The Teahouse

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s.

Chengdu, Summer of 1993

The cup is handleless, rather tall and slim, with a gorgeous blue glazed dragon curling around a pearl at the bottom. There’s now a small heap of tea leaves lying on the dragon, the outer edges slowly swirling with the current of the hot water.

The hot water had been provided from a giant thermos by a frail old lady. She is shuffling around with small feet that were probably bound in the years before Mao and she makes sure that no cup stays empty for long.

I’m in one of the larger teahouses in Chengdu, three open courtyards with curved roofs, small fountains and wooden partitions. There are red lanterns dangling from the intricate woodwork of the roof and beneath it are low tables and wooden benches, some with upright backrests, a bit inconvenient but good enough for a couple of hours.

There’s a special, closed section to one side, where there are cloths on the tables and the chairs are padded. Foreign tour groups are steered to that area to mingle with wealthy businessmen and their attractive female companions, drinking tea at double or triple the price of the local’s section where I’m sitting now.

When people walk in from the street they visibly slow down, relaxing, leaving the hustle and bustle of Chinese street life behind. They order their cup of tea from a small table in the dark entrance hall where it is almost impossible to read the price tags next to the bowls with brands of tea from all over China.

Then they walk through the rows of tables looking for a convenient spot, a teenage girl with a very serious look on her face following them with their ordered cup on a tray.

Next to the entrance stands a sign in Chinese with an English headline announcing ‘Sichuan OPRa PeRfoRmance’. There are also a couple of photos depicting colorful masks and wild dancing scenes, but I can’t make out where this performance would take place.

People come here to discuss business or to meet with friends. Some are reading newspapers or books. A few just sit there and watch the world go by, sipping their tea from time to time.

A group of older men in blue, baggy Mao clothes are playing Chinese Chess in one corner. Most of them huddle around the boards and watch every single move of the players, discussing the game in low voices. It has all the attributes of a World Championship in progress.

Heavy rain is setting in amidst rumbling thunder. Luckily my bench is far enough under the roof but some of the guests develop a here seldom witnessed speed to secure a dry spot.

It’s still very hot and humid and now there is steam rising after the first drops hit the ground. The courtyards get a soft, dreamlike appearance, further heightened by the sound of the rain as it blots out the little street noise that made it into the teahouse.

A girl, almost a baby, is watching me intently over the backrest of the next bench in front of me, enjoying her first chance to study a foreigner out in the wild. Suddenly there’s another head bobbing up behind the backrest – her proud grandfather who took his dressed-up grandchild on a stroll through town.

He’s a bit surprised at the sight of me, but then he’s giving me his widest grin. I show him my camera and ask if I can take a picture of the child. He holds her up even more so that she can stand on the backrest and I take a picture of her cute face.

The grandfather is now prouder than ever and starts a conversation, hitting the limits of my Chinese in mere seconds. But it’s still one of those joyful moments with both of us working to understand each other, happy about every tiny success.

All around us, the world is reduced to a teahouse adrift in the clouds.

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