Growing up in Canton Province with Cantonese kids, I first knew Chao Zhou because of its famous beef meatball and beef hotpot instead of its tea culture. Adults around me used to say “If you want the best beef meatball, just go to Chao Zhou”. For kids, beef is much more delicious and filling than tea.
Now as the time arrow chases me down the street and twirls me into this nostalgia tornado, the image of the red clay stove and the burning charcoal sound came to my mind and I unexpectedly planned this trip.
Located in the southern coastal area of China, Chao Zhou has a geographic importance of being in between Fu Jian and Guang Zhou, which are historically famous for their ports. The main river known as Han River leads all the way to Fu Jian. “Han'' is named after a student of Kong Zi, who came down to Chao Zhou at the time to teach Confucianism. He set up a solid foundation for Chao people to practice Confucious.
Maybe because I grew up in a big city, I have always been fascinated by smaller towns in the countryside instead of the A-list cities like Beijing, Shang Hai and Guang Zhou. Small towns might are like hidden gems that still hold on to their originality instead of blending into the mono mainstream culture.
Chao Zhou tea, or Chao Cha as local people call it, revolves around Phoenix Dan Cong tea brewed by Gong Fu Cha style. Coincidentally, the first time Dan Cong was documented in history, it’s also during the Song Dynasty just like the local ancient Guang Ji bridge, which makes me wonder if that was when the royals and emperors up north finally paid attention to this culturally rich southern territory. Phoenix Mountain, where Dan Cong Oolong teas are produced, is only an hour away by car. I didn’t get a chance to go up the mountain this time since it’s covered in ice and snow even in the lower mountain range area (about 300-400 meters), and the New Year’s Eve was the coldest day of the entire year. Southern coldness can be worse than north because of the high humidity level, you feel the cold penetrating your skin and going straight into your bones, and it seemed like 2020 was just not going to let us go so easily. I wonder how those tea trees up in Phoenix Mountain will make out of this rare white winter.
I have been in Seattle for 11 years, where Starbucks was born. I am not a coffee person hence I don’t know how important it’s to have a Startbucks every 2 miles or every 2 blocks, what a waste of me being in Seattle! Chao Zhou is the tea version of Seattle. There are tea shops and tea houses everywhere. There is always a random Chao Zhou Gong Fu Cha tea set sitting in the courtyard, street, store corner, home, supermarket, sometimes with a group of people drinking tea, sometimes next to a yawning cat doing downward facing dog pose, and sometimes unattended, but always being a part of the serenity of this small town. If we compare the enthusiasm of Seattle coffee drinkers and Chao Zhou tea drinkers, I think Chao Zhou people win, just because they don’t even say “drink tea” anymore, they say “eat tea”. Tourists from the north are less familiar with this Chao Cha culture and they make silly wow sounds by seeing tea everywhere. During peak season, as tourists become the hustle and bustle of Chao Zhou, these tea houses become the best place to escape. I even found an AI serving tea house, but I didn’t have a chance to visit this time.
Chao people are very traditional about their tea culture. In the course of the last 800-900 years, teas from Fu Jian have gone through one wave of change and another in order to meet market’s demands, but not Phoenix Dan Cong teas and not how people drink it in Chao Zhou. One might wonder, are they really serving good tea or just serving touristic tea or just showcasing to tourists? That’s exactly why I peeked into a random tea store and went in without doing any research or reading any reviews. It’s simple, a tea bar, a clay pot being heated up on a red clay portable stove with charcoal inside, a tea boat with a teapot and three cups on it, and calligraphy pieces on the wall. How simple! Just like how tea is supposed to be! With the soothing sound of burning charcoal next to me and the wintry wind that was blowing mildly on the noisy street outside, I had one of the best Dan Cong Mi Lan Xiang and found a moment of stillness. The owner said “If life gets too busy in Guang Zhou (where I live in China), just come to Chao Zhou for a bit.”
On the last day, I went to visit one of our Dan Cong farmers. He’s big-smile farmer Xu and he always addresses me as “older sister” (the respectful way for a younger young man to address an older young woman than him, though it’s more used for family). I found out for the first time, we are actually the same age, but I didn’t say anything. I haven’t seen him in person since 2018, and it looks like he has matured a bit with tea in the last 2 years. He then excitedly showed us pics of his frozen tea trees. He didn’t seem concerned about the cold but rather happy with his growing business and learning from his father how to roast tea using charcoal by hand.
This is actually my first time visiting Chao Zhou town since I marched straight into Phoenix Mountain back in 2018. It’s true that you tend to neglect the journey when you are too eager to reach your destination. Sometimes we sigh about a bad timing for doing something or feeling pitiful about something we did not do, but impermanence or unexpectedness is what makes life more worth to cherish. Just like who would have thought, the “beef city” in my childhood has now become the “tea inquisition” in my adulthood. Just like you can never expect the same tea to have two identical brewing. It's often what challenges our memories or sensations that leaves a deeper impression.
So when will I go next time? I will find out, but I don't want to think about it just yet.