Friday, August 28, 2009

唐韵茶坊The Rhyme of Tang Teahouse

(The humble entrance of the tea house.)

This is how the tea house that I went to works:

(Array of food accompanied by pots of tea. )
I definitely come across more Starbucks cafes than tea houses in Shanghai. Hopefully, it was because of the iconic symbol that I could recognize and also because of its ability to possess the most strategic locations where most people will pass by.

I come across a lot of tea shops that sell a variety of tea leaves and products but they are not tea houses as they are mainly shops for selling tea leaves than to allow people to spend time there.

Anyway, I was lucky to discover one tea house that is traditional enough for me and it is not far to walk to. There are other tea houses with a very modern outlook that serve cakes and fusion food which is really not my cup of tea.

(The sofa area which is our favourite area.)

This is how the tea house that I went to works:

There is a minimum charge of 58 yuan per person which means that that is the price of the cheapest tea available. There is no upper limit for the price of tea that one can order. You pay for the price of your tea and the price comes with a free flow of hot water, a free flow of food in the form of dry snacks and fruits. There is no limitation to the amount that you eat. There are at least 20 types of snacks to choose from if you can get used to the idea of Chinese snacks. The price also includes a meal, either lunch or dinner set where you can select a dish of your choice from its limited menu and it comes with rice, steamed egg and a soup. However, there is a restriction of up to 6 hour stay from Friday to Sunday. There is no service charge or VAT. And the teahouse stays open till 1am.

Shanghai in puddles in August

We must have brought the rain from the UK to Shanghai which is a blessing in August.

It is already into the depth of summer in Shanghai and I cannot forget my scorching memory of my last Shanghai trip in summer. It was hotter and more humid than Singapore.

But this year, the maximum temperature that we got was barely 30 d.c. We hardly had any proper sunshine. The sky was mostly overcast. From the third day onwards, a day won’t pass without rain and the rain lingers, reminding us of the British style rain.

豫园Yu Yuan/Yu Garden

(The Yu Yuan bazaar begins.)

I knew Yu Yuan was a tourist trap and left out this place the last time I visited Shanghai. I went this time and was glad that I did. We went there on a Sunday and the whole place was flooded with local and overseas tourists.

The attraction is mainly the Yu Garden of the Ming Dynasty, a show piece of a classical Chinese garden, but I have definitely seen far superior ones in Suzhou, a place where the best of Chinese gardens are located.

There is a popular tea house in the middle of a man-made lake, called Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse and yes, I can guess that it is only popular with tourists as it charges 50 yuan for a person for tea.

(Micro-inscription of a Buddhist scripture on a piece of stone. One can see the patterns of the stone under strong lighting.)

Yu Yuan Bazaar

But I must admit that I am attracted to the Yu Yuan bazaar which is just next to the garden. It is a modern building of Chinese architecture and is a concentration of stalls that sell things from souvenirs to traditional Chinese products. Sieving through the labyrinths of souvenir stalls, one can still find a lot of genuinely art pieces at the bazaar.

There is a huge number of tea shops selling tea leaves to tea sets and tea pots and you can get to sample the tea first before actually buying. You can find Chinese paintings and equipment as well, not to mention some Chinese musical instruments. There is also a proper tea house just across the road before the bazaar starts.

Folk Arts

The most interesting section is the area where the stalls of folk arts are and it is really an eye-opener to different forms of art. It is a real pity that these stalls are all located in one tiny corner of the bazaar and people are selling their art forms in an unappreciated manner, in my opinion.

(Ink painting on a leaf with a poem from Zheng Banqiao (Qing Dynasty) that praises the strength of bamboos that allows them to thrive in the harshest conditions.)

We come across a stall of leaf painting where one paints directly onto the veins of a leaf. The stall next door is a man who specializes on micro carving on stones. He could inscribe a full length Chinese poem or lyrics onto a piece of stone that one can only read the inscriptions under the help of a macro lens. There is also a stall that can weave leaves into any life-like creatures.

