I stared at the objects in front of me. There were four tea canisters and two teapots, with a layer of dust upon them, sitting on the table in front of me. I was thinking of something, but wasn’t certain what the thought was about – perhaps it was about the excitement of an inheritance, or what disappointment I might find inside the canisters.
Last week my grandmother called. “Are you still into that tea thing of yours? There are some tea canisters and teapots from your grandfather, come by and see if you want them, nobody else in the family drinks tea except you now; so either you take them, or we’ll throw them away…”
My memories of drinking tea began about the same time I tasted my first beer – more accurately, the foamy cream of a strange mixture of beer and stout. My grandfather would scoop a generous portion of the cream with a biscuit and let me munch on it, much to the displeasure of my grandmother.
In the hot afternoons of a tropical sun, my grandfather would sit on the verandah, drinking his strange mix of beer and stout, while I play, study or draw nearby. A biscuit with alcoholic cream was my occasional reward for leaving him alone to his reverie.
In the late afternoon, he would take out his tea set: a little pewter container with a cover full of holes to drain water, a little yixing teapot, and four tiny round white thin porcelain cups. He would then brew tea, and if I still didn’t bother him, let me have a small cup of the rich brown tea. I didn’t know what it was called then, it would take me years later to realize that it is a Phoenix Dancong…
On some days he would hang out at the Clan association. I shall explain a little on this. In the past, Chinese immigrants would sail far away from motherland to seek opportunities in other countries. Over time, people who discovered that they came from the same village, region, or county, and share the same family name, began setting up clan associations to help them keep in contact with the affairs and news back home; sometimes, clan associations also helped them find wives.
The clan association was a wonderful place. It was situated by the busy river, where barges, loaded with cargoes and cargoes of items, including tea, bustled in and out of the quay, unloading and picking goods. As kids I would join my cousins who lived by the river to scrounge from barge to barge for things that fell out during the unloading and loading – pieces of dried anchovies were my favourite. Sometimes the tea merchants would come when the shipment was in; there were those who loaded large wooden crates on to a long vehicle called a lorry, and others who came on a retro-fitted bicycle with a large wooden platform with wheels attached in front for transporting heavy items. They would load the front with crates of tea, and then peddle to their shops at the tea street – we had one then – which was not far from the quay.
The old folks would sit by the sky-well, to enjoy some sunlight while basking in the cool penumbra of the interior. The charcoal stove would be on, and a group of old folks, including my grandfather, would sit around a small table catching up on events back home in China and here. Someone would be brewing tea; while waiting for the water to boil, he would take a small packet of tea, and crush it lightly in his hand. He would then unwrap the packet. He would separate the crushed leaves, whole leaves, and tea dust on separate pieces of paper. Holding the pot in one hand, he emptied the tea dust into the pot, and knocked the pot with his hand several times to make sure there’s an even spread on the bottom. Then he would pick up the whole leaves and, tilting the pot on the spout, throw in some leaves; then he levelled the pot and placed the crushed leaves inside the pot, to its rear. When this was completed, he emptied the rest of the whole leaves into the pot, filling the pot to almost half full.
The water would be boiled by now, kicking and fuming. The old man would pour some hot water into a bowl in which a set of small tiny cups sat, and then he would pour the water into the pot from a high level, once the pot overflowed, he sliced the foam off the mouth of the pot and covered it. He would empty the rest of the water on to the pot. My favourite part was always to watch the steam rising coyly from the heated pot, turning and twisting, dancing away into nothingness; and the water evaporating from the surface of the pot, as if the pot is a thirsty drinker, sucking up all the water.
Back in those days there were few tea accoutrements, bare hands did most of the work. The old man would wash the cups in the hot water, rolling the cups on their sides, take them out, and placed it on a porcelain container with holes, much like my grandfather’s pewter one, where the teapot also sat, impregnated with tea. The action was fast, quick, and unceremonious. Pick up the teapot, take aim, and pour out the liquor, fast and furious, till the cups overflow with a dark rich amber fragrant tea.
The others would reach out, pick up the tiny cups, cut the excess water collected on the base of the cup on the edge of the porcelain container, and with a throw back of the head, emptied the tea into their mouths. The back to what they were doing, the tea drinking forgotten momentarily, till the thirst arose later.The tea drinking was more like a pause in the things they were doing, the pipe smoking, the chess playing, the heated discussions, the talk about the events in the war, the current politics. The short tea session was never a focus on its own, it was an accompaniment to the other daily events, daily chores.
For me it was different. The fragrant of the liquor pulled me towards the cup, drawing me into the amber liquid. There were times when the fragrance just filled my head till there was nothing else, just the tea, and the smell. Then reality returned, and I would be among old men in a hall lit by the light from the sky well. Reality was the old man throwing out the water in the container on to the ground around the well, and reality was when one of them would ask me to bring tea to the folks upstairs.
Upstairs was an opium den. It was a place for the opium addicts who could not kick the habit, thrown out by their families, and taken in by the clan association. When they were no walking around with only half of their souls in the body, they would be lying on mattresses, smoking away, hoping to die in faked blessed state.
I would bring the tea up to these men, rouse them from their stupor, and watch them take the tea. The fragrance of the tea mixed and blended strangely well with the smell of opium, it was a fragrance that lured and teased, ruffled the hair, tugged the collar, asking one to sniff deeper, to fill up the lungs with this strange heady fragrance. So I lingered longer upstairs with the fragrance, sitting at the threshold to the verandah, watching the barges unload the cargoes, and sniffing the fragrance from within the dark room, lit by sparks of amber from the opium pipes.
“So have you checked out the teas inside yet?” grandmother’s voice rang behind me. I startled, not because of her voice, but because of the memories that were still fresh in my mind. I ran through my mind, locating segments of memories to the pots in front of me, and the canisters too, except two, the dull pewter ones. The other two pewter canisters had lacquer varnish, and I pretty much knew what were inside them, except for the two unvarnished ones.
Well, they are mine now, my share of my grandfather’s inheritance and legacy. I picked up one, shook it for a feel of what’s inside, and pulled off the lid.
And so began my journey with pu’er.