Finding home in a cup of tea: the Kung Fu tea ceremony

A writer reflects on his grandpa’s interpretation of the Kung Fu tea ceremony and how it keeps him connected to his culture.

Life lessons with Gung Gung through tea

The Kung Fu tea ceremony defined most of my family’s culture while growing up in Hong Kong. As a Chinese family, it was our way of respecting our guests and preserving the stories that made us Han Chinese. 

My Gung Gung (grandfather) insisted that the ceremony happen every time our family was together under his roof and whenever an unfamiliar face showed up. Even as his health declined, he persistently upheld the tea ceremony and used it as a way to teach Chinese values.

Louis with his grandparents. Photo submitted.

As someone who moved to Canada for university, preserving my own culture in the West without my family is hard. Even though I’m losing my ability to write Chinese, remember Chinese folk tales, or even use a pair of chopsticks, culture passes on in ways that aren’t apparent.

For my family, it came in the form of tea ceremonies and lessons from my Gung Gung.

See also: Abroad but not apart: a personal journey of reconnecting with family

My family and tea

I’ve been drinking tea ever since I started using chopsticks. Growing up surrounded by tea and my Gung Gung’s obsession with the liquid made me fall in love with it. 

My mom hated tea. Whenever we had our ceremony, she shook her head at the sight of a four-year-old boy downing cups of oolong tea. My uncle always promised me a can of Coke if I finished my cup of tea at every dim sum family get-together we had. But I would end up drinking more cups for the rest of the night and forget about the Coke. It wasn’t the best drink a four-year-old kid should like, but Mom would allow tea over Coca Cola any day.

“Mix it with more water. He’s a kid,” Mom complained every time someone served me.

“It’s fine, he can handle it,” my uncle always replied with a beaming smile and a proud look plastered on his face. Likewise, Gung Gung would add that drinking tea is the way of our family and the way of the Chinese.

A tea set: pride and friendship

Gung Gung added a story or meaning to every step of the tea ceremony, starting with the main object itself: the tea set.

Tea sets are usually on display like the pride of every Chinese household. It never moves and is always in the middle of the room, on the coffee table and visible to every visitor. Like a peacock fanning its feathers, my Gung Gung would brag about his tea set whenever Cousin Alice and her British husband came to visit. “We are humble people,” Gung Gung said, “but we show off with our tea and our tea sets.”

One dark tea pot, two small cups, and some loose leaf tea
Photo by Alisher Sharip on Unsplash

For the longest time, I thought the cups were tiny bowls for tiny people. Patterns of blue flowers and vines run along the lip and meet an outline of a dragon at the base of the teacup. The intricate design flaunts the skills and pride of the craftsman who made them: a friend my Gung Gung met in the same apartment building. 

Gung Gung met this sifu (master) when he walked past his unit on his daily stroll in the apartment building. Being the nosy person he was, Gung Gung watched as the sifu molded clay pots in his tiny abode with his hands that “worked wonders”. The sifu invited Gung Gung in for tea and the rest is history. 

“He came home one day with a stupid smile on his face and the box with a tea set in it. If I knew he spent money on tea sets again…” Poh Poh (grandma) said whenever Gung Gung started talking about his tea set. Occasionally, the sifu came by for tea with the rest of us. He passed away just a few years before my grandpa, but was still remembered fondly.

“I’ve only known sifu for five years, but our friendship lives on even after we’re both gone, and this tea set is our proof,” Gung Gung said.

See also: Honouring our elders: memories, stories, and journeys

Choosing tea: being a good host

When picking the tea for a Kung Fu Tea ceremony, oolong tea is a no-brainer. Named after its resemblance of a dark dragon, the sweet aromatics and mellow taste suit the variety of taste buds across the table. It’s not too strong for light drinkers and not too light for strong drinkers. 

Spoons with different loose leaf tea
Photo by Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

My favorite tea is Pu-erh, a fermented tea that isn’t meant for casual drinking. Pu-erh’s earthy flavor is used to help with digestion before and after a meal; regardless, I wanted it all the time. With one pot of tea, I could finish five pork buns by myself. 

I always whined when we had oolong tea instead of pu-erh. But in our family, we prioritize guests. As my Gung Gung would say, we have to prioritize guests and remember that there’s a time for everything.