I am most fascinated by a stall showcasing traditional ink paintings of classical Chinese mountainous sceneries. I am drawn in by the fact that one can almost feel the different texture of the mountains, the rocks and the flowing water in the paintings. And all these are actually “painted” by either palm or fingers. If I haven’t seen the lady demonstrating right before our eyes, I will never have guessed that from the look of the paintings that all these are painted by alternative methods.

These are arts! But why can they only be treated like dirt cheap “folk arts”? One needs equally the aesthetical vision to compose and a certain level of technique to produce such a mesmerizing effect as much as oil paintings or sculptures. There must be a better way of preserving, promoting and managing these “folk arts”.

(Palm or finger painting.)

The Right of Choices in Communistic China

I simply cannot imagine how Shanghai was like during those days of communism before the 1980s.

These days, Shanghai is like a mecca of consumerism.

Browsing through their supermarkets, we were mesmerized by the variety of choices that they have to offer. Singapore definitely pales in comparison in this aspect.

While they do not have our tropical flavours, Shanghainese certainly have others to fill in the space. You can find a huge selection of bottled tea drinks that can be branched into milk tea, green tea, black tea, pu’er tea and oolong tea category. And the branches can be further classified into a range of flavours eg. For green tea alone, one can find choices among green tea with honey, jasmine green tea or lemon green tea. Not to mention the range of fruity drinks, yoghurt drinks and fruit juices to offer.

What is so surprising is that the food products that fall outside the typical Chinese dietary range can be found in a large variety of flavours. They seemed to have localized some imported food products like the potato chips. Apart from the boring salted chips, they have flavours like cucumber, lime, blueberry (yes, it’s blueberry, no doubt about it), kiwi fruit and lychee to tempt your tastebuds too.

C fell in love with a pomelo drink while I am still on the search for my favourite drink. There is just too much to try out. Potato chips of cucumber and lime flavours are currently on my list of favourites.

Green Oasis

There is no lack of trees and parks in Shanghai.

(A painting created with a scenery that is “borrowed” from the other side of the wall, bridging in the two spaces that were separated by the wall and at the same time, keeping a distance between these two worlds.)

Just right in front of C’s apartment, there is Guangqi Park, named after a Ming scientist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) who spent his life promoting practical science and criticizing Chinese society for the decline of science and mathematics. He was the first Chinese to introduce Western science and technology into China by translating some of the works into Chinese. The surprising fact is that he was converted to Roman Catholicism under the influence of an Italian Jesuit and even got an English name for himself—Paul! Paul was buried in this park while that Italian Jesuit was buried in Beijing.

(As the gigantic wheel of time rolls forward, some old men chose to relish in their forgotten Times. An old man playing on his musical instrument for his friend.)

Guangqi Park is not large in terms of size but it does give one a false sense that it is bigger than its actual size. Playing with the sense of space is one of the techniques most commonly used in traditional Chinese gardens. Winding lane is one of the techniques.

Guangqi Park is a place of “happening” as there always seem to be a variety of activities. I came across a man playing on his er hu (two stringed musical instrument), accompanying another old man who sang in Chinese opera styles. There is a dance group at one corner, figuring out their steps. The other day, I met a couple practising their taichi fists. Some individuals laze about the park, relaxing in the serenity. There are others who found the park a nice place for a siesta.

(Enchanting doorway that functions as an exit and an entrance simultaneously, transporting you from one area of the park to another and thus creating a space within a space.)

There is a museum of Xu Guangqi adjoining the park and it was informative, in my opinion. I discovered that the technology of agriculture in China was already compartmentalized in the 16th century, depicting the importance and the advanced level of agriculture in those days.

(There is a Chinese saying that depicts the joy in the company of friends: A thousand cups of wine is thought to be far too few in the company of confidants; half a word is thought to be far too much spoken in the company of friends who don’t share the same frequency.)

(”Little emperor” (term used to describe pampered children borned in the administration of one-child policy) running amuck in the park with his granny tailing him.)

