A Timeless Teahouse
I stepped through the doorway, took off my shoes and slid into a pair of Chinese slippers. The floor was of varnished mahogany, the furniture inside the teahouse similarly polished to a high sheen, with quintessential Chinese designs finely engraved into every nook and cranny. In the far corner stood a man, dressed in traditional clothing – of which tradition it was hard to tell – with a silver teapot in his hand and a serene smile on his face.
Yarndet ‘Mc’ Chumchuwat, the owner of Huan Fu Long tea house, was expecting me. He invited me to sit at what could best be described as a small tea bar, with an assortment of curious Chinese snacks laid out before me and a small Chinese teacup about the size of a dipping sauce bowl, decorated with elegant reeds, fish and budding flowers, ready to be filled.
After greeting each other, Mc asked me, “do you have time?” to which my positive response received a small smile and the reply, “Good. Tea takes time.”
He gently took a silver teapot off the stove, steam slowly billowing out of the spout. His tea preparation tray, made from beautifully engraved wood with a finish smoother than silk, was ornately decorated with several clay-china figures of frogs and a little boy, and a large teacup filled with dried tea leaves ready to be brewed.
As he poured hot water over the leaves, but Mc asked “Do you know Jurng Dab?” I didn’t soon learnt that it was a traditional Lanna form of ritualistic dance with swords. According to Mc, the tradition harks back to a time now forgotten, where everyone in Lanna used to carry swords with them wherever they went.
As he transferred the brewed tea into yet another cup, Mc explained that he had moved to Chiang Mai many years ago to study this skill and soon fell in love with Lanna culture. After many years studying under a master and discovering more about Lanna, Mc turned his curious eyes towards Southern China, specifically Yunnan’s Sipsong Panna region, which shares much cultural heritage with Chiang Mai. “To this day, the native Chinese people on the hills of Sipsong Panna still speak a dialect almost identical to northern Thai,” he said while swilling the tea leaves in the cup before pouring the delicate tea into a small pouring jug. “Lanna and South China are one and the same, except Lanna has forgotten its tea culture.”
Mc knows how to talk, and as he performed his tea ritual, washing cups, swishing tea leaves and changing bowls in a seamless and constant flow, he kept me spellbound with a running commentary on what he was doing, interspersed with cultural tales and historical anecdotes. “You first need to warm the cup,” he said pouring the liquid on the tea making tray, which proceed to glug down a small hole in the bottom. “Secondly you need to prepare the cup for tea.” This involves pouring the first serving of tea into the cups, swilling them around with mesmerising chorography before pouring the tea over the little clay-china statues. I was invited to sniff the teacup, which now gave off a sweet aroma.
“I collected a lot of Chinese antiques over my life,” Mc told me waving one hand at the antique-jammed tea house while finally pouring me a cup of tea. “Antiques have a quality and a history that people see no value in. But in these times, such qualities are now almost impossible to find.”
“My desire is to bring culture from the past into the modern day and make it available for everyone. Tea is an art, which can be shared with everyone, just like Juern Dab.”
I took my first sip. A hot delicate but powerful tea flavour which had my taste buds dancing and despite my lifelong British preference for builders’ tea infused with a dollop of milk and six cubes of sugar, had to admit that there was something special about what I was drinking. “All my tea has history,” Mc said. “The tea you are drinking comes from tea trees that are over 300 years old,” he said before – incongruously – whipping out his smartphone and showing me photos of large tea trees. “All these trees are in the forest,” Mc said to me while heating up more water. “Ping Tao is what the area is called, and some trees are over 1000 years old and up to 50 metres tall. One kilogram of spring tea leaves from a 300 year old tree can cost over 70,000 baht.”
“Drinking tea brings about peace and respect for culture and history,” he told me as he stepped down and passed the mantle of ritual to a member of staff. “A tea master should follow the tea making traditions of Ru Yu, the first master of tea who lived around 617 BC. Ru Yu said that the host may only serve tea three times to a guest,” he explained while he offered me a stick of sour ma-yom, a type of Chinese cranberry, to chew on. “The first is the welcome cup, the second is a cup served to celebrate the conversation or perhaps a business deal, and the third is to let the guest know it is time to go.”
It was obviously not my time to go, so I continued to listen to him talk, telling me tales of history, culture and tradition. He told me how teahouses in ancient China (and Lanna) used to be places to meet and talk business, catch up with old friends, or even just a place to play mahjong. The more he talked the more tea I sipped, and soon I was entranced by the rhythm, not just of the conversation, but of the ritual.
To highlight the timelessness of the teahouse, Mc asked me to look at the clock. “What time did you come in?” he asked smiling. I looked at the clock and realised that an amazing three hours had already passed. At this point he stood up, walked around to the other side of the bar and proceeded to serve me his second cup of tea, I had a warm glow from the realisation that he felt our conversation merited celebration. I was beginning to grasp the concept of what a teahouse is – a place to escape time, talk, exchange and discover now things.
The tea house has only been open a month, and Mc admits that he is no tea master, but having spent time with many, and with an obvious passion for it all, he looked pretty masterly and mystical to me! And as time seeped by and yet another, smokier, tea was poured, I realised that I hadn’t taken any notes in the past hour or so.
“Destiny is what has brought us together right now,” Mc told me. “You could be sitting right next to somebody but if it was not your destiny to meet, you never will. My teahouse brings only those who were destined to meet each other, and through that destiny we become who we are today.”
Mc believes heavily in the concept of ‘Fu’ – so much so that it is part of the name of his teahouse. ‘Fu’ means rich, but not just in the monetary sense. ‘Fu’ means to be rich in all aspects of life. Rich in Happiness. Rich in wealth. Rich in health. Rich in family. Rich in tradition. Rich in understanding. “My only desire is to attain ‘Fu’,” said Mc while he reached for tea leaves he told me were picked from an ancient tree over 35 years ago, priced at 100,000 baht a kilo, steeping them in hot water.
I snapped back to reality when I noticed Mc pouring me my third cup, this time dark and rich – a liquid antique. I took my timing sipping this rare tea, but I also knew it was time to go. Before getting up, I glanced at the clock only to realise that over four hours had passed since I walked through the doors.
Mc noticed my stunned expression and smiled at me. A mutual understanding was reached that time was irrelevant and that we had both found a little ‘Fu’ in one another. On the way out he laughed about how his family liked to ask him about his profits. “If through my teahouse I become rich in friends and I am happy, then that is all the wealth I need. I sell a set of tea that can be enjoyed for hours by several people for just 500 baht, but the exchanges we share and the trades that are made in my teahouse are what makes it valuable.”
Open daily 9am – 9pm
28/2 Chiang Mai – Lampang Road (Superhighway), Soi Tawarit
Facebook: Huang Fu Long
Tel. 052 086668 / 086 9111588