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Macao rediscovers lost Chinese art of tea ceremony


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Sat, 17th Oct 2009
In 1997, Lo Heng Kong gave up a lucrative job as an interior designer to search for a lost part of China’s cultural heritage – the tea ceremony. (October 2009)

His quest has taken him to Taiwan, the mainland, Japan and South Korea: the latter two had learnt the cultivation and art of tea from China centuries ago. 

“The tea culture has three levels – it is a way to improve yourself and behave gracefully; it is an artistic activity and it is an awakening to realize the meaning of life. This is what I call Teaism,” Lo explained.

At the end of 1997, he opened Macao’s first institute for teaching the art of tea, the Chinese Teaism Association of Macao.

Macao holds an important place in the history of tea. For 250 years from the early 1600s, it was the most important trans-shipment centre for tea from China to Europe. These cargoes helped to make tea the most important beverage in the world today, drunk by three billion people – 45 per cent of the global population. The ships also carried from China seeds and the skilled farmers to plant and tend the crop in countries around the world.

To celebrate this role and trace the remarkable history, the Macao government in June 2006 opened a museum of tea culture.

Lo said that the temperament of Macao people – mild, friendly and tolerant of both tradition and foreign influences – helps the city to develop its own brand of tea culture. Macao has injected its own form of art into the making of tea, he said. In the design and layout of tea cups, pots and other utensils on the tea mat, Macao has used creative new patterns. Lo has won awards for his exquisite tea displays, taking other tea exporters on the mainland by surprise.

Lo is proud of his association, which organises at least two major activities each year to promote the tea culture. He and other members provide their services and other resources free. “In promoting the art of tea, we are also promoting the idea of volunteer work for the society,” he said.

The Middle Kingdom is the home of tea. Chinese started to use its leaves about 4,700 years ago; they drank it as a beverage and ate freshly pickled leaves to cure minor ailments. Texts in the third century A.D. describe the brewing of tea. Buddhist monks drank it while they read the scriptures, believing that it would make them cleaner and wiser. Tea-drinking became part of imperial life; the emperors established gardens dedicated to growing tea leaves for the court.

In the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty (618-907), a Japanese monk who had been studying in China brought home the culture of tea. Japan’s imperial household and Buddhist community embraced it, creating elaborate ceremonies that became a form of artistic expression, Buddhist practice and a treasured part of the national culture. Tea-growing and culture also spread to Korea and Vietnam. The tea ceremony continued in China until the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing were nomadic Manchu warriors from northeast China. “They were horsemen who drank tea in large vessels. China lost the culture of tea and the tea ceremony during the Qing dynasty. Tea became simply a farming issue, a question of how to grow tea and secure the highest prices,” said Lo.

From the first Opium War against the British (1839-42), China entered a period of 140 years of foreign occupation, civil wars and political convulsion; these were decades of chaos and upheaval, not the conditions under which the tea ceremony could be revived.

When Lo went to Japan in search of the tea ceremony, he was impressed. “They have turned the tea ceremony and tea-making into an art form. They are very meticulous. They had the idea to turn it into an exhibition; China did not have such an idea. The tea ceremony in Japan has been practiced for 400 years and become increasingly refined, with more than 20 different schools. Each school has very strict rules, including the kinds of tea, the form of drinking, the way you look and your emotion. But there are many restrictions and the weight of tradition is too heavy. Unless a school completely remakes itself, it will pay great attention to the ancient culture; it has no vitality.” He was also moved by what he saw in South Korea. “Tea ceremony there is heavily influenced by Zen. Its movements have a natural beauty and many people use it to perform. It has great creativity and is a new star in the culture of tea.”

The Chinese Teaism Association of Macao opened in 1997 

After his travels, Lo wrote a thesis on the tea ceremony, which he published in 1998; since then he has dedicated himself to the propagation of this ancient art. He opened Macao’s first house to teach the art of tea-making and gives lessons to adults and children. The Chinese Teaism Association of Macao has 30-40 members, who give exhibitions of their work twice a year and take part in international events in the mainland, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. It is one of the few such societies in the Chinese-speaking world.

