Tea and Hong Kong Cinema

It would be one of those impossible tasks to comment upon and decipher all the culture aspects of tea within Hong Kong cinema as after all its presence is so symbolic and natural it is most often ignored. Tea is a way of life in Hong Kong and it would be impossible for it not to appear either purposefully or incidentally on the wide screen.

However I thought I would share some of my observations. But firstly it might be wise to provide a very brief introduction to the history of Hong Kong Cinema.

Hong Kong cinema is the third largest motion picture industry in the world (after Indian cinema and Hollywood) and second largest exporter. Despite an industry crisis starting in the mid-1990s and Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997, Hong Kong film has retained much of its distinctive identity and continues to play a prominent part on the world cinema stage. Having little or no direct government support, it is a thoroughly commercial, focusing on crowd-pleasing genres like comedy and action, and relying heavily on formulas, sequels and remakes. Starting off its history around 1909 and picking up momentum with the advent of sound it reached its boom in the mid 1980s with hard hitting films like John Woos’ The Killer that preceded his internationally acclaimed Hard Boiled which propelled actors such as Chow Yun Fat into the limelight. Equally successful during this time was the proclivity for the formula of comedy action films, often involving martial arts, raising the status of the likes of Jackie Chan in the Police Story series.

Today its healthy mix of comedy, action, crime and martial arts attracts cult status and big audiences world wide.

The following themes involving tea emerge from this genre of cinema, as observed.

  1. Tea as a vehicle for representing social change
  2. Tea as a vehicle for transcending barriers
  3. Tea as a symbol for idealized culture

In one of my all time favourite films starring Lam Ching Ying, Mr Vampire (1985), that ticks all the boxes of the comedy/action/martial arts formula, a scene whereby the exorcist and his student enter a westernised tea house reveals the role of tea as representative of social change. In this scene the customers are drinking tea in the English tradition with teapot and handled cups and saucers. This isn’t that unusual as the introduction of such practice among the Chinese elite is something that has perhaps been perpetuated since the British colonial expansion in the 1890s. However in regard to  commenting in cinema on social change it is what happens before this scene that is important. Prior to entering the tea house the main characters converse with a traditional fish merchant on the street. There is stark contrast with the old traditions and new traditions between these two scenes, such that, as throughout the film, new beliefs and practices are constantly being challenged by old traditional attitudes. Tea becomes one of these vehicles in which discarded old beliefs and superstition are constantly being re-appraised against modern attitudes.

Early  on the 1992 film New Dragon Gate Inn, staring Maggie Cheung as the temptress Jade, tea is seen as a mechanism of transcending social barriers. Within 37 minutes of the film the femme fatale character offers a bowl of tea to a newly arrived guest. Nothing unusual or special about this you may think, however the acceptance of the tea by the guest almost allows her to exploit his vulnerability and soon he is under her spell, so much so that one may even retrospectively suppose the tea may have been drugged. There is nothing to suggest this is the case in the film but the power of accepting the hospitality of tea is here suggesting the power of tea to break down barriers between individuals to extent that this in itself can be exploited for ill means.

In the tea house scene in Hard Boiled (1992) the calm civil atmosphere erupts into a chaotic shootout with the tea kettle filled with boiling water featuring heavily as an improvised weapon of choice. Here tea represents society and social norms, whereby the boiling kettle signifies the boiling over of inherent tensions between the tea house clients. I feel John Woo utilises the tea house atmosphere to signify the inherent tensions that exist within society, between the criminal and legal that are all framed and governed by social norms but have the potential to erupt into chaos. The serenity of the idealized culture of the tea house that is easily unsettled by the ensuing violence suggests both the potential and fragility of social harmony. Here tea culture is both normalising and equalising. However, possibly, in perceived anti-confucianist rhetoric John Woo almost states that the harmony achieved by social conventions of tea culture is not immune to impermanence. As exposed in my previous post,  it reminds me of the violent act at the end of Sen No Rikyu’s final tea ceremony where the smashing of the tea bowl signifies the final act of dissolution of order and convention. Interestingly enough this scene from Hard Boiled is also a homage to the 1974 film Teahouse that features an explosive violent fight scene between rival triads. Needless to say all the teaware is dramatically broken!

