Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Teacups, taller aromatic cups, tea oceans, ceramic pots
-- the equipment's just the beginning when it comes
to brewing the perfect cup of kung fu tea.

Civil rites

Kung fu tea is not a matter
of strength, but of tranquility

By Scott Vogel

We're all aware that tea can relieve a sunburn, and that there's no better plant fertilizer than tea. The dispositions of all sorts of animals can be vastly improved with tea (everything from parakeets to guinea pigs), but of course you knew that already. And it's common knowledge that there's no better way to sanitize Persian rugs or remove fish odors from your hands, and no better cure for plantar warts, black eyes, bee stings, sweaty palms or stinky feet.

But here's one use for tea we didn't come across while scouring the Internet for teapot testimonials: as instant liberation from the modern world and its attendant anxieties. This sort of experience, henceforth known as tea-tripping, is accomplished not via illicit means, nor any peculiar combination of tannic acid and mind-altering alkaloids (though you can become "tea drunk" -- keep reading). Rather, the pathway to peace is paved with industry, specifically an obscure practice known as kung fu, a slow and laborious process of tea preparation that is gradually gaining popularity outside Asia and threatens to develop willy-nilly into a full-blown fad. From the lowly tea shops of Chinatown, to the courtyards of your neighborhood dim sum cafe, to Honolulu's finest hotels and beyond -- kung fu tea is brokering mini-vacations in the most unlikely places, its porcelain pots, aromatic cups and tea oceans becoming a conspicuous sight all over town.

Ornamental scoops are used to transfer precious
leaves from tea canister to pot.

But first, an explication. Calling this brewing technique "kung fu" does not mean you'll be fighting for your tea. Far from it. (You might fight to stay awake while waiting for your tea to brew, but that's another story.) Instead, the term refers to any activity that requires the utmost discipline and concentration. Gabrial Hsieh, who owns Jade Spring Tea and Gifts on Maunakea Street, demonstrated the ritual on a recent afternoon.

"Kung fu does not mean martial arts," he clarified as the water began to boil. "Kung fu means skill, so it takes kung fu to do martial arts. It takes kung fu to perform brain surgery. It takes kung fu to build a proper house. It takes kung fu to brew the tea the way it's intended to be brewed according to how the tea leaves are grown, processed, how old the plant is, the humidity, the tea chef and the specific type of strength."

It does not take kung fu to remove a Lipton teabag from the box, but that's just the point. Tea enjoyment may well be inversely proportional to its ease of preparation, which is why brewing tea is no simple task. In fact, if Hsieh is to be believed, it's brain surgery. Still, one ought not get bogged down in the particulars of the ritual, as Leonard Young, the owner of Teas and Teapots Unlimited, explained while unpacking his portable tea service, including a well-worn clay teapot, onto a table of greasy dim sum on Bishop Street.

Gabrial Hsieh: “If you’re used to black tea, you’re just
drinking for the caffeine, you’re not drinking tea.”

"I teach a (kung fu) course in evening school in Kaimuki, and students often ask me, 'How many teaspoons of tea?' or, 'What is the weight of that amount of tea you're putting in there?' I've had an experience where people have brought out stopwatches, and I look at them and say 'Wait. This is experiential, it is art. Put away all that.' "

It's no wonder that kung fu novices are so cautious, given the precision with which the ritual must be conducted. Before preparing kung fu tea at the Kahala Mandarin a few weeks ago, Lynette Gee passed out a compendious two-page pamphlet with the hotel's fine porcelain cups. "The meticulous form of brewing rare China teas takes time and practice," we read as a light lunch of cucumber sandwiches and cranberry scones was served, "but is well worth the effort in the final cup you will enjoy." Soft music played as Gee spoke of "waking up the soul of the tea," which is what Hsieh and Young spoke of too, even if their voices were frequently drowned out by sirens from the street and the din of the marketplace.

And yet in each case, regardless of venue or practitioner, the effect was the same -- to transport the imbiber to a place far from 21st-century chaos, into a jasmine-scented Xanadu both serene and orderly. The similarity of outcome would seem to indicate that nothing matters -- not tea, not crockery, not water or heat -- as long as the rules of kung fu tea are carefully followed.

Teapots in the images of a boar, left, and a dragon
are the small ceramic pots used in kung fu tea.

The first rule is to buy a good teapot, preferably small and ceramic. Something from the Sung dynasty would be nice. Barring that, you might investigate Chinatown's numerous tea shops. Young might quibble ("it's not about the crockery, it's about your head space") but a good quality pot is still essential, and buying it is just the first step. Next the pot must be "prepared;" you can either do this yourself or enlist the services of companies like Young's.

