“The first cup is to call back the soul,” explained Majuan in her softly considered heavily accented English.
Her hands had poured water into a small white porcelain pot containing 8g of oolong tea and immediately decanted the water into a round glass lidless teapot. It already had a pale straw colour. She poured the contents into two tiny white porcelain bowls, not much bigger than egg cups. We were encouraged to smell the aroma and then taste. There was a greenness to both, reminiscent of mown lawn after rain on a summer’s day. The hands were preparing our second cup, boiling water added to the same tea leaves, lid on, swirled once and then emptied into the faithful glass teapot.
“A good tea will provide seven cups,” Majuan went on, “It is the mark of quality.”
The colour had changed in those few seconds, a pale rose flush sparkling in the straw liquour under the lights. The taste too. The mown grass was developing flowers. By the third and fourth cup the copper liquid had a glimpse of orchid honey on the top notes as we moved from the lawn to a subtle flowerbed of fragrance.
We were given small sugar biscuits to nibble between each cup. The sweet bread sticks reminded me of Rich Tea circles and I saw them anew; palate cleansers in our own tea making story.
We had begun to select the lid of the swirling pot to smell after she had decanted the tea. The warmth highlighted the delicate changing perfume and I reached into floral and food memories to understand the familiar scents. Freesia appeared by cup six, along with Christmas cake undertones.
“ And now, the last cup is the first cup again, it will be a special surprise.”
Majuan reached for a teapot she had set to one side. It was the first liquid from the leaves and had cooled. We revisited the pale sunshine in our cups and were returned to the fresh vitality of cut grass. The difference was marked.
“It is a journey, like, erm, a circle,” suggested Majuan. “It brings you back to the beginning, of when you called your soul to sit down and drink.”
We had journeyed for over an hour, listening to our young Grade 4 Tea Master explain and describe the place of tea in Chinese culture. She had spoken quietly, thoughtfully and carefully, and we had hung on her every word and movement. Her long black hair hung shining over a pale gold silk qipao coat with self coloured buttons running up to the mandarin collar at her neck. Pale slim hands had woven the tea dance over the preparatory table and we were absorbed by the minutiae of a porcelain, glass, water and tea waltz.
Demonstrating the gift of a tea making ceremony, she had subtly shared her soul with us and her calming peaceful presence balmed our tired travelling ones. We arrived visitors and left as honoured guests and friends.
The tea house sat amidst the Jade Buddha temple and we returned to the courtyard, gently refreshed and steadied, minds washed and awakened to the colours and incense fragrance of a working place of worship. Gold Buddha statues of varying sizes filled each small temple in the complex. Each was decorated with red silk banners, fresh fruit and beautifully painted and carved ceilings. Worshippers bowed three times in reverence and threw coins into boxes, prayers for fertility, financial success, health. Observers stood, phones surreptitiously at work, capturing something of the moment. My camera stayed in the bag. It felt an impersonal invasion in an intimate encounter.
Despite searching we couldn’t find the Jade Buddha of the temple. Sue suggested returning to the tea house to ask advice. Our Tea Master’s student colleague chaperoned us to another set of buildings behind the complex and translated the room guide’s comments for us as we looked on two reclining Buddha statues. One large one, centre stage, was made of white marble and had come from Singapore. The smaller older version from Burma sat in a corner. This was the jade statue of repute and it was beautiful. Sue was convinced that Buddha was a woman due to the female nature of the face. Our chaperone asked the guide why it seemed so.
There was much hand gesticulating around the guide’s smiling face as she clarified in the soft shzyeowing Chinese consonants delivered at machine gun speed.
“The Buddha is a man but he is given a feminine face to show his mercy and gentleness,” our chaperone translated as we walked out of the silence to converse openly.
Shanghai demonstrates a similar hermaphroditic character; a strident dynamic infrastructure populated by over 24 million people who diffidently do life in all directions in close proximity to their neighbours.
We had spent the previous day exploring the Tailors Market and The Bund. The first is a covered shopping hall crammed with kiosks festooned floor to ceiling by cotton, cashmere, jersey and silks in every colour and pattern combination imaginable.
This is the place to have any item for your wardrobe bespoke made at alarming prices. Liz showed me how to haggle and I ordered a shift dress that was finalised at half the asking price and less than that for the same garment in Marks and Spencer’s. Liz, a veteran of the process, made a beeline for the Chinese ceremonial ware and stunned us with a vivid burgundy qipao, the long slim cap sleeved silk dress with a mandarin collar and silk flowered embroidery.
Our next target was The Bund but getting there via the Chinese Uber system took a few attempts. As we waited outside the market, Liz glued to the live updating map on her phone of our taxi’s progress to our pick up point, Sue and I were absorbed by the life rolling past on the road.
Shanghaineans, with a population density of over 3850 persons per square kilometre (London is 1510) are used to life at close quarters and they have a profound ability to flow around each other, irrespective of mode of transport or designated direction of travel. Electric scooters and impossibly laden cargo bikes weave at speed alongside the kerb, not always in the intended direction, phones and fags in hand. A young mother, exasperated by a scaffolding invaded walkway, pushed her baby and buggy onto the road into oncoming traffic. Cars moved around her, a gentle unwritten courtesy at play.
We had already learned how to use the pelican crossing system. The green man gives pedestrians priority and all cars stop, even if they are on their own green light. Scooters however, keep going, slicing our heels or toes with a precision that belies the rider’s phone watching driving style. The vehicle and walker traffic lights have a useful countdown display to the light change and we’re invariably caught rushing across the tarmac as the final few seconds vanish into a red light. The countdown to the green light for cars generates a Le Mans style start, albeit slowly, at each junction and this too is still tempered by a peculiar kindness towards those road users who prefer to do their own sweet thing.
The same interplay of feminine and masculine character are seen in the creativity and structure of The Bund. This riverbank area along the Huangpo is an architectural blend of Mersey, Thames and Flash Gordon 1950s futuramas where old and new cast a skyline of mirrored glass and colonial silhouettes.
At night, Piccadilly Circus, Times Square and Las Vegas are added to the mix and the whole is unscrolled along both sides of a river reflecting a glorious kaleidoscope of vivid colours. It is a dazzling display of exuberance and pride, a temple to Shanghai’s culture and place on the world’s economic stage.
This is proving to be an intriguing trip.