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), although not exclusively a Hong Kong film production, co-produced with Hong Kong film company EDKO as well as People’s Republic of China CFGC (China Film Co-Production Corporation), incorporates strong Hong Kong film genre formula. In a scene the Taoist master Li Mu Bai refuses tea offered to him in preference for human contact before narrating a monologue on the impermanence of all things. Again, I feel here tea once again symbolises convention and order and social norms that is subverted and usurped by Taoist anti-confucianist rhetoric.

There are many films I have not mentioned and many I would love to watch again and spot the deeper meanings and presence of tea (I can see an epic movie marathon looming!!). The key point is Hong Kong has been culturally a border between old and new China, and its tea culture reflects this in a way that when we view it through the lens of Cinema we see rich metaphors of tea. Tea culture is not just enfranchised in the formal tea traditions and new age practices that we see so often highlighted on the internet or YouTube, but also in the everyday drinking practices and norms of society. It language is so rich that it become almost invisible despite the power it has to lubricate, influence and modulate subtlety our human and worldly relationships in the present moment. Whether it being drunk by members of the Heaven & Earth Society in tiled smokey tea houses or with great acts of mindfulness as part of a formal tea ceremony in some mountain retreat, tea has equal social power and potency regardless.

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Tea and Death

Being brought up on a healthy amount of Hong Kong cinema I often have my own movie playing out in my head. One such scene to my epic cinematic film is where the Taoist master observes one last tea session with his pupils before leaving his body.

I accept that this is an indulgent fantasy, however I often wonder what that tea would be?

Tea is used in many rituals of life and death, as a precious object of offering both to the deceased and to the beings of superior power that might influence both the surviving relative or the deceased journey beyond life.

I thought I would therefore dedicate some writing to this topic as its something that is seldom discussed or exposed.

One of the more well known associations of tea and death is when Sen No Rikyu, Japan’s greatest tea master and innovator of Japanese tea culture, committed ritual death.

Rikyū’s last act was to hold an exquisite tea ceremony. During the ceremony he presented each guest a piece of teaware as a memorial along with an exquisite kakemono scroll, which allegedly dealt with the subject of “the evanescence of all things“, with exception of the tea bowl, which he shattered, as he uttered the words: “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.” As the guests departed, one remained to serve as witness to Rikyū’s death.

As with many cultures, in China, tea is often offered to guests who come to pay their respects to the recently deceased. Tea, like in so many other important occasions, becomes a vehicle for social interaction and a platform for social exchange. More specifically, close relatives during the mourning period often have to abstain from certain foods so it is also arguable that tea sustains the relatives through these difficult times.

In more modern time the role of the binyiguan () or undertaker has become more of a commercial enterprise, especially in more developed cities and areas. Often the binyiguan will be seen at funerals surrounded by piles of gifts, for those mourners attending the ceremony (Aveline-Dubach 2012). Parcels and gifts of tea is commonplace and almost to be expected.

In both homeland and Chinese diaspora communities there has been some revival of the ritual of the Restless Ghost, a yearly event for relieving the restless and deceased familiar spirits. One description of how this is performed is not that dissimilar to Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations or Dia Dos Muertos, whereby a table and chair is set out for the deceased restless spirit. Tea is served regularly throughout the day to the table and the server is expected to wail and cry for the deceased spirit.

