Friday, June 10, 2011

Would you like to have Chinese or English tea?

As a direct descendant from a less sophisticated early immigrant stock of Singapore for whom a cup of tea was a cup of tea, obviously without knowing Lu Yu, a Chinese writer at the time of Tang Dynasty in his “Classic of Tea” wrote tea was more than just a drink , it was a symbol and a ceremony. I didn’t know much about this all important drink until I started travelling in my early twenties to Eastern Asian countries. Like many Singaporeans from the same era, tea was either Chinese tea or English tea. We didn’t have a choice over the type of tea in the restaurants at that time, where tea was normally served freely on the house as a complimentary welcome drink and topped up endlessly throughout the meal. Imagine the faux pas written all over me when I committed a cardinal sin of not knowing what type of tea to order with my yum cha at a Hong Kong restaurant when I first visited many years ago. Even until today, it is difficult for me to taste the difference between the astringent pale yellow Dragon Well tea from Hangzhou to the Oolong (Black Dragon) tea that includes such brand as the Iron Goddess of Mercy from Jiangxi which when pressed into bars is said to be as hard as iron. The only exception is the tell-tale smell of the Jasmine tea which remains my favourite and fool-proof tea beverage when I am ordering in the Chinese restaurant.
The preparation and sipping of tea are part of the tea ceremony of a kimono clad Japanese who have given a quasi- religious elevation of this ancient ritual from China and the daily life of a manual worker in Hong Kong. But in Singapore tea drinking has never reach such esoteric heights. However, in modern Singapore, the Chinese tea comes with the Bak Kut Teh. It is served with the tea cups and tea pot immersed in a basin of hot water for hygienic purposes rather than ceremonial. After all, many of us come from the coolie stock and like tea should be left to brew and steep in our heritage.

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