Fangcun Tea Markets: The Leaves

When I was a little girl, I was told that if I misbehaved, I’d be sent to Fangcun, the then still largely rural area on the edge of Guangzhou, synonymous with its mental institute. Despite its charming name, 芳村, meaning fragrant village, it was seen as a remote and rather forbidding place. In the past few decades however, economic growth and urban development have made good use of the space on this islet, and the extended metro system has made it a perfect site for furniture and decoration hypermarkets, whilst the greenery and calm of the area has attracted those whose pleasure boats line the canals.

This is no longer a place to be sent to if you are mad. Unless, you are mad about tea.

As you walk out of the metro station, a quick crossing over an ordinary footbridge, a short walk down an uneventful, tree-lined avenue, and suddenly, you are confronted with a giant tea urn rising from the ground, sending greetings from Keys Tea World. 启秀 Qixiu Tea Market, or Keys Tea World as they translate themselves , is a relatively low slung building in the area, rising to only three floors, but sprawling out over a couple of acres. Each floor consists on corridor after corridor, unit after unit, seller after seller, all dedicated to the most traditional of Chinese ventures. Tea.

As we walked into the first courtyard, we could see from storefronts and signage that this was home to more than just tea, the drink, it was home to tea, the way of life! From the beautiful hand glazed tea sets to stoves, strainers, stands… even desks designed for both calligraphy and tea serving with the movement of a few panels……maybe I shall write about these in my next article, but for now, we are hunting Camilia Sinensis. Liquid Jade.

The tea stores have some common elements. Large barrels of loose leaf tea at the front, stacks of wrapped discs of pressed pu’er, perhaps smaller jars of more expensive leaves, and large freezers humming softly in the background, with a serving table set at the centre. Some were only interested in massive wholesale orders, others specialised in single types of tea, and others still were locked up tight with a bicycle lock securing the unit’s glass doors (probably on a tea break).

After a little searching and enquiry, we found Tianbaoxiang. Perhaps it was the open expanse of the shop that made us feel welcome, or the nonchalant displays of their more expensive teas, but it was the large sacks and barrels of fragrant leaves in the middle, arranged with haphazard walkways between them, and the two prominent but functional tea tables at either end, which signified to us, these people care more about selling their tea and drinking it than arranging it in showy displays and fancy packages.

The owner, Mr Yuan, told us his family is from Fujian, renowned throughout the world for their oolong. Having grown up in Guangzhou, he spoke fluent Cantonese, but flipped back to Hokkien to call across to his co-workers. Mr Yuan has been in the tea business most of his life, now running the inherited family business with his young wife. Their baby daughter, the possible future owner of the business, slept quietly in her carrycot, parked between two drums of richly scented black tea.

Smiling staff invited us to sit down and drink tea. Their tea table was wide and deep enough to hold three tea sets, and accommodate a few sets of customers at a time. We find ourselves joined by other tea seekers. We chatted about the sort of teas we were searching for, and a few samples of the leaves were brought for us, in shallow metal plates for viewing and scenting. If we approved, a pot was then served to us by an evidently well-trained but unassuming lady. Glass cups and pots are used to show the beauty of the leaves in water, and the hue of the soup (the tea snob’s word for the infused liquid). Our hostess rinsed the cups, poured the tea, refilled the water and set our cups in front of us, as if all these elements were one flowing and elegant dance. Business must be good for Tian Bao Xiang as each of our tea-seeking neighbours sounded like frequent guests, enquiring after their favourite tea, and their favourite staff.

We were welcome to try as many types of tea as we wanted, and the concerned staff made sure we were also provided with sweets to maintain our blood sugar level, and prevent us getting “tea drunk”. Traditional screens bolted to a plastic cubicle concealed a small toilet, showing the forethought based on marathon tea trying sessions.

Despite being a wholesale market, the traders here are happy to sell small amounts, though with the choice on offer, and the manner of the staff, those small amounts may soon add up. Tea is sold in 斤 (Jin)which is 500g. We ended up buying:

2 斤 龙珠 Dragon Ball green,

2 斤 正山小种 (Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong), Fujian Wu Yi Black Tips

4 斤 铁观音 Tie Guan Yin oolong,

2 斤 白牡丹 (Bai Mu Dan) Peony White,

1 斤 胎菊 (Tai Ju) doll chrysanthemum (not a true tea, but good for an insomniac friend),

1 斤 荔枝红 (Li Zhi Hong) Lychee-scented black,

and finally, a few less traditional flowering art teas, as a special thanks to some friends who have really helped in my promotion of Chinese culture.

Whilst the teas are stored in wooden barrels, and measured out with bamboo scoops, technology seeps in when it improves the customer’s experience, electronic scales and a vacuum packing machine ensure your purchases are packed carefully, and stay fresh for as long as possible. As we left Mr. Yuan and his staff turning our order from plates of leaves to neat silver parcels, we took a little wander around the neighbouring stores, looking for the one item he could not supply us with, the comparatively rare Junshan Silver Needle.

In the sixth store I tried, the shopkeeper, nodding vigorously, went to the freezer at the back of his stall, to retrieve some leaves that looked almost a neon green. The tea was made in total silence in a polished fashion with his polished set. Setting the cups in front of us, he picked up his own, taking a sip and making exaggerated slucing noises with his mouth, before telling us that it would be 4000 RMB per jin. I don’t remember what shocked me more, the price, or taste of mown grass in my mouth.

As a major southern centre of tea trading, Guangzhou has about 8000 operating tea merchants, and Keys Tea World is only one of the many tea markets in Fangcun. It is in fact, part of a “tea-inspired development programme” for Guangzhou’s historical Liwan district, the cradle of the old city. Plans are afoot to build a tea street, tea square and tea museum.  So much to look forward to, and so much more to share with my readers.

With my tea pristinely packed, vacuum sealed, and the whole 6 kilos lovingly parceled in a complimentary tote, my search moved on, for something to drink it out of…

First published in April 2013

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