Similar it has become traditional, after a recent death of a relative, to calculate, according to belief, the day that the deceased spirit will return home to see their surviving relatives for the last time. On this day a meal including three bowls of rice, three bowls of wine and three bowls of tea is prepared for the returning spirit (Cheung et al 2006)

As in China, and across the world where tea drinking is customary, end of life care is often extended to family members accompanied by the serving of tea. Whilst not a ritual as such it serves to bind the collective grief and anxieties of loved ones. I remember an old friend of mine Dmitri, who was an Russian Orthodox monk , who regularly served up hot piping sweet black tea, used to say “it may have been Jesus who brought Lazarus back to life but it was tea that kept him living”!

In funeral rituals of Mongolia, as an amalgam of Buddhist, folk-religion and pre-communist Animism, it has been reported that a brick of tea is placed under the deceased head as an offering to the earth spirits. Unlike other cultures, the nomadic lifestyle popularized in Mongolia is still idealized and whilst capitalism and money becomes more important, old practices of tea (like in Tibet) as social currency still prevail. Hence the giving of tea at death as a payment or exchange currency prevails with such deep symbolism. Tea at that moment in time when the body transcends mortal existence equally transcends social and cosmological boundaries.

We are deeply superstitious about death, to the point that we may choose to ignore it or make a concerted effort to avoid it as a subject. Therefore it isn’t surprising that the highly evolved culture of tea consumption across many different cultures has its place at the end of life as it does during time spent living.

There is a wealth of other information and dialogue that can be had on this topic, not to be exhausted in such a small post like this. I think, personally it is something I could easily fill up a book about, or at least a journal for we haven’t even touched upon the medical side of this topic.

For now though, raise a cup , celebrate life with a cup of tea and all those that came before us, but don’t forget to also raise a cup to our departed, ancestors and predecessors that we share both our humanity and tea with.

Aveline-Dubach N. The Revival of the Funeral Industry in Shanghai: a Model for China.2012
Cheung PK, Chan CL, Fu W, Li Y, Cheung GY. Letting go” and “holding on”: Grieving and traditional death rituals in Hong Kong. Death, dying, and bereavement: A Hong Kong Chinese experience. 2006:65-86.
Imperial DR. Death ritual in late imperial and modern China. Univ of California Press; 1988.

 

 

Tea Chemistry & Aroma

Further to my initial post and dialogue around the impact of size, leaf material and stem on the overall aromatic and flavour profiles of tea I came across this beautiful illustration from the paper by Ho & Zheng (2015).

For some it maybe way to much science, for others not sufficient detail.

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I find it is quite simplified given we know there are a huge quantity of other compounds within tea and the interactions between different ratios and quantities themselves are likely to impact on the overall experience. However its a good place to start thinking about the importance of the aroma of tea.

Linalool is perhaps an interesting chemical in the aroma of tea as its widely used commercially in perfumes and cosmetic to infuse a floral scent. As a plant synthesized terpenoid it is the main compound in the scent of Lavender, Cinnamon and Cannabis, yet many plants produce the chemical in various quantities. Equally interesting is the fact that inhalation of Linalool can cause drowsiness and light headedness which may suggest some contribution to the relaxed feeling we obtain from a steaming bowl of tea as well as the phenomena known as “tea drunkeness”.

Certainly along with other relaxing pharma in tea, such as theobromine, when we take that first cup or bowl and breathe in the steam and aroma a wave of bliss is not unusual as we allow the tea to deliver a variety of chemical effects though sip and scent.

Another terpenoid is Geraniol, which is mostly insoluble in water and hence likely to be carried far on the vehicle of steam from a freshly brewed bowl of tea. Similar to Linalool it has calming affects and studies show that it has potential analgesic qualities. It has insect repellent as well as anti-fungal effects and therefore, like other terpenoids in tea, it is perhaps produced by the tree as part of defence or stress modulation.

Recent research presents the view that such aromatic compounds can be useful for disease and defence modulation in humans not just plants and studies into using such chemicals extracted from the plant kingdom against cancers are well documented (Cho et al 2016).