The members include a policewoman, a teacher, a nurse, a casino worker, a media manager and Alfred Wong Seng Fat, a professor of engineering at the University of Macau. “Becoming a member has changed my life. The tea ceremony brings me peace and quiet and relieves pressure from daily life; it brings me in contact with nature. It has also improved my family life, bringing us closer together. My wife and two daughters all take part, sharing the experience of rediscovering nature through the tea ceremony,” said Wong.

Lo, the tea master, was inspired by his father, who managed a tea house. “He was devoted to tea and took great care over it. He loved tea almost as much as his own children. We use an electric kettle, but he used a thin copper kettle over pieces of coal, which boiled very quickly and had a wide spout; it spread the water, bringing out the taste of all the tea leaves at once. He was very demanding. He did not speak much about what he was doing. I learnt much from watching him,” he recalled.

Macao was home to Ieng Kei, the biggest tea company in China, and many tea houses, where people went for the pleasure of drinking tea and the ambience – the sounds, smells and decoration that went with it.

But, in the 1970s, the old tea houses of Macao closed and were replaced by western-style restaurants, similar to those in Hong Kong, in which tea is one of several drinks available, poured in a large pot. Tea lost its status. Despite his love for tea, Lo did not become a tea master until late in life. He studied engineering and worked for companies that posted him outside Macao. “I did projects in the mainland. It was dull in the evenings, so I went to explore the world of tea. I asked why there was no tea ceremony in the land where it was first established.”

Macao was China’s tea port in early 16th Century 

Macao holds an important place in the history of tea. From the early 16th century until 1842, Guangzhou was the only Chinese port open for foreign trade. Only 150 kilometers from Guangzhou down the Pearl River, Macao was an important trans-shipment centre for Chinese goods. In 1607, a merchant ship of the Dutch East India Company brought a cargo of tea from Macao to Europe for the first time. From that first shipment, to Amsterdam, grew the consumption of tea across Europe, which has since become the most popular drink in the world. Three billion people in more than 60 countries drink more than one million tones of tea a year -- its consumption equals that of all other drinks, including coffee, soft drinks, chocolate and alcohol.

That Dutch ship carried green tea and its owners described it to the customs in Amsterdam as a form of medicine. By the 1640s, articles appeared in Holland, Britain and Germany, describing tea as a health drink. By 1636, the French were drinking tea and, by the 1650s, it had appeared in coffee houses in Britain, from where it was introduced to British colonies in the Americas and elsewhere. Tea arrived at the British court through a Portuguese connection. In May 1662, King Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, who brought with her the habit of drinking tea. She was likely to have acquired it through tea imported from Macao. In the single year of 1766, European merchant ships carried 7,000 tones of tea from Macao. It became one of the most important cities for spreading the drinking and culture of tea around the world.

This trade would have disastrous consequences for China. Britain had to pay China for its increasing shipments of tea but had no products which the Middle Kingdom wanted; so it paid in silver bullion. Eager to reduce this deficit, the East India Company produced opium, which it smuggled into China. When the government banned the trade, the British government replied with military force, leading to the two opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860). China was forced to accept the legal import of opium.

The opening of the five treaty ports after the Opium War ended Macao’s exclusive tea trade with the west. Compared to Xiamen and Hong Kong, its port was too small and too shallow.

Europeans started by drinking green tea, the principal crop in China, but they gradually changed to black tea, now the most popular form outside East Asia. This is in part because black tea keeps longer and is easier to transport. The journey from Macao to Europe took two months in good weather and four months in bad. Green tea is most fragrant when the leaves are fresh and cannot keep for 12 months, while black tea can keep for several years. It therefore made good sense for the growers to promote black tea, rather than green.

By the end of the 17th century, tea was a drink enjoyed by the British aristocracy but not the common people. Then the East India Company decided that it needed a cargo to fill ships returning empty from the east. They delivered fabrics manufactured in Britain to India and China but returned largely empty. So the company began a vigorous public relations campaign to popularize tea among ordinary people, to develop it as a return cargo. At the same time, Britain was importing a large amount of sugar cane from the West Indies; the trading companies promoted this too. So the staple drink of the common people in Britain became not just tea but sweet tea, served from bulbous kettles in big wooden cups. Such vulgarity was something unimaginable to the courtiers in Beijing slowly sipping green tea in elegant porcelain bowls. 

