More than two decades ago, my Chinese language teacher in primary school brought my class to a traditional teahouse called Tea Chapter. It was her way of getting us to embrace our ethnic Chinese roots. It was my first time experiencing “proper” Chinese tea culture, and the teahouse, which is located in an old shophouse in Singapore’s Chinatown, reeked of oriental mystery (cue calligraphy paintings and strains of guzheng – Chinese zither music) and fragility (many clay-based things I could possibly smash into).
Besides this, I remember many photographs of Queen Elizabeth II sipping tea being on display throughout the three levels of the teahouse. Apparently, she’d been to Tea Chapter in 1989 while visiting Singapore and sipped an Imperial Golden Cassia oolong. “Even the Queen of England is interested in Chinese tea,” our teacher told us as we fidgeted about. “You should be interested in your own tea culture too!”
However, my classmates and I were taken more with the snacks menu than the seemingly mundane tea ceremony ritual. It didn’t help that the process was explained in long, convoluted sentences using Chinese words we’d never learned from our textbook. All I got out of the demonstration was that a lot of water seemed to be wasted. The best part of the visit was munching on a tea egg.
Recently, I decided to drop in on Tea Chapter again. Nothing much seemed to have changed. There was even a group of schoolchildren who were chattering and thumping about on the creaky wooden floors as their weary-looking teachers beseeched them to behave.
I had a brief conversation with one of the Tea Chapter staff, Angela, who told me that their main clients were these school groups, followed by “older people” who wanted a quiet place to have a conversation with friends (when the schoolchildren were not around). According to her, they used to have quite a number of tourists, but that number has dwindled of late because there are so many more new tourist attractions in Singapore.
I felt a little sad when I heard this. Places like Tea Chapter are promoting a heritage that seems to be fast disappearing. And yet, converting people to Chinese tea culture is not an overnight affair. I looked back on the initial apathy of my first encounter, and how long it took before I finally realized the relevance of this tradition to my life. It also helped that along the way, I met a few good people who introduced me to Chinese teas that I fell in love with, such as Silver Needle, Tieguanyin, and Phoenix Dan Cong.
The Tea Chapter people are not giving up yet. They see the value in hosting these disruptive hordes of schoolchildren, who sometimes may seem unappreciative. “Maybe one day, a few of these kids will be like you and decide to come back,” Angela said with a smile.