Chemistry aside, the aroma of tea is perhaps always stated but possibly underrated.  Taking time to breath a full bowl of steam from a fresh pour is perhaps the best way not only to get the benefits from it but also to respect it appropriately.

ChO MI, So I, Chun JN, Jeon JH. The antitumor effects of geraniol: Modulation of cancer hallmark pathways. International journal of oncology. 2016 May 1;48(5):1772-82
Ho CT, Zheng X, Li S. Tea aroma formation. Food Science and Human Wellness. 2015 Mar 1;4(1):9-27.

Leaves & Twigs

Whilst responding to a recent discussion at https://teadb.org/ around the possible origins of menthol flavours and aromas in the experience of Sheng Puerh I started thinking around how different contents in respect to leaf size, twigs and buds contribute to different flavour profiles.

What initially got me thinking was a study by Zhu et al (2017) that demonstrated that different leaf sizes had different quantities of terpenoids.

Terpenoids are a large class of highly aromatic organic compounds produced by plants, thought to be part of plant defence from herbivory.

It seems almost too obvious to state that different ratios of leaf sizes in tea is likely therefore to contribute to an overall different experience in the brew. Hence that even if you took the leaves from the same tree you may find that increasing or decreasing the amount of large leaf material in the brew will change the experience.

In someway this is the beauty of Tea in that the same tree can continue to live out its personality in the brew and provide such variety and change not only between sessions but within its own leaf material. This is surely a lesson in understanding that within the same there is difference, within difference the same.

“What is and what is not create each other” –  Lao Tzu

In the bowl therefore the ratios come together to create the experience such that it is likely that this basic understanding led to the first blending of tea material and recipes for individual tea cakes. For example a classic balanced taste in Shou Puerh is often achieved by a blend of grades 1,3,5 ripened leaves.

In reading around such ideas and thoughts I came across an interesting study by Zeng et al (2017) investigating whether oolong tea made from leaf and stem has more aromatic smell than leaf-only tea. The study showed that addition of stem itself did not significantly detract from the aroma nor add to it, however considering Zhu et al’s study this is also countered by the argument that the de-enzyming process in oolong production reduced significant amounts of  aromatic compounds such as methyl salicylate, hence suggesting that such ways of processing tea , as in oolong, also potentially “evens” out the aroma that is modulated by size of leaf and difference in leaf material ratios.

This makes me think that in less processed tea types such as found in the family of Hei Cha teas like Sheng, Liu Bao and Tian Jian the various ratios of tea material (leaves, buds & stems) are more likely to have a profound affect on distinct flavour characteristics and aroma profiles of individual productions. It is perhaps also incidental therefore that often these tea types have more stems in their mix, the most notorious being Liu An Zhi from Anhui Province, sometimes know as Liu An “bones” as it is primarily just stems without the “flesh” of its leaves.

Liu An Zhi

Equally possibly explained by the various ratios of  buds, leaves and stems is the fact that those teas which contain a good mix of leaf size and plant material also age better. This may be due to the fact that if different grades of leaf and stems are included in the initial tea blend or recipe there is more opportunity for the different levels of aromatic compounds such as terpenoids to change over time and subject to different conditions, hence why storage with such teas is such a hot debated topic!

 

Zeng L, Zhou Y, Fu X, Mei X, Cheng S, Gui J, Dong F, Tang J, Ma S, Yang Z. Does oolong tea (Camellia sinensis) made from a combination of leaf and stem smell more aromatic than leaf-only tea? Contribution of the stem to oolong tea aroma. Food Chemistry. 2017 Dec 15;237:488-98.
Zhu Y, Shao CY, Lv HP, Zhang Y, Dai WD, Guo L, Tan JF, Peng QH, Lin Z. Enantiomeric and quantitative analysis of volatile terpenoids in different teas (Camellia sinensis). Journal of Chromatography A. 2017 Mar 24;1490:177-90.

