one day, two teas

Tuesday was a day of tea. Had a late dim sum style tea with visiting photographer Jiangnan Jian, his son, the organizer of Jiangnan Jian’s show, and Taiwanese art critic Huang Qianfang. For dinner, Qianfang and I went to Shangchuan in Bao’an, where we had a lei cha (擂茶) dinner. The differences between the two style of tea delineate the cultural geography of Guangdong and its shifting reinscriptions in Shenzhen.

We had brunch at Laurel, a restaurant that got its start serving tired Hong Kong shoppers in the Luohu shopping mall, just on the other side of the border. The restaurant specializes in Cantonese favorites, mostly by way of Shunde and high-end northern delicacies such as Beijing duck. It used to be that Shenzhen teemed with a range of all day teahouses–cheap to expensive, especially the Luohu and Huanggang border crossing areas.

Although a few all-day teahouses can be found in Dongmen and in Bao’an, nevertheless dim sum brunches are popular throughout Shenzhen, there are fewer inexpensive restaurants that serve Cantonese style tea than there used to bea. Many of the cheap teahouses that served early morning, brunch, afternoon and late night teas have closed. Moreover, it seems that those restaurants that do serve dim sum only serve from from 8 (or as late as 9 a.m.) on to about 11, when they shift for lunch which begins at 11:30.

Curious minds are wondering: what’s up with that? Off the top of my head, I’m thinking a possible reason for the establishment of dim sum as brunch in Shenzhen is tied to several factors.

First, the mandarinization of the city has meant that most residents consider dim sum to be “Cantonese”. Folks like tea and treat visitors (like Jiangnan Jian) to tea, but they don’t do lunch or dinner teas.

Second, Shenzhen doesn’t have many old Cantonese residents who are the patrons of 5 a.m. teas elsewhere in Guangdong.

Third, many young people now have coffee in the afternoon rather than tea.

Fourth, the decline of Hong Kong as a reference point for urbanization in the city has accompanied the decline of manufacturing as the city’s raison d’être. Hong Kong just doesn’t dominate the local imaginary like it used to. Like the migration of the Laurel brand from Luohu to expensive neighborhoods suggests, what started out as anticipating the needs and desires of Hong Kong people (once the city’s richest demographic) has shifted to serving other demographics.

Fifth, Guangdong is home to more local cultures than only Cantonese.

Hakka lei cha, for example, is savory. It’s made by grinding dried tea leaves into a powder and adding boiling water. This tea is reduced over a fire until it has a rich, smooth consistency and bitter taste. It is served over rice with side dishes. According to my friends, Hakka lei cha is only fond in the transitional territory between Shantou-Chaozhou and the eastern Hakka area. There are, however, at least two lei cha restaurants in Bao’an, where a large number of these Hakka have settles.

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