Preserving a culture in the Tea Museum 

The Macao Tea Culture House opened on June 1, 2005, with an exhibition area of 1,076 square meters, and is the first museum in the city devoted to tea. It sits on the corner of the Lou Lim Ieoc garden. Both the house and garden used to belong to the Lou family, one of the richest in Macao at the end of the 19th century. The family sold it to the government in the 1970s. The building was renovated by a well-known Portuguese architect Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Marreiros. The style is of southern Europe, with Chinese tiles on the roof. It holds events and exhibitions to promote the drinking, culture and study of tea. 

The exhibition during the summer of 2009 was on the literature of tea, the most famous of which is ‘Cha Jing’ (the Classic of Tea), published in 780 A.D. by Lu Yu. With three volumes, 10 chapters and 7,000 words, it is an encyclopedia, covering everything from origins and types of tea to processing techniques and drinking methods. It has been translated into many languages, including English, Japanese and Russian. Lu is considered the Sage of Tea, the first person to collect so much information together and present it in a systematic way; the book helped to raise the status of tea. For the exhibition, the museum borrowed manuscripts from Peking University, University of Hong Kong and other sources.

Ironically, given its rich and varied history of tea, Macao has dozens of coffee shops but not a single old-style tea house. Loi Chi Pang, a scholar at the Civil and Municipal Affairs Bureau, said that Macao people drank a lot of tea but had no dedicated tea house. “They were popular in Taiwan in the 1980s where they were well presented but this did not happen in Macao or the mainland. Chinese feel that, to drink in a teahouse, you should take it very seriously. Young people do not want to do this. They like speed and convenience. In Starbucks, you are buying the culture and the fashion more than the coffee. There is no such equivalent in tea.” 

China is the birthplace of tea and the world’s biggest producer 

More than 80 million people work in the industry, from farmers picking leaves from bushes on the side of a mountain to workers in the 70,000 processing plants and lady vendors selling the finished product in bright red packets in an urban shopping centre. In 2008, China produced 1.2 million tones of tea, of which 70 per cent was green tea.

But, in the global market, China ranks only fourth as an exporter, after Kenya, Sri Lanka and India. This is because black tea dominates global trade, accounting for 90 per cent, and green tea just 10 per cent. Of China’s exports, 10 per cent is black tea and 90 per cent green tea, in which it competes with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and soon Sri Lanka. China lacks global brands and has nothing to match the British company Lipton, the world’s biggest tea company and most famous brand. It sells in more than 150 countries around the world and aims at the mass market. The annual turnover of China’s top 100 tea companies is just 70 per cent of that of Lipton, which was founded in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century and is now owned by Unilever. It owns tea estates in Kenya and Tanzania and the Lipton Institute of Tea, which is headquartered in Britain and has research centers in India, Kenya, United States of America, Japan and China. Like most branded teas, Lipton’s teas are a blend selected from major producing countries like India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and China. Its best known brand, Lipton Yellow Label, is blended from as many as 20 different teas in specialized tasting rooms in seven centers around the world. Lipton scours the universities of China and hires some of their best tea students with lucrative jobs in its research department. Lipton has what the big Chinese producers do not have - sales and marketing knowledge, aggressive advertising and brand promotion and a global distribution network. Like Starbucks and MacDonalds, Lipton offers the same product wherever in the world you buy it. But Chinese growers, both state and private, compete fiercely with each other and find it hard to make a common standard.

Another reason for the weak export performance of China’s tea growers is the booming domestic market. Three decades of rapid economic growth have created a strong demand for premium tea brands, which command prices of several thousand Yuan a kilogram. They have become a luxury product, desired by the new class of super-rich as a sign of their wealth and success, like a new BMW or the latest perfume from France. The average export price from China is seven yuan per kilo and the average in the world market US$1.95 a kilo. Why export when you can obtain such similar prices at home?


By Mark O'Neill in Macao

(Issue N. 1, October 2009)