Sober Jack and the Tea Muses: A Vancouver Diary
A sober Jack Kerouac on a budget would find peace among the tea shops of Vancouver and Victoria. Yes he would. Since tea and the Beats are both a part of my DNA, Jack’s influence followed me to British Columbia, a place soaked in tea.
By sheer chance, I began by stumbling into a biography of Kerouac in a Vancouver bookstore. Jack emerged from a bicultural background. He was caught between two cultures and felt alienated from both of them. Eventually he hit the road, trying to forge a voice that contained his dualities. I felt the same way. In my case, the two polarities were counterculture and business travel.
I was in a relatively privileged situation, so I couldn’t fuse the beauty and garbage of poverty in quite the same way ol’ Jack did. I couldn’t be Kerouac, stealing the Buddhist bible from the San Jose public library and then prowling around the railyards with a decrepit suitcase, yakking about zen with gritty road-hobo drunks, but what I could do, at the very least, was look for zen in a tea shop. It made more sense anyway. For at least three thousand years, tea and zen have been inseparable, although you don’t really “find” zen in the way you find a book at the library. Zen doesn’t “find” you either. Instead, it becomes apparent (a parent?) once you stop looking.
Golden Leaf Tea is Peggy’s business. There is no brick-and-mortar store, or else I’d be there, crashed out in a tea-drunk haze of clarity, on the counter, with my trusted travel bag.
I tell Peggy about pu’erh and how I’m drinking the hell out of it these days. It connects me to the earth and Tang Dynasty sages. I imagine myself living as a hermit 1000 years ago in some remote cave somewhere, uninhibited by millennial tech-worker brats, Virtual Reality sycophants, people on the bulletproof coffee bandwagon, or any of the usual bullshit of modern Silicon Valley.
Pu’erh is medicine, not tea, Peggy tells me. But it's no longer the trend in China like it was a few years ago. Frozen Mountain Oolong from Taiwan is the rocking stuff these days, she says.
We're sitting inside Notch8, the new restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver on Georgia. "Hotel Van" as the locals call it. This is the oldest of the four Fairmonts in Vancouver, the most historical property of them all. The Vancouver Art Gallery is next door and just beyond that is the City Centre Station, all of which is right smack in the middle of the bustling downtown Van.
There’s a controversy in China right now, Peggy says. People are lying about the age of pu’erh tea, artificially speeding up the process, saying it’s 100 years old when the goods are only 10 years old. So the government is putting the kabosh on the whole mess. Now it’s hard to import lots of pu’erh. And the Chinese are getting over the trend anyway. Instead, high mountain oolong from Taiwan is the trend, she repeats.
I can’t stop looking at her red fingernails. I’m mesmerized.
Tea usually goes in a three-year fashion cycle, Peggy says. Sort of like European clothing. As we continue to sip, the third person at our table, Peggy's handler, unloads a question on both of us: So, what’s your favorite tea?
I shrug my shoulders. It depends on my mood, I say.
Peggy has a better answer.
“It depends on mood, the weather, the time of day, sort of like a girl and her purse. Or shoes. I’m not married to one tea. I get bored and I go do something else.”
Thinking to myself: I only own three or four pairs of shoes. Maybe that’s my problem.
“I left Taiwan when I was 12,” Peggy continues, explaining how she first became interested in tea. “I needed to connect to something. You want to connect to something. Tea is in your DNA in a way you can’t explain. Tea does that for me. I tried other things, but they didn’t work. I didn’t feel it in my soul.”
I wind up drinking two cups of Honey Red Jade, proprietary to Golden Leaf Tea. It’s quite subtle, not the strong stuff for dockworkers.
“I guarantee you’ve never tasted anything like this,” Peggy says.
Two sisters, Vivian and Candy Wen, operate Yuan Chen Premium Tea Collection in Richmond, just on the other side of the airport from Vancouver. Vivian is the one who pours us the tea. Richmond, it seems, has 1000 strip malls filled up with every Pacific Asian ethnicity I can count, much of which is Hong Kong Chinese. But everything else seems present also. I’ve been here so many times now and each time there seems to be more construction, more developments, more luxury condos. The virus of class-based gentrification will not stop.
But these two sisters are tea experts. They sell mostly pu’erh. Their shop is filled with Longquan celedon lacquerware, most often used for vases, fine china or utilitarian forms of ceramics. Beginning in the fifth century, Longquan, a city in the Zhejian province of China, established a heritage. A specific firing technology leaves the pottery with a distinct cracked-ice glaze, a greenish-gray hue of mystical qualities. The complicated glazing technique is handed down from generation to generation and in 2009, UNESCO even placed Longquan celedon on the "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."
All the teaware at Yuan Chen Tea is made from Longquan celedon. Everywhere I look, I see cups of various sizes, teapots, and other majestic items.
