The aromas of jasmine, rose and oolong intermingled, wafting through the air as we entered the tranquil tea house. We discovered this character-imbued space nestled in one of Beijing’s remaining hutongs – traditional alleyway neighborhoods created by the walls of single-story courtyard houses dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).
Dancing eyes and a warm smile invited us in. “Nihao, welcome,” an engaging woman sang. “Take your time and look around. Where are you from?”
We responded, “California, USA, but we live in Ningbo, China right now.”
She lifted her eyebrows. Really?
“California, it must be a very nice place.”
I inquired of her name. “It’s Alice. Well, that’s my name for you!” She winked and then suggested we sit down. “I prepare you some lizhe tea. You know lizhe?”
I didn’t, but I quickly looked it up in my dictionary. Lychee. “Oh, yes. I know that.”
As Alice prepared our steaming beverage, our eyes explored the little shop, so full of character and exquisite wares. Enchanting was the only word that came to mind.
“How did you become so good at English?” I queried. “Have you travelled or lived abroad much? You speak so well.”
“My customers are my teachers. They come from all over the world, to my little shop. I have run it for over 30 years. No time for travel.”
I mulled over that for awhile. Nonstop work for 30+ years, no travel abroad. Yet this woman’s English was impeccable. Not only was her grammar and pronunciation near native, but her fluid ease of use made us feel so welcomed. Clearly, this woman knew how to engage her customers and make each feel special.
The fragrant liquid lizhe transported us to ancient times that, at the moment, seemed just a sip away. An uncommon timelessness pervaded Alice’s tea shop. We almost expected to see horseback warriors charge past outside.
My husband and I are Americans that prefer tea. The aromas conjure an assortment of memories of both the familiar and the mysterious.
Another Tea Moment
One memory floating to the surface at that moment was a tea house we had visited with our children shortly after our August arrival in Shanghai. Still regaining our strength from jet lag, coping with a new environment, and attempting to beat the heat, we stumbled into a quaint tea shop in a popular tourist center, Shanghai Yuyuan, and found an aromatic oasis of calm. The air conditioning helped a great deal, too!
It was a recognition of arrival for us. We were in China, sipping tea, together as a family. We had made it! A magical moment, preserved digitally if not in our minds.
So, three months later, when we had the opportunity to return to Shanghai, the tea shop was on our list. A mere three months later…it was gone! A cell phone store had moved in, unknowingly stealing our “nostalgia moment” in the process.
A Nation Bulldozes its way Towards Change
As China has swiftly moved towards claiming its rightful place on the world stage of industrial powers, its approach has not been without controversy. The central Communist Party still wields authority that allows for rapid change that would take much longer in many parts of the world, where environmental and social impact concerns, not to mention zoning, permitting and other procedural steps, slow the process down.
Many have documented the rapid-fire bulldozing of the hutong since China set out on its modernization quest. At the height of the city’s headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents. (The Atlantic, Feb. 9, 2012) Currently, it is unknown how many hutong have been demolished, but most estimates run between 2,000–5,000.
People’s lives changed. Forever. By bulldozers, cranes and government edict.
Back to that Cup of Tea…
The tea house in Shanghai? Its disappearance is probably more a result of “free market” activity in a still not-so-free China. Nevertheless, we couldn’t help but wonder about Alice and her tea house.
While visiting Beijing, we made a point to drop in on Alice a few more times. Each time offered a further glimpse into this internationalized woman who had spent much of her life within the walls of her cozy shop. We relished every moment.
Tea can do that, you know. A relatively simple drink with unlimited variations, tea spans across cultures and time. After water, it is the number two consumed beverage in the world.
Tea – liquid memories of moments, atmosphere and relationship to sip and savor long after the cup is emptied.
Do you have tea memories to share with us? Please do so below!