There were some personal letters written by Xu Guangqi on display but I found it difficult to decipher his cursive writing and classical Chinese. From the parts that I could understand, these personal letters to home read more like a dissertation.

(A green oasis in Guangqi Park.)

Banking Business

It’s all about business and competition.

C has to set up a bank account. The branch was packed with people and I wanted to faint at the sight of the queue. But we managed to get all our business done in less than one and a half hour’s time (including waiting time and fumbling about to familiarize with their procedures).

C set up an account, got an ATM card with a pin number of his preference with immediate effect, set up his internet banking and got a one-time access pin to his internet banking. All these done on the spot even though he’s not a local. He was able to purchase an USB key on the spot that would enable him to access his internet banking on any computers. There was also a staff there to demonstrate all the downloading procedures on the computer to him and she also helped him to register as a first time user. It was all a breeze.

I never knew to appreciate all these till my classic encounter with HSBC UK.

It was a simple request, in my experience, to open an account so as to deposit my cash at HSBC UK. Naïvely, I brought with me one huge stack of notes to the bank. I couldn’t even get to the counter before I was stopped at the door.

You have to make an appointment to get the form to apply for an account. (I tried my best to hide my shock.)

Could I get the form and fill it in straightaway and submit it to you now?

No. You need an appointment to get the form and to submit the form. The earliest appointment is one week from now. There are just too many Chinese students who want to start accounts with HSBC now.

Yes, I understand it’s the busy time of the year. (But this is a bank and it is not started overnight. You must have predicted it and done something to forestall it!? Setting up an account is the most basic thing for a bank to do!)

Ok. This is a different country and I have to be open-minded to all the differences that I might encounter. So I went back to the bank after one week—just to get the form. I was told to make another appointment to submit the form. Which is another one week’s wait. So I brought my stack of notes back to my accommodation again. I went back with the notes the following week to discover that I still have to wait for my debit card to be processed. Then I have to go down to the bank personally to receive my debit card before I can actually deposit my cash.

It took me almost a month to do a simple task—open an account.

Till now, I still find that it was amazing of me not to fly off the handle. I have never been this patient for my entire life. I merely switched off my logic completely and did not dare to question about the way the UK banks work at all. Else, I will go crazy.

I have the money at hand and I wasn’t even asking for a credit loan but I was made to feel like BEGGING them to take in my money!

So my notes worth of a few thousand pounds lay in my drawer of my little room for more than 3 solid weeks before they could be accepted by HSBC UK. And I really have to thank my lucky stars.

That was already the 21st century. Or was it?

Xu Jia Hui (徐家汇)in compact form

C’s apartment is located in the Xu Jia Hui district, about a few stops away from the centre of Shanghai. But it is self-sufficient and thus, we spent a week in this district by foot without the need of venturing out of this district.

There is a nice little park across the road. Supermarkets (big and small), wet markets, convenient stalls, eateries, restaurants, confectionaries (yes, it seems that Shanghainese has taken a liking to bread!), cafes, small tea shops and gigantic shopping malls can all be found just within walking distance of the apartment. There is even a small Japanese village where one can find a small concentration of Japanese restaurants.

IKEA is also within walking distance. Local and international banks are dotted along a road which is just 3 minutes’ walk from the apartment. And not to mention, the huge electronics malls in the vicinity! So we managed to set up our 3G connection and bank account, bought a Chinese SIM card, some electrical appliances, cleaning products, cutlery all in Xu Jia Hui without having to take any transport. Dental clinics are also nearby.

The love is too strong

The first time I became someone else’s love was at a bakery in Arundel as I was being called “my love” by the lady behind the cash counter. I found such affection towards strangers a little too much for me to appreciate. I am getting used to it now.

In my concept, love has to be a very strong feeling. So either that lady is extremely compassionate, or that her love is simply a way to address someone and if this is the case, then “my love” can be rendered as an empty phrase then.

