East in West: A Saturday afternoon of music at the Tea Museum … and tea vs coffee vs matcha

There is a tea museum in Hong Kong and it’s an interesting mix of the east and the west.  The museum is housed in a beautiful and elegant British colonial building that is the oldest standing colonial building in Hong Kong, with white façade, wooden monsoon shutters and verandahs.

The main exhibits are of tea-pots dating from about a century B.C. to modern times.

It is a delightful place to spend a Saturday afternoon, especially if a concert is on.   I remember going to one of these free concerts at the Tea Museum (officially called the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware) where a Guzheng artist played a few pieces and an articulate narrator explained the musical instrument and the music.  There were 5 tables with 4 seats each and Puli tea is served so the audience can enjoy the music with tea.  It was a rainy afternoon but the place was filled with energy and appreciation.

What a delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon – the concerts are fairly regular, and one can find the concert dates on the museum’s website (no reservation is taken, so it’s a first come first serve policy) – and one can wander the Hong Kong Park either before or afterwards.  Or, there is the Lok Cha tea-house next to the museum which serves vegetarian dim-sums to accompany the wide range of tea on offer.

Imagine a “tea salon” elegantly located in the heart of downtown Hong Kong that quietly serves more than a hundred varieties of tea and freshly made vegetarian dim sum.  One can do tea tasting there, and it also holds a number of cultural events.  It is a destination worth visiting on its own merit.  Consider also that the Park surrounding it is a small oasis with a well-groomed selection of trees, flowers, fountains and ponds, but one can call it an urban park, overlooked by the city’s “forest” of skyscrapers.  When I was working at one of the tall office buildings nearby, I used the Park as a “decompression” walk from Central to Admiralty.

It is from the tea museum’s exhibits that I learned that various ethnic groups in China have developed different styles in the customs of tea drinking: the gongfu tea of Fujian and Chaozhou, the green tea of Jiangnan, covered tea bowl of Chengdu and Chongqing, morning tea of Guangzhou, nine-course tea of Kunming, “big bowl” tea of Beijing, and Mongolian milk tea, creating a rich tea culture.

I remember the poetic Longhudou (the fight between the dragon and the tiger) tea of the naxi people and the “three-course” tea of the bai people.

Even more interesting, it seems that the main benefactor of the museum, Dr Lo, who founded Hong Kong’s Vitasoy drinks empire, was instrumental in reviving the craftsmenship of the Yixing purple clay teapots in the early 1980s.  The story goes that there was only one purple clay craft factory left with fewer than 400 potters when Dr Lo visited Yixing in 1979, right at the end of the Cultural Revolution.  It was Lo who revived the tradition for every potter to inscribe his signature for every piece of work, a practice that was fashionable in Ming and Qing dynasties but was banned during the Cultural Revolution.

Today, Yixing pots are probably the most famous and prized of tea-pots – Yixing being a town close to Shanghai that is famous for its unadorned, simple brownish-purple “zi sha” clay that holds heat extraordinarily well and also has a special mineral composition that makes it perfectly porous.

One also learns from the museum exhibits that the habit of tea-drinking has a long history in China – as early as the Han dynasty people prepared tea by boiling tea leaves with spicy substances such as ginger and spring onion.  But before the Tang dynasty, tea-drinking was only popular among the people in the southern part of China.

Intriguingly also, while today the high priests of the Chinese tea tradition teach the correct ways to “steep” different types of tea, in earlier days cooking tea was the tradition.  In the Tang dynasty, the sought-after way to prepare tea was from powdered tea, as recommended by Lu Yu, while whipping tea was the most common type of tea preparation method in the Song dynasty.  (The latter of course was adopted by the Japanese).

The liquid of tea is like the sweetest dew from heaven”,

so says Lu Yu, the author of China’s first book devoted in its entirety to the study of tea, Chajing (the classic of tea).  The book Tea in China tells us that while monks in southern China had enjoyed a long association with tea, it was not until Lu Yu’s compilation of the Chajing (the classic of tea) and the spread of tea drinking by itinerant monastics that tea culture became popular throughout the Chinese empire and beyond.  It was over cups of tea that monks and literati could meet on equal footing and share in the same aesthetic values.  By the end of the ninth century, tea had become a vital component of the Chinese economy and everyday life.

