Helped by a bit of oriental inspiration, it’s not hard to imagine that in the early days of Shanghai, the city, the villages and towns around had plenty of teahouses, not the fancy one with exquisite furnitures, quiet and delicate service but the noisy ones.
In the winter of Shanghai, 2010, few of these place are remaining but for the one who dares walking in the small streets and pushing the doors, it’s still possible to get back to the feeling of these old days. You have to get up early, most of the customers come for a morning tea after exercising in the park. They are men, generally older than 55. Best time is of course the week-end, as some of them still work.
My favorite teahouse is in Qibao, an old city which has been swallowed by the ever growing Shanghai. The teahouse has two rooms, one close to the street, with 4 square wooden tables and a second, wider in the back with 16 tables and a set of chairs facing a scene where is played, everyday, 2pm some Suzhou opera. Tea is damn cheap and is sold by teapot with access to unlimited hot water. No food is served there, you have to come with your own breakfast or sunflower seeds. To kill time and socialize, various activity are possible, from the simple chat, newspaper reading and commenting, to card games.
This rainy morning I was there, I had a tea sitting on a chair which had probably twice my age and had a very serious discussion with M. Tan.
M. Tan is 65, and because of his low retirement fee he still has to work. Thus if you want to meet him it’s only on Sundays and Saturdays. He has this kind of talkative profile, I should have guessed that while he was hailing me as soon as I enter the place.
Our discussion covered plenty of topics, from the classical French men of honor ranking. Surprisingly or not, M. Tan ranks Napoleon first, then is De Gaulle, then Chirac and finally Mitterand. He voluntary does not refer to Sarkozy who should not even be at his current position. This was right at the beginning just to warm up a bit.
Afterwards we started an incredible talk about his young years while he was working on the construction of network of roads toward the Chinese far-west (xinjiang, gansu, qinghai). He had some pretty impressive memories of these wild areas, with extreme weather conditions and which, according to M. Tan are not decent place for human beings. The worst seems to be Goldmud, in Qinghai province. He was there in the late sixties and even basic food was a problem.
This was the interesting part, then he changed topic to some obscures concerns about the living style of young shanghainese versus older generations and he became quite angry about his own conclusions, the more he was talking the more nervous he was and finally he was even loosing control and mixing shanghainese dialect in the conversation. At this time I was of course totally lost and was only able to pronounce some “hmm hmm” and shake head.
When he was not actively talking, warming his hand on the teapot, he was smoking and the rest of the time he was coughing like hell. I smartly used one of these breaks to switch topic and asked him to take his portrait. It took again around 10 minutes to escape from his sudden interest on cameras and his personal review of Japanese brands and I took this photo. The place was very dark, there was only one spot above us lightening his cup. The result is quite OK knowing the conditions. I like all the details of this picture, including the classical thermos bottle.
Thank you Mr. Tan, it was a pretty nice morning and people like you make this country so alive !