouses. After moving to Portland in 1999, she met Tao of Tea owner Veerinda Chawla and started working for the company.
The teahouse’s dark lacquered wood room, decorated with classic artwork and wooden high-backed chairs and stools, overlooks a glassy pond, its joisted ceilings hung with glowing red lanterns. The shop is home to an impressive collection of Chinese ceremonial wares used to showcase their expansive selection of tea.
Tang carries over a slotted wooden tray with a yixing (petite clay teapot), tiny pinming (teacups) and their matching wen xiang bei(aroma cups), and a chahai (mini tea pitcher). She begins with an intricate pouring series, moving hot water from one vessel into another, over another and over again, with the dexterity of a croupier at a Texas hold ’em table.
Lan Su’s teahouse is one of a handful of Portland teahouses where you can experience this intricate tea ceremony. Of course, in East Asia, Tang says, tea isn’t always this complicated.
“Because China is so huge, like here, tea culture is different everywhere,” Tang said. “I’ve gotten a plastic cup of Lipton there before.”
The Lan Su Chinese Garden was built in 2000 in a quiet corner of Northwest Portland. The tranquil pavilions, courtyards, intricate carvings and central lake took 65 artisans from Suzhou — Portland’s sister city in China — 14 months to complete. They used more than 500 tons of rock brought over from China and more than 300 species of indigenous plants grown in the United States to complete the space.
There are many ways to enjoy tea at Lan Su, Tang explains, as she pours tea into the thimble-sized aroma cups. This is the traditional gong fu service, best for simply enjoying tea. Over years of use, the teapot can change the flavor of tea, as a little is absorbed into the clay with each use.
For tasting more specific characteristics, Tang recommends using agaiwan, a small, ceramic cup that brews without any interference from the vessel. Unlike a yixing, gaiwan are glazed, creating an impervious layer between the tea and the clay within. Both can be used for gong fu tea services. Some teas, like white or delicate greens, are better suited for gaiwan.
We sit and sip the warm tea. The tiny teacups are small enough to drink most of their contents in one sip, so there’s no chance the tea can get cold.
“Tea can be simple or as fancy as you like,” Tang said. “For Chinese tea culture, it’s also for conversation, about togetherness. That’s the big difference with Japanese culture, where it’s much more precise, an art.”
Tea has been cultivated in China for nearly 4,000 years. In its earliest uses, tea was boiled with other plants, seeds and barks to create herbal remedies that helped lay the groundwork for the now-famous Chinese healing traditions. Almost a thousand years later in China’s Sichuan Province, historians believe, tea was being consumed as a drink.
Over the next millennium, tea’s popularity and consumption spread across the country, as China became a unified country and trade routes to far-flung territories in the West were established. But it was during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), that tea and the act of tea drinking evolved into something similar to how it’s experienced today: as a relaxing beverage for social gatherings.
Besides serving as a medium for conversation and gathering together, tea holds important cultural significance in China. In ancient times, it was among the seven daily necessities, alongside firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar, according to an old saying. Tea is also often used in herbal medicine and as an ingredient in some dishes.
If you’re hosting someone in your home, Tang said, it’s customary to pour the best tea in the house as a sign of respect and welcoming. Similarly, younger generations will offer tea to their elders to show respect. Many apologies are facilitated by tea as well, poured from the best, most ornate pot in the house to show regret.
Tea is a central part of weddings in China, with the bride and groom serving tea to their parents as a way to thank and say goodbye to them, Tang said. Typically, the wedding party will pick a sweeter tea, like one with dates or lotus seed, to symbolize “sweetening” the relationship with new relatives.
Tea, and tea houses in general, are meant to be a place for gathering, much as it was for my grandfather and his friends. Though they Americanized the tradition with coffee and the occasional Egg McMuffin, McDonald’s was their teahouse.
— Samantha Bakall