I have also learnt to express my thanks to the bus driver openly in Europe whenever I alight the bus. A Jordanese friend of mine found it bizarre having the need to say “thank you” to the person who sold her a tube of toothpaste in England. For us, all these services are part of the transactions that we have paid for--they are within expectation and nothing exceptional, and therefore needless to express gratitude to.

“Gratitude” is a strong word and so is “thank you”. For some, “thank you” holds a deeper meaning than just a way to end a transaction and therefore it has to be used meaningfully and only when you receive help from others. For instance, someone has given the directions to a place or someone has picked up your belonging that you have dropped.

Japanese, at least in Asia, is renowned for their courtesy in service industry. Their smiles, bows, mannerisms must be perfect in order to achieve the perfection of courtesy. It is no longer a matter of courtesy but professionalism in courtesy. It certainly makes everyone’s day a pleasant one to be treated like a queen or a king!

Finding perspectives in China……

Until now, I still find China to be the most difficult place for me to travel to despite having the convenience of knowing the language and sharing the same ancestry of the ethnic Chinese.

I find it easier to travel across Eastern Europe than to travel in China, even in a convenient city like Shanghai. Never even for once can I travel to China without having to quarrel with the locals right in the public.

In my opinion, the level of difficulty in travelling has nothing to do with the knowledge of the local language. I have the experience of “mooing” as a cow in order to buy a can of beef in a shop in Warsaw; I have tried using charade and objects to ask for the length of time to get to the bus station in Hutna Nora in Czech Republic; I have tried asking for direction in Vilnius by simply pointing to the name of the place which pronunciation failed me. A lot of the logistics work in the way that you would expect and most of the people that I met were patient and kind and all these help to make travelling so much easier.

A)The art of being rude

Surprisingly, China is a country which is culturally and socially different for me altogether. Many logistics and mentality of the locals are simply beyond my understanding and tolerant level.

I used to find the list of followings to be very stressful or unacceptable:

- haggling for virtually anything;

- hygiene level (littering and spitting);

- mannerisms: people shouting at you; throwing your change onto the counter; no apologies when people bumped into you accidentally

- no queues or to cut queues;

- to be stared at explicitly from head to toe;

- there doesn’t seem to have any order at all for anything…..

But……the years of living in the UK have helped me to look at all these in a different light.

The thick line between rude and indifferent

I used to find mainland Chinese rude.

But I have learned it through the hard way that there is a distinctive difference between “being not outwardly polite” and “being deliberately rude”. In my opinion, rude is more of the attitude than the mannerism. It is the deliberate attempt to be nasty to someone which I find it to be rude. Courtesy is simply not about saying “thank you” or “sorry” or being addressed in the form of “my love” or giving the perfect smile or 90 degree bow.

I had the following encounters in the UK, a place renowned for courtesy and gentlemen…..

To enter a local pub in England and to be scorned by the locals.

A cyclist and a pedestrian using the four letter F word on me for no apparent reason when they passed by me.

To be made faces at by a stranger on a pedestrian walkway.

To be scorned at by teenagers in public places or to be stoned at.

To be served by a cashier that chose his customers to demonstrate his courtesy to: I noticed he always, without fail, thanked his Caucasian customers for their patronage but when it came to me, he just returned the change to me without a word of “thank you” or even eye contact.

Now, looking in retrospect at the “rude” encounters years ago while travelling in China, they don’t seem to be rude any more in comparison. They were more of a “can’t be bothered” mentality than being deliberately nasty to me.


Some Chinese have the habit of shouting when they speak. Amusingly, that’s the way some of them speak—talking very loudly, in Singapore and Hong Kong as well. I find Taiwanese more “well-mannered” in this aspect.

The habit of talking loudly probably has something to do with the crowded living conditions in the Chinese cities where one has to raise his/her voice in order to be heard. Shanghai city alone supports a population of 13 million.

Sometimes, you will be spoken to by passers-by in a very direct manner without the use of appropriate address or even a hello to start off with. Then they will scurry to their business once they got the information that they want. It’s a point-and-shoot attitude with not an extra second to spare.