"It involves taking a pot, washing it, making sure that you get all the particles out, and then simply brewing tea in it until the odor of the clay is absolutely gone," he explained. By this time, the surface of the pot should begin to shine. This indicates a pot's readiness, both now and in the future. "Teapots, if you leave them standing alone for a while, will get dull. That's how you know someone hasn't been using a teapot -- they get real dull."

Hsieh emphasized, in the gravest tones, that one must "use only one kind of tea per pot," and indeed employing a pot for more than one kind of tea is a cardinal sin of kung fu. You can avoid this by either opening your own tea shop like Hsieh, in which case you'll have an endless supply of pots, or drinking only one tea at a time, like Young, who tends to sip the same oolong from his 8-year-old pot for six to nine months at a time. ("It takes about a month to work this teapot in for a new oolong.")

As the ceremony begins, the tea maker boils some water, pouring it onto the pot, teacups, aromatic cups and other utensils, which are positioned on a tea tray (called a tea ocean) that catches all the water. This accomplishes the dual purpose of cleaning and warming the cups and pot.

Next, the all-important tea is placed into the pot. Gee used a bamboo scoop to fill the vessel halfway with tea. As befits the starched atmosphere of the Kahala Mandarin, she served a rare tea known as White Peony, an unusual smoky-flavored blend that's a favorite of men, she said, "because it smells like cigars." Young served a full-bodied spring oolong (yes, the leaves were harvested this spring), while Hsieh favored a high mountain green oolong he imports himself. Prices are all over the map for good quality teas, starting at about $12.98 for 150 grams and going up to almost $200. Most tea shops have their own kung fu recommendations, and as a novice you'll need to find a tea proprietor you can trust.

The kung fu ritual now underway, boiling water is poured onto the leaves, after which a very unceremonious thing happens -- the water is immediately thrown out. It turns out that we've only just begun to prepare the leaves, which are now unfurling and beginning to bare their souls for the drinker. Water is again poured into the teacups to keep them warm.

"The Chinese consider the second cup the best tasting one," said Gee, and indeed the second infusion is critical. The tea steeps for just 30 seconds, or sometimes a minute, a process that is either always timed with a stopwatch (Hsieh, Gee) or never (Young). At last the tea is poured into the aromatic cups and then transferred to drinking cups, each of which holds roughly a thimble's worth of tea. The tea maker should be careful to pour for the guests slowly, in a clockwise direction, skipping from cup to cup ("like the flight of the dragonfly" said Gee), ensuring that each tea-tripper gets a cup of similar strength. You should sniff the tea's bouquet from aromatic cups and then further savor the fragrance by slurping slowly from the teacup. Three to five more infusions may be made from the same leaves, and the ritual generally continues until everyone has reached a pleasant state of contemplation or someone becomes "tea drunk."

That's right. It can happen.

"In the state of Hawaii, there's only a few people who've actually experienced it," said Gabrial Hsieh, noting that the condition is often characterized by intense giggling coupled with errors in judgment (e.g., "I'll take the $200 tea!"). We wondered who these few tea lushes might be, a mystery quickly solved when Young was asked if he'd ever been tea drunk. "Yes -- with Gabrial," he confided. "You feel woozy on your feet and find yourself speaking nonsense as if you've been drinking a whole bottle of wine by yourself." So if coffee and tea are given to sober up a liquor drunk, how do you sober up a tea drunk? Give them liquor? Pshaw! If you ever find yourself schnockered on tea, Young has a simple solution. "The antidote for this is to go and suck on a piece of hard candy. That will drive it away very rapidly."

Based on the preceding description, kung fu tea may not sound like anything special. And indeed it does seem that an enormous amount of labor goes into a few sips of blond-colored liquid, however aromatic. But that's because you've been brainwashed by Western culture's fast-food mentality (capitalist pig!), a mindset that with any luck will soon be a relic of the past, whereas kung fu -- with its ethic of patience and economy -- may well herald the arrival of a small-is-beautiful 21st century.

Then again, kung fu might be just another cheap, corny fad for our throw-away culture to alight upon, only to discard quickly what it so recently embraced. Either way, one imagines, the tea titans of Honolulu are ready, however fleeting their success at getting us to stop and smell the jasmine will be.

"It requires that you take a break," Young said, "that you focus in on what you are doing. So you stop what's going in your life experience for that moment. And you just sit down and try to enjoy the tea." It's tea ceremony as aesthetics lesson, tea-tripping as meditation, deductive logic spun forth from an ancient ceremony. "But remember the one premise," Hsieh said, "that everything you do is for that fine cup of tea."

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