 

Comparing Oolongs : Aged v’s AprTea

I was welcomed this evening on arriving home with a generous sample pack from AprTea Online Tea Mall   www.aprtea.com.

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I always welcome new teas to try especially when I’ve not been involved in choosing them myself  as this adds a certain mystery and objectiveness.

Whilst I have not fully embraced the whole “tea review” process as other tea bloggers/writers have done, I thought it would be an opportunity to not only review some new teas but compare my self-aged oolong to the oolong samples generously sent to me by AprTea.

There has been a lot of recent talk in the tea world upon aging oolongs and you can appreciate some of this and my comments at:

https://teadb.org/why-you-should-consider-aging-more-oolong/

https://teadb.org/why-not-age-ooloentsng/#comm

Aging tea takes a certain patience and a bit of basic knowledge, but it is not out of reach of anyone and can lead to some rewarding results. The fact is we still drink more than we age and hence buying aged tea from vendors, particularly Puerh and oolong can be a costly pursuit. As other people have previously commented , oolong is perhaps the easiest and less expensive way of rewarding yourself with some aged tea from your own endeavors.

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Tea #1 (Left) from AprTea.com

2018 Tieguanyin Deep Charcoal Baking Caramel Aroma Grade 1 (Fujian)

Tea #2 (Right) from small production

2014 Cherry wood aged Da Hong Pao Rock Oolong (Fujian)

Both teas were flash brewed in a gaiwan.

Side by side the teas are worlds apart, mainly due to the level of oxidation and difference in production methods. The Tieguanyin is classically uniformly hand balled compared to the Da Hong Pao’s looser material. In the bowl you can also appreciate that the colour of each brew tells its own story around production and roasting. However both teas retain that unmistakable oolong aroma and flavour.

I was somewhat surprised at the lightness and floral notes on the Tieguanyin, especially as the description suggests a deeper roast (the charcoal baking is suggested to have been about 5-12 hours). Both its aroma and taste was reminiscent of other “jasmine” aroma oolongs but still classically thick “Guan Yin” mouth feel,aroma and taste. Despite the suggestion of a “deep” charcoal roast it was delicate in the brew and more easier to lose to astringency when pushed. I did not particularly detect any scent of the charcoal baking but that didn’t distract from its enjoyment.

The aged  Da Hong Pa was smooth, moist and woody. When I tasted this tea back in its first year of production it was very “toasty” , typical of a higher roast oolong that people often describe as “coffee”/”chocolate” profile. This seems to have settled somewhat with aging and at this time provides a flatter but more moist and wet mouth feel, however when pushed these chocolate and coffee notes return with a typical oolong taste and astringency. Its “rock” oolong notes appear to have come to the front more with aging providing that tea-leaf type taste over the roast flavours.

I have commented in recent discussions that I feel the +10 year mark is a good time period for aging oolongs, however if you want to retain some memory of the original tea this can be achieved with a +5 year aged oolong with sufficient changes to still make it an enjoyable venture.

The Tienguanyin from AprTea.com is more delicate than I first imagined and certainly would be a tea I would enjoy on a hot afternoon when I had time to enjoy its profile and aroma, its definately too good to be rushed and certainly the quality is reflected in its price.

The aged oolong definitely needs more years on it in my opinion, but as it stands it has changed from a strong character tea to a more refreshing tea that can be enjoyed in tea sessions with friends when the kettle is on the coals and the water and brews keep flowing.

 

Description or Prescription

The tea world is full of expert opinion many of which can be prescriptive on how to do this or how you should serve certain teas. Personally I find it easier to treat a lot of this opinion as description, that is a source of ideas to do things differently or to do things a different way.

I often come across people who have made expensive (both on economical and personal investment) journeys to try and experience an “authentic” tea tradition only to come away with more confusion and disappointment or just a tick list of what they have seen and what they have done. On these occasions I feel sorry for the Tea that has somehow got lost in the journey and for the individual.

