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Brewing up tea culture
THE old image of Chinese teahouses - dark brooding spaces, steam swirling in the air, ancient boxes filled with precious loose leaves or compressed discs looking like an emperor's secret stash of recreational opium - is just that. Old. But you know what they say about old things - they don't die, they just hang around until somebody makes them hip again.
For more than two decades, Tea Bone Zen Mind's Carrie Chen has been single-mindedly shaping a renaissance of Chinese tea. Those who know of her would have followed her from her first shop in Liang Seah Street before she moved to Seah Street, then to a conservation shophouse in Hoot Kiam Road, and now into her brand new digs in not one, but two houses in the genteel enclave of Emerald Hill.
She still does what she always has - sourcing and selling fine quality Chinese, Japanese and English teas and artisanal teaware, creating her own blends, packaging them beautifully and conducting tea ceremonies and lessons on tea appreciation. But she feels the time is right to take her teahouse concept onto the world stage - by creating a modern, cosmopolitan setting for people of all nationalities to enjoy the art of tea drinking. "It's about creating a contemporary environment for tradition to thrive," explains the 45-year-old. "I see myself as continuing the ways of the old world, but at the same time making it a very 'now' idea."
Hence the two beautifully fitted-out houses - so discreet that neither has a signboard - one for "people to relax in and enjoy themselves" over afternoon tea, parties or corporate functions; the other for serious connoisseurs who go to her for aged pu-erh and other speciality teas that cost anywhere from S$280 to S$22,000 for a single disc.
The latter house is designed like a contemporary Zen museum. Your field of vision is clean and uncluttered, decorated with her collection of fine tea cups and tea ceremony accessories, all for sale from S$180 for a tea cup, and complete tea sets as high as S$7,000. All of them are made by artists, not mere potters, says Ms Chen. She represents some 80 artists from Taiwan and Japan, and only those who have had seven solo exhibitions to their name qualify to have their wares displayed and sold by her. Either that or their families have been craftsmen for seven to 11 generations. They are mainly from Japan and most of their work is individually hand-painted and hand-thrown in Kyoto, with cups costing at least S$250 each.
But even at those prices, there are plenty of takers, she says. Not just Singaporeans, who make up a small percentage of her business but more international buyers from countries as disparate as Russia, Canada, Israel, India, Japan and even China. Over the years, she has developed sources and gained a reputation as the go-to person for very old and rare teas, be it old matcha or pu-erh white mountain tea, from whichever season and whatever grade that serious collectors seek out.
Compared to when she first started out, Ms Chen is seeing a growing appreciation of Chinese tea. "In the past, it was a bit difficult for people to understand what I do. There's more awareness of Oriental culture; there are more tea shops now from when I first started and the younger generation have better language skills and more exposure to Chinese culture. Chinese and Oriental tea is also a worldwide phenomenon - it's not just for Asians."
Household name in Taiwan
Her soft-spoken, self-effacing manner belies the fact that Ms Chen is a leading world authority on tea who just happens to be Singaporean. She does tea-consulting for major international companies and she is virtually a household name in Taiwan. "More people know about me there than in Singapore," she laughs. Even in Taiwan - where the tea-drinking culture is much stronger than in Singapore - there isn't anything like Tea Bone Zen Mind to the point that some teahouse owners are coming to town to study her concept.
"Some teahouses can be too traditional and others too modern, like Starbucks," she explains. "I wanted something in between - old-world charm with a modern aesthetic. Japanese teahouses are too rigid. I want people to feel relaxed." Hence the koi pond and tranquil ambience in the first shophouse where she serves a generous $45 afternoon tea spread to working professionals as well as the under-30 set, and the elegant sophistication of the second that easily has you spending hours there without realising it.
Renting two shophouses in the prime conservation neighbourhood of Emerald Hill is not an investment for the faint-hearted, but it's part of her overall mission to bring the art of tea drinking to a higher level, and to show the world that Singapore can do things at an international standard.
"In Singapore, people are very worried about rental and overheads," she says. "I'm not saying it isn't scary because it is, but at the same time it's more scary when you have to live with (self-imposed) limitations." Sure, she could have been conservative and put the two casual and connoisseur concepts under one roof, "but it would be too chopped-up - I want to offer the full experience.
"When I moved to Hoot Kiam (a much smaller version of the Emerald Hill outpost), it was already a big move for me. So the next move had to be worth the effort. I wanted a bigger challenge. In Singapore, we are so timid about things that we lock ourselves in. Tea is not just about Singapore, it's about catering to the world. We're at an international level so we should be bold enough to create a bigger platform for ourselves. A lot of people think they have to go overseas to achieve something big but why can't we do it here? For me to create a teahouse like this in Taiwan is much easier, but why should I? This is home."
To say that Ms Chen lives and breathes tea is an understatement. Her journey in tea began at 16 when she met one of the top tea brewers in Taiwan and had all the best teachers, but she remembers how she hated Chinese tea as a child. "It was bitter, and at the time, I associated tea with bak kut teh. My constant fear was whether the ah pek washed his hands and whether his teapot was clean or not - I had this phobia. But when I went to Taiwan, everything was nice and clean, nothing was chipped and the tables were very clean."
Instead, her original interest was English tea. Ms Chen grew up in a Peranakan household and her grandmother ran the British army canteen so afternoon tea became a daily ritual at her home. It was a more elaborate meal than lunch which was usually a quick bite before the children's afternoon nap. "We would wake up to have tea."
Tea is not just about drinking but the way you lead your life, says Ms Chen, explaining the philosophy behind tea ceremonies. "It's how you taste, what you smell. It's about conversations, meeting people, having a dialogue. Talking about beauty." The very core of what she does lies in what an elderly customer told her many years ago when she was just starting out. "He said, 'I see beautiful things every day, that's why I live such a long life'." With her houses in Emerald Hill, she's turned that philosophy into reality.
- Tea Bone Zen Mind, 98 Emerald Hill. Tel: 6334-4212 for reservations and enquiries