Yuan Chen also sells teakwood furniture and knives for cutting pu’erh cakes. The knives look like something out of an old west museum. Most people come in here to view the mugs, ornaments and other gifts, so you’d have to be a connoisseur to understand what the knives are for. I get the feeling most customers that come in here are indeed tea experts. Candy pulls out a photo album and even shows me a shot of the recent G20 summit in China, when Longquan celedon was used in the all social gatherings.
At the mercy of Vivian and Candy, I am in the presence of women who know what they want. As I drink the pu’erh, she shows me plastic sheet with tea leaves inside, sort of like you’d see in a museum display. Large brown leaves. Laminated. Almost like antiquity.
I repeat Peggy’s line that tea is in my DNA. Both the sisters laugh.
Vancouver is the only city in the world with four Fairmont Hotels. This is insane enough. I'm at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, already a property steeped in history, and now they’ve converted a private dining room into an underground tea lair, located just off the main restaurant, straight through a pair of hanging drapes. The décor and the theme changes every four months.
Upon my arrival, the setting is that of a traveling carnival. Perfect. Circus posters hang from the walls. I see Barnum & Bailey ads, freak show flyers, and junk luggage from thrift stores -- not the garb usually associated with Fairmonts. Old books line the walls. Warm earthy tones dominate, but the lights are dim.
Following the carnival theme, the food accompanying the tea service comes on a miniature Ferris Wheel rig, making the standard multi-tiered pedestal contraption look rather boring by comparison. The tea drinker rotates the Ferris Wheel to choose each of the morsels, also named according to circus-y influence: Big Eli (beef, radish, and arugula on a mini-bagel), Carousel (salmon with fromage frais and preserved lemon on pumpernickel), Midway (pulled chicken with bourbon mustard, pickled red cabbage on focaccia), and Punch & Judy (egg, avocado, cornichon and English cucumber).
Kerouac would love this. Forget the boring stuffy old-lady-style tea service plate, Western and Protestant in its hierarchy from top to bottom. Instead, life is carnival, a Ferris Wheel.
In fact, he’d probably suggest the Buddhist Dharma Wheel instead of a Ferris Wheel. Imagine that. Each item could be named after Buddhist perspectives. And they would all be connected.
Before the Fairmont Hotel Van remodeled its entire concierge and check-in area, the tea service took place in the lobby lounge. Then for the interim, it was moved to a sterile ballroom on the 15th floor. Now it’s a circus. And carnivals are better than ballrooms.
I'm lurking in front of 158 E. Pender, in front of Sai Woo, a casual place for Chinese food inside a three-story heritage building. Construction abounds, as even Chinatown is ripe for gentrification. Brand new condos seem to parasite themselves onto every other block. Sai Woo isn't open upon my visit, and as I peer through the window, tour guide Judy Maxwell shows up and tells me that no one makes dumplings like she does. Within minutes we're inside the building for a grand tour of the upstairs and the lower level banquet spaces.
Judy is an expert. In the process of escorting me around Chinatown for a few hours, she explains every possible detail of every single building, not just the history of the structure, but how it relates to specific families, generations of immigrants and the entire Chinese experience as a whole. Thanks to Judy, I learn about a 90-year-old tailor whose shop is still in business. I hear about Chinese real estate magnates, herbal doctors and even Anglo millionaires restoring historical buildings. Seemingly everywhere in Vancouver, I experience the interplay between east and west, and also the endless battles between historical preservationists and real estate bullshitters that thrive on slaughtering history.
Judy even takes me into Chinese benevolent societies to see old timers playing games, gathering for coffee or just hanging out. There's a different society for every surname: Mah, Lee, and many more. No one else is really allowed to bring tours into these places. Apparently only Judy can do this. Like me, she's half eastern and half western. A great combination.
At the end, Judy directs me toward Treasure Green Tea Company on Georgia. I have no choice but to submit and do exactly as she says.
At Treasure Green Tea, Olivia is a second generation tea sommelier. I’m drinking their Emerald Green Silver from Anhui Province. Her father opened this place in 1981. They were the first Chinese tea shop in Vancouver. Back them most of the tea came from herbal shops, just plain run-of-the-mill stuff. Not very good. Since it was stored with all the other herbs and was already just basic lowgrade stuff, it didn’t taste very well. It tasted like the other herbs in the shop. So Olivia's dad wanted to start his own shop.
“It took two years before the first shipment came in," she recalls. "China was not open to the world at that time.”
The current building was then a commercial laundry shop. They did linens and sheets for some of the Vancouver hotels.
“Tea is in our blood," Olivia tells me. "We panic when we run out of tea.”
I tell her that tea connects me with ancient Chinese hermits. And Taoist sages. And Tang Dynasty poets. And caves. I know it sounds crazy.
“No, it just sounds zen-ful,” she says, fanning her arms across the counter to acknowledge all the tea products in front of us.
By sheer mystical coincidence, or by a political directive from the Robert Anton Wilson School of Synchronicity, the Vancouver Art Gallery is exhibiting a show about Picasso and his muses. I don’t currently have any muses in quite the way he did, but through the vehicle of tea -- the source of my creative inspiration -- all of these women are my muses: Peggy, Judy, the Wen sisters, the Fairmont marketing directors, all of them. I owe them a million. At least.
