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Tea houses learn to infuse ancient with modern
www.chinaview.cn 2006-02-03 20:00:18

    BEIJING, Feb. 3 --If Confucius came back to life, what would he recognize in modern China?

    Not our houses and clothes, not the books we read (he never saw paper in his life), not many of the characters we use, and not the way we talk. But if he were to be given a reception in a Beijing tea house, he would easily recognize the fragrance. Tea has not changed.

    Those tiny dry leaves in dark green and light brown date reportedly back five millenniums, both as a healing drink (an antidote) and a sacrificial item in religious ituals.

    The Chinese character cha, meaning tea, was in the nation's first dictionary Erya, compiled in the early Han Dynasty 2,100 years ago.

    Tea is older than the name of China, but in the face of modernization and competition from global giants like Starbucks, can it survive?

    This used to be a major concern in the 1990s. It was a time when huge swarms appeared for the opening celebration of Beijing's first Starbuck's coffee in 1999, while barely anyone showed up for the opening of the city's first privately-owned Wufu Tea House.

    "People laughed at us and said we were flushing money into the toilet," Tan Bo, chief executive of Wufu, told China Daily.

    In fact, for the first two years, Wufu Tea House was running at a loss subsidized by the proprietor's restaurant business. That was a time when "local people used to drink jasmine tea with a big bowl," Tan said. "They thought to price a cup of tea at 50 yuan (US$6.10) was ridiculous."

    But now Wufu has 12 outlets in Beijing, with a plan to open two more in 2006. Elsewhere in Beijing, the number of tea houses registered with the municipal market regulatory agency rose from 460 in 2003 to 570 in 2004. Tea is becoming increasingly popular for middle-class homes and for conferencing and catering services.

    But certainly the most salient feature of the tea renaissance this decade is being able to sip tea in a tea house.

    "We are targeting the higher-income earners," Tan said. "They are mostly above 30 with monthly income of more than 5,000 yuan (US$616)."

    It is in some ways like the fashion industry different kinds of tea are in fashion in different years. For example, customers can choose green tea, black tea, Oolong tea, white tea, Pu Erh or other fruit blend tea. The tea ceremony, consisting of at least 18 procedures, is also a visual enjoyment for customers.

    "Eastern culture makes more sense to middle-aged people, who have been through the opening and reforming ages in modern China," Tan said. "Now they long for something under their skin."

    The concept of health sells well among middle-class people who develop an awareness of living a healthy life. Green tea, which has been used as a medicine in China for at least 4,000 years, is known for reducing the risk of cancer, infection and impaired immunity.

    Drinking tea is very healthy, "making a tea house the perfect place to go after a greasy dinner," she said. "It helps digestion and there is no worry about putting on extra weight."

    Second office

    Liu Bingzhou, a property developer in his 40s, told China Daily that each year he spends up to 50,000 yuan (more than US$6,000) on his tea collection and, more importantly, visiting tea houses. Liu is a frequenter of Wufu and holds its golden VIP card.

    "I used to drink a lot of coffee and little tea," he recalled. "That's about 10 years ago when China was just opening up and anything from the West was in fashion."

    Eight years ago, he said, he stopped drinking coffee after his discovery of the tea house in 1998.

    Liu explained: "The difference between coffee and tea is that coffee makes me feel edgy but tea calms me down, although they both have a refreshing effect."

    Moreover, Liu said he was also attracted to the environment of the tea house. "The quiet and soothing atmosphere here is good for thinking, and for communicating with my business partners."

    One of Wufu outlets on Fuchengmenwai street is Liu's favourite place. Sitting in a 20,000 yuan (US$2,466) Chinese classic red wood chair, he said he has made this his second office by showing up at least twice a week.

    "I make my big deals here," Liu said, sipping a cup of Tieguanyin tea from Anxi County in East China's Fujian Province, one of the top teas in China. "This place is very special for me."

    Business customers

    "Beijingers treat their business partners in a restaurant with Peking duck," Tan said. "Now they drink tea afterwards."

    "Many business people in town drove to our tea house and waited for a seat," Tan recalled. Since then, increasing numbers of new tea houses in the capital have heated up the competition.

    The key to success in the tea house business is how well you can serve the middle-aged business community.

    Eyeing growing business customers, even famous tea houses followed suit. Among them was Laoshe Tea House, where Taiwan Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan visited when he made his ice-breaking trip to Beijing in April 2005.

    Located in Qianmen, the most prosperous commercial area of old Beijing and neighbouring Tian'anmen Square, Laoshe Tea House is famous for its old-Beijing taste and is a must see for tourists since it was founded in 1988.

    At Laoshe, visitors can watch traditional Chinese performances, drink jasmine tea from a teacup with a lid, and enjoy traditional Beijing-style snacks and delicacies.

    Clearly, tea at Laoshe is not the only element. "No stage no Laoshe," said Yin Zhijun, who inherited it from her father Yin Shengxi, who is renowned for his efforts to protect the Beijing folk culture.

    In 1990s, Yin junior worked in the Beijing Hotel before grudgingly joining her family business.

    "When working as a waitress at Laoshe, I saw the value of traditional Chinese folk art through the eyes of our foreign guests," Yin said. "They were constantly surprised, and applauded non-stop."

    Knowing that the stage appeals mainly to tourists, this year, Laoshe Tea House redecorated its second floor in the style of a traditional Beijing courtyard so as to attract more business customers. Each room costs 90 yuan (US$11) per hour and 10 yuan (US$1.2) each guest.

    "There is a big demand for the business style tea house," Yin said. Laoshe's customers are government officials, diplomats and company mangers in Beijing.

    "When they have friends visiting from abroad or other parts of China who want to see real Beijing, they bring them here," Yin said, "not only to watch our show, but also to talk about business."

    Annual output of the tea house industry across the country reached nearly 10 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) last year and nationwide there are more than 50,000 tea houses, mainly in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Chengdu. With this level of demand for tea houses, what price all the tea in China? Enditem

(Source: China Daily)

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