If their philosophy in life is fighting to get one’s chance, then queuing will lead you no where.

This is certainly getting better now than my first visit to Shanghai in 2002. I witnessed my Shanghainese friend then queuing faithfully while people kept cutting her queue to get a train ticket. People have no regard for others as they place themselves foremost than anybody else. It’s all about the survival mentality.

But now I see queues at ticket machines, cashiers and ATM machines. Still, there is always the tendency for some people trying to pounce on every opportunity to jump queue. I still get a bit agitated by people trying their luck on me.


To be honest, I am surprised I don’t get bumped into in Shanghai even though it is such a busy city. Sometimes the walkway is only 3 feet wide and there are pedestrians coming in the opposite direction from me at the same time and I still will not be bumped into (there will be some amount of contact). There are people everywhere!

Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists sometimes share the same pedestrian walkway and no one follows any rules of any kind and yet, I don’t feel that kind of stress that I felt when shopping at ASDA where people just pushed you away with their bodies or with their shopping carts. That was rude.

To my shock, I have not even for once been touched by any cars, motorist, cyclists in Shanghai while crossing the road when they were practically running all over the place with no regard to traffic rules.



You get stared at very openly for being foreign-looking. I do get the stares as well if I were to travel away from the cities into the less “city” areas. They are not meant to be malicious. It is definitely the result of curiosity. You will certainly not get those disgusted expressions or swear words that I used to get in the UK for being foreign. So I am perfectly at ease now of being stared at.

But if you are a scantily clothed female, that might be a different story altogether.


I can feel a very strong sense of survival over here.

Mr. T’s parents were borned in Mainland China before migrating to Singapore at an early age. His parents told him that they have to compete for every single thing in their village in China. That was their way of life, or to be more accurate, to survive. When resources and opportunities are scarce, there is an absolute need to compete.

The competitive trait in the average Chinese is strong. From getting a seat to making payment at the counter or achieving the best result in each field. Everyone seems to be fighting for their own survival right in their own way. If they don’t compete, they will be easily over taken by millions of others. I find this very tiring though.

Boarding a bus in the UK is easy as there are always more than enough seats for the passengers. There is no need to compete for a seat at all. For a bus in Chinese cities where the number of passengers is always greater than the number of seats, everyone has to push their way onto the bus to secure a seat. Queuing makes no sense to them at all.

Penalty for being foreign

If your foreign nationality is discovered, you will certainly be ripped off by hawkers. I used to HATE this mentality.

But after being legally and consistently ripped off by governments and big companies (utilities companies, petrol companies……) and international brands that “rip off” cheap labour markets so as to further consolidate their empire, what does the rip-off from these minors amount to? At least the money goes directly to these individuals and at least they are trying all kinds of means to improve their lives rather than sitting on their backsides waiting for social benefits (there isn’t any anyway). Finally, I succumbed to this idea of “penalty for foreigners”—rip-off.


Having said all of that, it does help to make your day a pleasant one to have someone saying “thank you” and “sorry” when you go about your daily chores. It will be most delightful if only everyone can follow the order and be less competitive. It will also be a blessing if some people can avoid spitting in public places.

B)The issue of cleanliness

We certainly have little or no regard to hygiene. Chinese dominated areas can never be clean. Our government spent 20 years educating us not to spit in public places and it was not until the penalty came into force that we saw any outcome of the “education”.

As for litter, it might come as a surprise if I were to say that I find Shanghai cleaner than Manchester or Blackburn. Given the size of the population (Manchester: 2 millions; Blackburn: 1/10 of a million) and given the fact that so much council tax contribution collected, Manchester and Blackburn are poorly maintained in terms of cleanliness. Imagine putting 13 million people in either one of these places. One football match in Manchester Stadium alone seems to generate more rubbish than the whole of Shanghai.

While in Shanghai, I saw many faithful blue uniform attired cleaners clearing litter off roads and pedestrian walkways with their primitive tools throughout the day. I was surprised to see trucks spraying water on the roads although I wonder how effective that would be in cleaning the roads.