The truth is any tea tradition or practice is as “authentic” as another. What is is right for your practice may not be right for someone else. Granted there maybe some important basics to be considered , water temperature, steeping, storage etc. I have had amazing brews on the road that have been served in plastic water cups ( albeit a little hard to handle with the heat).

The basics on water, steeping, storage etc. should always be taken as description not prescription and when you start to feel “told” how you should do something you should start to question your own intuition and experience.

I’d like to share an story to illustrate this:

A couple of years ago during a trip to China I witnessed a group that had paid for an additional excursion to visit “authentic” tea processing. Some of the group had obviously had a deeper interest in tea and had previously been to a tea outlet and purchased some souvenir cakes to take home. As part of the excursion the group had ended their trip in a local tea house that I had been frequenting and enjoying a break in. One of the group had decided to initiate some international relations by offering a portion of their rather expensive Tae Tea shu teacakes to the host. Within minutes the host had taken the whole 100g cake and boiled it a large container with an addition of some honey and popped rice etc. to the aghast of the donater! The tea was then quickly dispensed to everyone in the tea house, not just the executive group! It was delicious and definitely well received by the weary, however it is no doubt something you wouldn’t particularly decide to do with carefully selected Menghai tea cake!!.

The story illustrates this idea of description over prescription in that if you hold too fast and hard to what you believe is right you do not accumulate knowledge or experience. Equally, what one person understands might be the correct way of doing something or treating a tea might not be your knowledge or experience and neither might be the right way, if indeed a right way truly exists!

Not all Shu is the same!

Although perhaps the most obvious statement its sometimes needs stating that not all ripe Puerh tea (shu) is the same.

Ripe Puerh is often the main choice for daily drinking in mainland China but it has far less popularity with both western tea consumers and diaspora Chinese communities.

I often go into “specialised” tea shops and leave disappointed in that they have only one variety of Shu Puerh, more often than not it is loose, more often than not it is poor quality, possibly because it has been badly stored.

There is a stark contrast with tea shops in China where there are floor to ceiling stacked cakes or cannisters of different factory Shu Puerh proudly displayed and looked after with tender care.

This isn’t to be critical of Western retailers as it is more indicative of cultural patterns of consumption than anything else, but because of this it is easy to slip into the idea or assumption that all Shu Puerh tastes the same and is a similar experience in the cup.

Some of this is down to the fact that the variety of Shu Puerh available can be really limited in retail outlets, additionally I feel that when retailers promote their limited choices they use limited terminology to describe Shu Puerh. Here are a few examples:

“earthy notes”

“earthy, rich & warm”

“mild earthy flavour”

“smooth earthiness”

 

I feel that this restricted language to describe Shu Puerh doesn’t help to promote the variety and difference between different factory productions and different recipes. I could drink a different Shu Puerh everyday and it would be a different experience, equally over-time Shu Puerh will change its flavour profile subtlety, if stored appropriately, leading to new experiences that go beyond the overuse of the descriptor “earthy”.

wodui-3

In order to make Shu Puerh the wet piling (wo dui 渥堆) fermentation process is both highly skilled and can be somewhat expensive process, to not give it appropriate respect and acknowledgement by not experiencing the range of variety and experience in Shu Puerh seems such a shame.

The Menghai Tea Factory is abound with different recipes and productions of Shu Puerh, such that its a good place to start to experience that not all Shu is the same, especially as it was one of the first factories to develop the wet piling process in the 1970s. I can, off the top of my head think of at least 20 well known recipes of Shu Puerh produced by this factory alone , with many more on the catalogue. With such choices you can expect such a range of tastes and flavours that really does prove that not all Shu Puerh is the same, and definitely not restricted to such conservative descriptions as “earthy”.

More expensive Shu productions demonstrates that you can achieve a level of skill and selectivity in both the raw material and final product to produce some real and tangible epicurean delights that is unique in their craftsmanship and experience.