Cleaning the cups: words of wisdom

Towards the end of my Gung Gung’s life, my uncle was in charge of conducting the tea ceremony while Gung Gung supervised.

Before brewing tea, the tea set has to be cleaned. My uncle drenches the set with hot water which reveals patterns as well as words carved into the set. Some text runs along the curve of the opening of the tea pot, forming a circle around the lid, which reads, “May the sky and Earth live alongside me, and may everything be one with me.” Or, as Gung Gung would put it, “Remember to enjoy the things that are provided to you, and everything you need will be there in nature.”

After the set is drenched, my uncle lines the teacups in a row and pours the remaining water into the cups for a rinse. He picks up the first cup, swirls it, and pours it into the next cup. This process is repeated three times, reflecting a teaching from Confucius: “You first attain wisdom through reflection, which is noble. Second through imitation, which is easy. Finally through experience, which is bitter.” 

Drinking tea: cultivating relationships

My uncle then lifts the lid, pours more water, waits another 30 seconds, then serves six cups in a flow. Excess tea escapes from the brim of the cups and spills onto the tray below. He then holds a cup out for Gung Gung with his back bowed to a slight angle and his head lowered. When there are no guests, the eldest in the room is served first by the eldest son. 

Gung Gung takes the teacup, nods his head once for approval, and my uncle raises his head. He then puts the rest of the cups down from the tray and onto the table. Dad picks up the cup and passes it to Mom who passes it to me and then from me to my sister. Passing tea around symbolizes relationships and friendships and tightens our bond in our family as well as with our guests. 

Those of us who drink tea sip away at the tiny cup. My uncle, Gung Gung, and my dad drink it like college kids rushing through shots but I let the tea sit and cool. Within thirty minutes or three to four rounds of tea, my uncle fills the teapot with water again, reusing the rest of the tea leaves. The ceremony continues until someone leaves. 

The last Kung Fu tea ceremony

My Gung Gung passed away when I was about 10 years old.

Back in his apartment after the funeral, Poh Poh takes the dull tea set out from the kitchen. Mom takes it from her and places the set on the table. My uncle appears with some water and the rusted kettle we use for our tea ceremonies.

“Mom, where’s Gung Gung?” I ask as I pop in a candy. 

“Gung Gung went to sleep. God took him to a better place,” she whispers. Poh Poh stares at the tea set while my uncle pulls out the containers of tea underneath the table. He picks out the box with the oolong tea and after a few grunts and pushes, it cracks open to reveal the tea leaves in it.

“This is Gung Gung’s favorite tea. Tonight, we honor him,” he croaks. The night continues as we drink away the bitterness of the oolong. I watch as my mom finishes her cup. She doesn’t flinch from the bitterness like she always would and instead, she keeps her gaze steady at Gung Gung’s picture on top of the fridge. 

We raise our cups for the last round of Kung Fu tea as well as our last time performing the ritual together in my grandparents’ apartment. 

See also: Ghost Forest: Exploring grief and home in transnational families

Tea, my celebration of life and home

My Gung Gung’s death meant the end of tea ceremonies, but it also marked the start of his influence on our values. Likewise, the end of my childhood in Hong Kong marked the start of my adult life in Canada as an Asian Canadian.

In Canada, the lack of family beside me as well as the lack of cultural representation was disorienting. Everything felt right, but something was missing.

One of the ways I fill that gap is through tea. Whenever I go out for dim sum with my friends here in Canada, I am the designated tea expert of the group. “Pu-erh mm goi” became my signature line whenever I sat down at any Cantonese dim sum restaurant.

Every time I share tea, I share Gung Gung’s stories and bits of wisdom as I explain the steps in the Kung Fu tea ceremony.

A dim sum meal with baskets of food and a tea pot
Photo by Van Thanh on Unsplash

Even though it has been years after my grandfather’s funeral, his words of wisdom still echo in one-liners around my ears when I pour myself or my friends a cup of tea. Gung Gung comes to life whenever I share his stories and I’m sure he smiles when he sees how curious my friends are about tea, just like I once was with him.

It’s never just tea to me: it’s also my Gung Gung, remnants of childhood, and the lessons he taught me through the Kung Fu tea ceremony.

Featured image: image submitted

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