We can quote the Qing emperor Qianlong too, who wrote at least 200 poems about tea:

You can taste and feel, but not describe the exquisite state of repose produced by tea – that precious drink that drives away the five causes of sorrow”.

For a completely different way to quell one’s sorrow, there are a number of places in Hong Kong that serve pastries and tea in the French tradition.  One of the most popular with business types (they have 2 shops at the IFC) is Le Goûter Bernardaud, owned by the brothers, which serves Dammann Frères teas and French macarons.  Also at the IFC is the very popular TWC tea salon, grandly furnished with floor to ceiling golden framed windows, Italian marble floors and blooming flowers, and serving very French things.  Actually a Singapore-origin company, it has a thick tea menu that has teas with names like silver moon, tea party, jade dragon, Weekend in Casablanca, and red Christmas, as well as tea-infused macarons, ice-creams and sorbets.

On the hip side and perhaps even newer in town are the Japanese matcha dessert places.  It’s Hong Kong afterall … so apart from Chinese tea and French tea, there’s also a mushrooming matcha (green tea) themed café scene.

One can go on a “green tea trail” that could take in Sense Dessert Café (9 Fung Yau Street, Yuen Long, there’s also a shop at 286-294 Temple Street in Jordan), which has an interesting take on the matcha tiramisu (served in the form of a potted plant), and Nakamura Tokichi (this is the only café of this famed 161-year-old matcha dessert master from Kyoto, and is located in The One, 100 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui).

Sinmei Tea (50 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, or just a few steps from Sheung Wan MTR”s A2 exit – late 2017 update: Sinmei has closed but has said it will open in Australia) is one of the nicest and easiest to get to.  An upstairs café, it is set up almost like a Chinese tea house, and with a narrow verandah.  There is green tea chocolate fondant, the matcha sizzling brownie, and then there’s also matcha soul and matcha genmaicha marone.

The two other much loved green tea places – both for green tea ice-creams – are Via Tokyo and I Cremeria, both in Causeway Bay.  Try red-bean parfait with green-tea soft-serve ice-cream, yuzu matcha parfait, tea daifuku parfait, or matcha affogato.  (Via Tokyo [Shop 1A-1B, G/F, 106-126 Leighton Road] sits in the midst of what is now known as “Caroline Haven”, a blend of new and old Hong Kong.  There is often a bit of a queue that twists “around the corner”, and once you get in do find something on its menu that has Kyoto matcha powder and Hokkaido milk.  Even the matcha millefeuille and matcha eclair are super-delicious.  I Cremeria sits inside Fashion Walk [Shop F9, 1/F, Fashion Walk, 11-19 Great George St], and is famous for its parfait, its matcha affogato as well as the soft-serve ice-cream in a Japanese premium melon).

Then, there’s also Taiwanese bubble tea places, most of which are casual take-away counters rather than tea houses.  Perhaps the most well-known is Gong Cha that has perhaps become the Starbucks of bubble tea stalls and has over 50 branches citywide.  With an extensive range of milk teas and health drinks, it also serves a signature Earl Grey deluxe milk tea with the famous tapioca pearls.

Finally, there are the Hong Kong style “milk tea” or “silk-stocking milk tea” places.  One of the most famous is the street stall Lan Fong Yuen which is located in the Gage Street area that is just adjacent to the Graham Street markets, the city’s oldest continuously-operating street market that is now being redeveloped and is changing).  The iconic liquid here is smooth, velvety and flavoursome.

Perhaps combining all of the above trends is Teakha, a lifestyle concept tea café that has been a favourite for those “in the know” ever since it opened.  There is a charmed and relaxed feel, surprising when one considers that one is only a 10 minutes’ walk away from the busy-ness of Central.  The cosy neighbourhood vibe, the jars of homemade scones perched on the counter, one can feel the love and passion that has been poured into every detail.

With scones and cheesecakes and financiers, the teas Teakha serve range from marsala chai, HK-style milk tea, to the French and the Chinese.  One of my favourites is the roselle and fresh mint tea served in a clear-glass teapot and a pot of honey.