Chinatown is suddenly Vancouver’s most talked-about neighborhood (Just check out this recent Vancouver Sun article). To understand Chinatown’s past and present, I tagged along on a unique walking tour of the neighborhood called A Wok around Chinatown. In my last post, I talked about the neighborhood’s sacred places. Today, I’ll take a look at the ancient ceremonies that are alive and well in Chinatown.
Believe it or not, I’m about to kung fu my tea. Inside the Chinese Tea Shop, on the corner of Pender and Columbia Streets, I’m learning Gong-Fu Cha, literally Tea Kung Fu or the fine art of tea making. My guide is master tea maker Daniel Lui, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1997 and knows more about the Chinese tea ceremony than probably anyone in North America.
My first revelation is that Chinese tea is traditionally sipped from tiny, thimble-sized cups that look like they belong to a dollhouse tea set. The teapot itself is miniature as well, made from either clay, stone or other materials depending on the tea being brewed. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
While I watch, Daniel performs an elaborate ritual, first warming up the teapot and cups by dousing them with heated water and then rinsing the tea leaves. Today, we’re drinking rare white peonie tea from China, which Daniel picked up on a recent trip. White tea is one of four main varieties, ranging from green tea, which is the “youngest” and freshest, to white and oolong teas and on to fermented and aged black teas.
With Daniel pouring, the group samples successive rounds or “infusions” of the white peonie tea. He lets the leaves steep only a few seconds before pouring. The first round is fresh and light. Successive brews of the leaves bring out fuller flavors, subtle notes and more tannins. “I want to emphasize looking at tea as you would look at wine,” Daniel says.
Just next door to the Chinese Tea Shop, I discover more ancient knowledge being put to modern use. Inside of the Beijing Trading Co. are walls lined with jar after jar of traditional Chinese remedies, from rare wild ginseng to actual birds nests made by swallows in China and consumed to relieve indigestion.
Wok around Chinatown guide Bob Sung explains that, in the past, Beijing Trading functioned much like a doctor’s office and pharmacy. Patients would come in to consult an herbalist in his office and then head out to the the pharmacy area to get their prescriptions filled.
Today, Beijing Trading is still popular with those seeking herbal and natural treatments, as well as with customers looking for Chinese ingredients for traditional dishes. “A lot of Chinese ingredients have both medicinal and culinary applications,” Bob says. Stuffed inside big jars are dried scallops, fluffy white fungus (great in soups), pricey and controversial shark fins, honeysuckle and chrysanthemum flowers.
But the most unique ingredient of the day is found at a neighboring shop: geckos – actual lizards dried and spread-eagled on tiny sticks. Although I’m sure the geckos are nutritious, the display was still a bit gruesome – especially because I couldn’t stop thinking about the little Geico spokesperson.