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Leisurely tea culture proves a heady brew
2013-02-01
By Pan Zheng

SITTING at a table in Mingwan Teahouse of Wangjianglou Park, 63-year-old Xiao chatted with former middle school classmates. At a neighboring table, other former schoolmates were playing cards.

The seniors' regular gatherings on the banks of Jinjiang River make for a tranquil scene, their clusters of bamboo chairs creating little "forests."

"We gather in this teahouse every Wednesday, and have never missed a get-together for over 10 years," Xiao says. "We bring food and snacks ourselves, order a cup of tea each and talk all day."

Teahouses can be found almost at every corner of Chengdu City, especially along old roads.

Sitting in a teahouse, ordering a cup of popular brews such as Zhuyeqing or Maofeng tea and spending a day savoring the beverage is a typical day for many local residents. In the rapidly developing city, the teahouse is a perfect place to still enjoy life at a slower pace.

Local publication Chengdu Overview recorded in 1909 a total of 454 teahouses in the city, covering most of the 516 roads, streets and lanes at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In 1935, another local newspaper, the Xinxin News, reported that the 599 teahouses in the city at that time attracted 120,000 customers every day - at a time when the city's total population was around 600,000.

"We have about 500 to 600 seats here, and at weekends you have to come earlier to find one," says the owner of Mingwan Teahouse, surnamed Luo.

"There are many tea drinkers in Chengdu; not only the elderly, but also young people at weekends. It's the culture of the city," says Luo.

Another reason explaining the enduring popularity of Chengdu's teahouses is that the prices and rules make them customer-friendly.

At most, a cup of ordinary green tea or jasmine tea will set you back about 15 yuan.

And once you've paid, you can top up your brew with hot water for the whole day.

"Some teahouses charge by the hour, but here there's no time limit, no clock ticking behind us," says a retired soldier, surnamed Li, who meets with former comrades at Heming Tea Society every month.

Heming Tea Society, in downtown People's Park, opens before 9am every day. It's one of the most well-known teahouses in the city and like many other teahouses in parks, most of its seats are outdoors so customers can appreciate the park scenery. When customers sit down and order, waiters - known as "tea doctors" by appreciative locals - serve the tea immediately from long-spouted teapots.

Chengdu residents take a breather in the slower lane of life offered by city tea houses, and the typical cool and comfortable bamboo furniture contributes to this vibe.

And to add to the laid-back feel, practitioners offering services such as ear cleaning, back massage and shoeshine often show up in the gardens.

Chengdu also boasts another kind of teahouse, typified by the famous Shunxing Old Teahouse. With years of history, these are decorated in a luxurious, modern style. Customers can sample fine teas and watch authentic performances of tea art and Sichuan Opera "face-changing" - in which performers change masks almost instantaneously. This makes it a good choice for tourists to learn about local tea culture, but for locals such as Xiao and Li, such places are more like restaurants than teahouses.

Li says he prefers to be a listener at his gatherings with old comrades.

When others talk loudly, recounting stories of the past, he says he just sits there, smiling. In the peace of the tea garden, time seems to stand still, he says, as his comrades' tales bring back memories for long ago.

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