Lo­cals unite over cup of nos­tal­gia at time­less Chi­nese teahouse

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LIFE - By Julien Gi­rault

CHENGDU, China: At 4 a.m. the ket­tles crackle on a char­coal stove as reg­u­lars crowd in­side an an­cient Chi­nese tem­ple-turned-teahouse, a relic in a coun­try be­ing over­run by Star­bucks cafes.

Wear­ing a cap and a blue vest, Li Qiang gets up in the mid­dle of the night, as he does every day, to light the fire and pre­pare por­tions of tea in tiny cups that can be pur­chased for a mod­est two yuan (29 U.S. cents) each.

Out­side the Guanyin Pavil­ion teahouse, named for the god­dess the tem­ple was once ded­i­cated to, el­derly men chat as they wait for the 300-year-old build­ing’s large wooden doors to open.

In­side, dec­o­ra­tions from past eras are vis­i­ble in the shad­ows: re­li­gious fres­coes and mo­tifs on high beams, dat­ing from be­fore it was con­verted just over a cen­tury ago.

Lower down, de­cay­ing paint­ings on wooden pan­els depict Com­mu­nist China’s founder Mao Ze­dong sur­rounded by so­lar rays, or slo­gans glo­ri­fy­ing so­cial­ism and hop­ing for the Great Helms­man’s longevity.

“Noth­ing has changed since the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion,” Li says.

The 50-seat teahouse in Chengdu, cap­i­tal of the south­west­ern prov­ince of Sichuan, and the way of life it rep­re­sents are a throw­back to the past in a so­ci­ety that is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly fre­netic and in­ter­na­tion­al­ized by its sta­tus as the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy.

Un­like up­mar­ket tea­houses in the city cen­ter, the state-owned es­tab­lish­ment does not of­fer rare and ex­pen­sive teas at pre­mium prices.

In­stead cus­tomers sit on bam­boo chairs in small groups, un­der the pale glow of naked light bulbs sus­pended from the high ceil­ing.

“Nowhere else in Chengdu will you find a sim­i­lar teahouse,” says cus­tomer Ning Shucheng, in his 80s. “There are none. They have been ru­ined or com­pletely de­mol­ished.”

Tea­houses were once em­blem­atic of Chi­nese ur­ban cul­ture but are now strug­gling to re­vi­tal­ize their pub­lic im­age in the face of ev­er­ex­pand­ing for­eign or for­eign-in­spired cof­fee chains.

“Here we are all lo­cal peo­ple, faith­ful,” laughs an­other cus­tomer, a 73-year-old sur­named Zhang.

Pour­ing boil­ing wa­ter into ther­mos bot­tles decorated with flow­ers, Li greeted every­one.

“For them this is a sec­ond home, it’s like be­ing in a fam­ily,” he ex­plains, es­pe­cially for those whose own chil­dren live far from Chengdu.

Li was around 30 when he was ap­pointed man­ager more than two decades ago, but has been care­ful not to change any­thing dur­ing his ten­ure.

He muses: “What’s the point? This is a place that breathes hu­man­ity, the lives of the reg­u­lars. This is not prof­itable, ad­mit­tedly, but how could I give it up? Some reg­u­lars walk 10 kilo­me­ters every morn­ing to come here.”

Across the street, an um­brella re­pairer opens his stall, while a butcher can be heard chop­ping meat in the dis­tance. Un­der a lean-to, a hunch­backed hair­dresser plugs in his hair clip­pers.

The teahouse of­fers cus­tomers a place to so­cial­ize and es­cape a ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic so­ci­ety they strug­gle to fit into, ac­cord­ing to Tian Zaipo, a com­par­a­tively young client at 50. “In to­day’s world peo­ple are get­ting fur­ther and fur­ther apart,” he says. “It’s so good to see your friends here.”

But he ac­knowl­edges that a new gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese bev­er­age drinkers pre­ferred cof­feeshops – U.S. chain Star­bucks had only 400 out­lets in the coun­try in 2011, but within five years had al­most six times as many, and was aim­ing to dou­ble that.

“The young peo­ple do not come any­more,” Tian says.

But there is one new group of vis­i­tors to the Guanyin Pavil­ion – the es­tab­lish­ment and its clien­tele have be­come renowned as a pic­turesque sub­ject among China’s army of am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers, a cru­cial mar­ket for cam­era man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Canon and Nikon.

Soon af­ter the mid-morn­ing ar­rival of an ear cleaner – a tra­di­tional but de­clin­ing Sichuanese ser­vice to scrub out ear canals for 20 yuan – a dozen cam­era-wield­ing shut­ter­bugs piled in.

With­out hes­i­ta­tion, re­quest or con­sent, they pro­ceeded to re­ar­range the crock­ery, and some­times even the cus­tomers them­selves, to im­prove their com­po­si­tions.

The teahouse is renowned for its time­less­ness, but man­ager Li re­sents its re­sult­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

The pho­tog­ra­phers never buy a cup of tea, he said – and for his part, he does not let them sit down.

“It’s even worse at the week­end,” he gri­maces.

The teahouse is not prof­itable, its man­ager says, but “how could I give it up?”

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