The Chinese Tea Shop (Vancouver, BC)

“The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl breaks my loneliness.
The third bowl searches my barren entrails but to find
Therein some five thousand scrolls.
The fourth bowl raises a slight perspiration,
All life’s inequities pass out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl calls me to the immortals.
The seventh bowl could not be drunk,
Only the breath of the cool wind raises in my sleeves.”

– Lu Tong (Chinese Poet: AD 790-835 – translated by Steven R. Jones, 2008)

It’s only 5:30 and it dark as night, cold, and pouring down rain on a near-biblical level. It’s November in Vancouver, and surprise! Crystal and I are in Chinatown. There is only one umbrella, so we’re huddled together and stumbling like drunken lovers (or cell phone texters), trying not to blind passing people with the pointed parasol spokes. Faces appear in storefront windows, distorted by sheets of water. Despite their melted features, the surprise is plain as the rain. I read their thoughts: “Why would anyone be out on the streets tonight?”

In a word : Tea.

Not the kind that that comes in little imitation-silk purses, steamed with milk and presented to you, smelling of caramel and lilacs by a barista. Nope, this aint even your Gandma’s tea, all bagged up and left to moulder beside the oregano in a cupboard for years until company comes over. Before all that, before Starbucks, before brown betties and the Twinings company, before the Dutch and the Venetians sailed East, there was a tea tradition already thousands of years old in China. That tradition took root in Vancouver’s Chinatown when tea master Daniel Lui began importing and distributing fine teas in 2001. Since then, his tea shop has grown into a Vancouver institution and meeting place for tea enthusiasts.

I first met Daniel a decade ago on a night as cold and sodden as this one, when my wife and I took shelter in The Chinese Tea Shop’s doorway completely by chance. We were in Chinatown for some reason… Going to Ming Wo? I suppose that was it. The Chinese Tea Shop (which was known then as “Arts De Chine”) had this huge canopy over the door and we needed off the sidewalk and out of the ceaseless monsoon. Daniel smiled 1000 watts of hospitality at us two wet strays and welcomed us inside with his trademark, “Would you like to try some tea?”

Now, years later, we plan our trips back to Vancouver around seeing friends and going to Chinatown to drink tea… Oh man, the tea! How can I possibly explain it?

Unadorned, shimmering, heavenly, straight-up, no-nonsense tea. The kind that incites calm and lust in equal measures, the way old Lu Tong described it. Each tea has so many unique characteristics of aroma, taste, mouth feel and finish that one tends to describe them in the same way as wine connoisseurs detail a new vintage.  Some of our favourites over the years have been:

  • High Mountain Tieguanyin (“ Iron Buddha”) – A great tea to stimulate the appetite! Warm summer sun and wheat grass aromas.
  • Emperor’s Delight Tieguanyin (“Iron Buddha”) – Their most popular tea. A deeply refreshing tea with spring aromas and a flavour like buttered vegetables.
  • Longjing (“Dragon Well”) Green Tea – From Hang Zhou. A nutty and slightly bitter tea when initially sipped, it mellows to a mysteriously sweet finish.
  • Emporor Pu-Erh Tea – My favourite! Deep and musty, like drinking the earth.

Of course, the shop stocks everything you need to practice the art of Gong-Fu Cha (“Great Skill with Tea”) like handmade teacups and strainers, wooden tea boards and a selection of beautiful little clay teapots from Yixing, China… of which I am obsessed, and will most likely dedicate an entire post to some other time.

A light! We’ve arrived! We shake off the umbrella and step inside to find a beautifully renovated tea shop! Daniel and his family have put a lot of work into expanding, and are in the middle of an interior design debate when we enter. “Should a cabinet go here, or there ? What do you think? Let sit and have some tea and discuss…” So it begins.

One by one, each little thimble-sized teacup is poured and offered. “The first bowl moistens my lips and throat. The second bowl breaks my loneliness.” The flow of time sedates from a raging river to a gentle stream, and we are once again guests at the tea master’s table. As we have been so many times before, and will hopefully be many times in the future.

If you are in Vancouver I can’t recommend The Chinese Tea Shop enough. Not just as a place to drink some tea, but also as a place to learn, connect with an ancient tradition, and shake off some of the dust (or rain!) of the modern world.

For information on how to get there check out The Chinese Tea Shop website. You can also purchase tea from their online shop with international shipping and all that. While you’re clicking around in delighted fascination, check out Daniel’s Blog!

Big love Daniel!

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