Engagement and exchange with people is a central element in Cai Guo-Qiang’s work. Conceived by the artist as an integral element in the exhibition, the Tea Pavilion is a place within the ‘Falling Back to Earth’ exhibition for visitors to reflect on the works they have experienced, and to engage with one another. Fiona Neill spoke with May King Tsang, Brisbane-based tea consultant and presenter of gongfu ceremonies held 1pm and 2pm every Sunday during the exhibition. Free tastings of cold compressed Tie Guan Yin tea are available daily in the Tea Pavilion.
Fiona Neill | What led you to pursue a career as a tea specialist and why are you so passionate about tea?
May King Tsang | I was asked by a friend to go into business to open a coffee shop with him. For research I popped into a large coffee chain, I stared at the menu, perplexed at what to order. I was uninspired with the tea selection and I didn’t know anything about coffee, but I love tea and have been drinking it forever. This was my ‘eureka moment’ and when I decided to start a career in tea. Travelling to the United States on several occasions, I graduated as a Certified Tea Specialist (CTS) from the Specialty Tea Institute, becoming the only CTS from the UK and Australia, and one of their top 50 recommended speakers of tea in the world.
Fiona Neill | In what ways does Chinese tea culture connect with the history of the country and is it a vital part of the culture?
May King Tsang | In my humblest of opinions, the Chinese tea culture is undoubtedly connected with the history of China. The tea you sip is likely to have come from a derivative of the original camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub or tree from which the beverage is cultivated, which was discovered in China over 4000 years ago. The tea culture is an integral part of Chinese culture; I grew up watching martial art films where battle plans were drawn, allies met, business deals sealed and friendships cemented, all of which was done over a sip of tea. Historically, Chinese culture is also about balance. With conflict comes harmony, with yin there is yang, and in tea there is caffeine balanced out by its calming companion, theanine.
Fiona Neill | Generally tea culture, tea rooms and tea ceremonies are associated with Japanese culture, although tea drinking originated in China. What differentiates Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies?
May King Tsang | The Chinese gongfu tea ceremony (also known as Gong Fu Cha, where ‘Cha’ is Chinese for tea) is less formal than its Japanese counterpart. It is performed in a relaxed setting and there is a lot more interaction between the performer and the attendees. While the tea equipment is clearly defined in Gong Fu Cha, the execution of the ceremony is a personal interpretation delivered by each Tea Master.
Fiona Neill | How have you adapted the traditional Chinese gongfu tea ceremony to suit your style, and for contemporary audiences?
May King Tsang | When I first started to perform Gong Fu Cha people would share their Chinese tea experience with me complaining that they were waiting a long time while the tea was being made and then they were charged a fortune for a thimble of tea. Being a BBC (British Born Chinese), I grew up on the Western style of making tea, which involves popping the kettle on, toddling off to watch TV, returning to the kitchen to stick a teabag in a mug, add boiling water and milk and sugar if desired. There is no thought that has gone into the tea-making process. In Gong Fu Cha, however, the preparation and making of the tea is just as important as the final product. For those who had experienced Gong Fu Cha in China, I likened their experience to watching a foreign film that has no subtitles and therefore they weren’t able to fully appreciate the ceremony. I modified Gong Fu Cha in order to bridge the gap between Chinese and Western culture, explaining each step and encouraging audience participation: it helps contemporary audiences to better appreciate what is being presented.
Fiona Neill | Cai Guo-Qiang selected organic, cold-pressed Tie Guan Yin, an oolong tea from the Fujian region (his home province) to be available for daily tastings during the exhibition. Can you tell us a little about the Fujian province as a tea-producing region and the qualities of Tie Guan Yin tea?
May King Tsang | Fujian is a province in China directly opposite Taiwan (another great tea-producing country) and is home to some of the most famous teas in China. It is a region with a subtropical climate which equates to very hot humid summers and mild winters. There are many high mountains in Fujian, which is where a lot of the great teas can be found. Teas grown in high mountains not only in China but in Taiwan and Sri Lanka are often highly sought after. It is said that there is plenty of organic matter found in the soils if this region which makes it ideal for growing tea and is home to some of the best white, red and oolong teas, and Tie Guan Yin, of course.
May King Tsang | There are varying qualities of Tie Guan Yin. There is a huge market for consumers used to drinking ‘milk and two sugars’ tea, as I like to call it, and so offering a tea that looks familiar to them will not push people out of their comfort zone too much. So a Hong Kong-style Tie Guan Yin will appear a lot more attractive to them. The heavier roast and almost charred style of this tea is perceived to be cheaper and inferior quality to the style made predominantly in Cai Guo-Qiang’s home town. It is also widely available in local Asian supermarkets and often accompanies Yum Cha. The tea found at GOMA, by contrast, is much greener in the leaf, offers a light honey colour in the cup and doesn’t have the roasted flavour that its Hong Kong counterpart does. It is more likely to impart a floral note reminiscent of osmanthus flowers and orchids, a lightly earthy character with subtle vegetal notes.
Fiona Neill | There seems to be a real focus on coffee culture at the moment. Do you think that tea has been overlooked?
May King Tsang | On the contrary, I don’t think tea is being overlooked anymore. From my personal experience with my business and from reading tea news from around the world, tea has been on the rise exponentially for the last five years both here in Australia and globally. Takeovers of small tea companies by big brands demonstrate a growing interest in our beloved beverage. In my personal experience as a tea consultant, I have assisted start-up tea businesses around the world and my clients have increased dramatically within the last two years, especially here in Australia. Tea is the new coffee and the last few years certainly seem to suggest that.
Fiona Neill | Finally, for those of us who are tea fans, please give us some tips on making the perfect cup of green tea!
May King Tsang | There are several things to consider when making tea:
Warming of tea ware: to make sure the tea temperature is constant.
Quality of tea: Better quality means being able to use the same teaspoon of leaves to make several cups of tea.
Amount of tea: One for the pot and one per person for most tea types. Some oolong leaves are much bigger, so you can get away with one teaspoon per person and none for the pot.
Water temperature: Many people new to green tea will have experienced a bitter cup of green tea. Making green tea with 100-degree water means you will burn the tea. You can’t go back once it’s burned. It is better to use 70 to 85-degree water, or add a dash of cold water at the bottom of your teapot or cup to bring down the temperature of your freshly boiled water.
Steeping tea: Green tea as a guideline should only be steeped for two to three minutes. People new to green tea may think there isn’t much colour in the cup, as they are used to black tea, so they may leave the teabag in for five minutes. But the colour still won’t change to the dark colour that they are expecting. Instead, steeping green tea for too long will make it taste bitter.
Presented by Tourism & Events Queensland & Santos GLNG Project, ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth’ is on view at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 11 May 2014.