Sunday, 19 February 2012

Enjoying Gong Fu Tea in Hong Kong

One of our favourite things to do when hubby and I visit Hong Kong is to spend hours at a time enjoying tea at a few of Hong Kong's traditional tea shops.  It wasn't always so.

We got hooked on Chinese tea years ago during our first trip to Hong Kong when we hung out with our chef friend, David, who had an almost fanatical obsession with traditional Chinese tea ware.  He brought us to his favourite tea house in Kowloon and after experiencing a congenial and gracious Gong Fu style Chinese tea tasting for the first time we were enthralled and hooked for life.
Now we have our own favourite tea shops so as we've done for the past several years, today hubby and I took the MTR subway from Kowloon to Central and climbed the narrow, busy streets of Sheung Wan to Hollywood Road, a street mainly known for its art galleries and antiques shops.  We were there to visit Virginia at the Hollywood Tea Gallery and taste her new teas.  Her shop was the first of many tea shops we were to visit over the next two weeks.

For a leisurely hour or two but what seemed to pass in a flash, we were hosted by Mrs Virginia Chien Kok Lan and treated to some interesting, complex, and delicious teas.  Lucky for us she speaks English since part of the enjoyment of any tea tasting is learning all the details about the teas we're drinking.  Hard to do in Hong Kong when the lingua franca is Cantonese.  Even better, we share Virginia's taste in tea which makes for a pleasurable tasting and the key to a consistently fabulous supply of some of our favourite teas year after year.  Her Da Hong Pao is hubby's favourite.

For anyone who has never experienced a Chinese Gong Fu tea service, rest assured that it's nothing at all like a Japanese Tea Ceremony which I found so complicated and ritualized that I was tense from start to finish.

A Gong Fu tea service is a relaxed affair, mainly centred on the quality and characteristics of the appearance, fragrance and taste of the tea you're being served.  Your job is to enjoy it, politely praise its virtues and enjoy cup after leisurely cup of it while engaging in pleasant conversation.  Depending on the type of tea, the host uses either a small, traditional Yixing clay teapot or a small cup with a lid, called a Gaiwan in which to steep the tea. 
One notable trait of Gong Fu tea preparation is that a large quantity of tea is used  to make multiple infusions using the same leaves.  This way, you can experience how the flavour of the tea changes after each infusion. Some teas like dark, rich and earthy aged Pu'er from Yunnan are meant to be infused up to 10 times.

Dragon Well
During our first Gong Fu experience, the multiple infusions were explained to us in this way:  the first infusion you experience the skin of the tea.  The second infusion is the muscle.  The third infusion is the bone.  I'm not sure what comes after that but in our experience, it's usually a new tea and the process starts over.
Da Hong Pao

Ti Guan Yin
Luckily the tea cups are small, holding about 1 ounce of tea or about a shot glass worth.  All the same, after tasting teas for an hour, at some point you'll need an exit strategy and a nearby washroom.

Hours after we arrived and many cups of tea later,  we headed back to our hotel in Kowloon toting a big bag filled with 7 delicious teas, enough to keep our tea caddies full, for the next few months at least, and to share with friends .  Here's we're bringing home: 

  • Bai Cha or Silver Needle.  Fruity, light, and earthy.
  • Long Jin or Dragon Well from near Shanghai. Floral and earthy.
  • Autumn Ti Guan Yin, green, bright, fresh and fruity with a long deep finish
  • Da Hong Pao or "Big Red Robe," from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Provence.  Rich cocoa and tobacco notes with a slightly bitter finish.
  • Liu An.  Tastes much like a Pu'er tea but lighter and less earthy.
  • Milky Oolong Green tea with a coconut nose.
  • Phoenix Orchid, like a feminine, lighter version of the Dao Hung Pao, with a blackberry finish. 

Sadly, we've lost touch with our friend David over the years and rely on his favourite tea house to pass on news but we're always grateful to him for having introduced us to the pleasures of Gong Fu tea. 
Thanks David!


Anonymous said...

Too funny. We just visited this tea shop this summer where Virginia shared several teas with us. I know your post is 2 years old. I wanted to let you know I thought you did a nice job on the content & I love the pictures! Thx for sharing!
Jasmine Yamasaki, AZ, USA :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi! We went to Virginia's shop everytime we were in Hong Kong. Sadly, when we where there last time (November 2014), the shop was closed down and completely empty. Any idea what happened or whether/where they have relocated? I'd highly appreciate any information!

Gustia said...

Oh dear, that's terrible news! She was so lovely and willing to share her tea and tea knowledge. And she spoke English and had the best Dao Hong Pao... We'll be in Hong Kong in January and I'll do some sleuthing. If I find out anything I'll post it. If you're looking for other good tea shops, I can make a recommendations for your next visit.

Anonymous said...

We actually felt quite gutted, as we had locked forward very much to visiting Virginia's shop. I hope you can find out more than we did! Recommendations for other good tea shops would be very much appreciated, though!

Gustia said...

I have a few suggestions...Fook Ming Tong in the IFC Mall. They speak a bit of English and they have a fidelity card. A bit on the expensive side but if you're in the Mall they're worth a visit. They have an excellent Fuding Silver Needle Jasmine. Also in IFC is TWG Tea. What I like about TWG Tea is that they have a massive tea list and it's a good place to try a new variety of tea with lunch or scones without feeling obliged to buy any. Last time we were there there was an English speaking server. You should ask if they can do Gong Fu style for you since they serve teas in more of an English than Chinese style. The Sheung Yu Tea House has some exceptional teas and one of the owners speaks English. They also have a branch at the Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware but if you'd like personalized attention and to taste some of their tea, you should visit their shop in Jordan. They also do Tea Classes. The top floor of the Yue Hwa Department Store in Kowloon is massive and dedicated to tea sellers from China and Taiwan. The vendors themselves don't speak English but they have an employee who will follow you around and translate for you. Practice declining the vendors when they ask you if you want a taste of their tea as you pass by otherwise you'll never get out of there and you'll OD on caffeine. At the end of the floor there's a vendor who has an exceptional assortment of Pu Ehr. Sun Sing Tea in Kowloon has an English speaking employee. Ask if you can apply for their fidelity card for 10% off. Their Best Champion Ti Guan Yin is one of my favourites. They also have some nice tea ware and some outstanding Pu Ehr. That should keep you busy for a few days! Please write and let me know if you visit any and if you find some interesting tea. Have Fun!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for these suggestions! Can't wait to be back in Hong Kong to try them all!