Still in Vancouver, but unlike Kerouac’s rampages, there aren’t any exciting and fatherly zen poets for me to go hiking with. Gary Snyder is nowhere to be found. Being sober, I can’t hop on a cargo train with nothing but a duffel bag and a gallon of rotgut red wine.
What I can do is take a seaplane to Victoria for afternoon tea at Grand Pacific Hotel and pretend Jack is with me somehow. Once I arrive, I lug my carry-on roller around the harbor, up the stone steps and across Belleville Street to the hotel. Within minutes, I'm seated to a glorious pot of tea from Silk Road Tea Company, a shop not too far up the street.
For the tea service, once again, east meets west. I don't even have to perform sacred rituals to make it happen. No need to read up on Jungian alchemy to harmonize the polarities or fuse the opposites. Right away, the bright yellow color of the teapot matches the sauce underneath the amuse bouche. Yellow is an auspicious color, the server tells me. The hotel chefs are Japanese and Chinese, he says. Tea service combines east and west, he continues. I see lime and sweet chili edamame. Instead of boring old cucumber sandwiches, they have sake compressed cucumber on okonomiyaki.
But wait! -- There's also First Nations elements. For example: Free Run Organic Egg Salad on Smoked Salmon rye bread pudding is the hotel's take on First Nations-style bannock. Only in BC would I see this. For dessert, the macaroons are hazelnut butter caramel and vanilla passionfruit. None of this conforms to the normal stuffy old tea service. I love it.
By now, Silk Road is probably the most famous tea joint in Victoria. Their stuff is everywhere. It's in my hotel, the Rialto. It's in restaurants and gift shops. Wherever I go, I see tea from Silk Road, almost as if it's following me. Silk Road is in my blood.
When I finally arrive at the shop itself, a tea tasting brings me home. I was last here three years ago but it feels like I never left. One of the same employees still works here -- (he even remembered what tea I drank last time, true customer service!) -- so once again, I immediately feel a sense a belonging. For example, I make a beeline for the dark ginger pu'erh. I blather about how such teas conjure up images of Taoist hermits, ancient Chinese sages and Tang Dynasty poets living in caves 1000 years ago and the employee doesn’t miss a beat. He understands exactly where I’m coming from. He even adds that in certain remote parts of China, there's indentations of mule hooves embedded in the stone trails, the results of centuries' worth of mule trips up and down the same mountain to transport tea. Silk Road even now brews Kombucha made from Darjeeling and Sencha. I even give it a name: The Grand Indo-Japanese Geopolitical Summit. I tend to do things like that.
There’s more: Silk Road has blends for hay fever, allergies, colds, skin care, and much more.
"What d’ya got for abandonment issues?" I ask him. He just laughs.
Victoria has added a few urban components since I was here last time. Plus, I'm more zen-centric, more curious, and less agitated. Kerouac was agitated, but he carved out a voice despite it all. That's my goal. All of this envelops me as soon as I parade down Fort Street to find my next resting place. The venue in question is called Terroir Tea Salon and the interior design is zen minimalism in a non-Kerouac-ian-poverty kind of fashion. If that makes sense. Terroir is a French word meaning, “a sense of place,” the relationship between a tea-growing region and its end product. Those are the words on the wall, that is, after I skulk down Fort Street long enough to find the place.
These days, Fort Street is a main drag of foodie-hipsterdom, antique shops, record stores, guitar shops, clock and watch repair places, the legendary Russell’s Books and a slew of other organic institutions. That is, indie galore stuff up the yin-yang. It’s great drag on which to wander along.
Terroir is relatively new. Grays and solid wood elements frame the inside. The tea bar sits to the right. What chic joints would usually refer to as an “aroma bar” sits to the left. Meaning, the loose leaf teas are there in jars and you remove the tops to smell the respective blends. Except at Terroir, none of them are blends. Each one is a specific tea. Taiwanese oolongs are the specialty. At the back of the place, the words, “heighten the senses” grace the wall above a passageway, where, hanging upon two walls I see gorgeous photos from tea farms in Taiwan.
Owner Charity Hobbs makes me an Alishan High Mountain Oolong. Then she says the tea I’m drinking at the bar comes from the farm depicted in the photos on the wall. Everything is connected.
I absolutely must go to Taiwan. This is what I'm thinking. Terroir makes me want to visit that island. I'm repeating myself, sorry, but Taiwan won't stop haunting me at Terroir Tea Salon.
To capture this zenful and pacifying place, upmarket PR babes would use phrases like “sophisticated but approachable,” or maybe something like, “polished but relaxed.” Which isn’t wrong, of course. That language definitely captures it. But in my case, all I can say is that Terroir allows me to dissolve inner rages almost immediately upon entry. A sober Kerouac on a subsidized budget would find peace here. There’s no better way to put it.
Before opening Terroir, Hobbs lived in Australia and trained down under as a teamaster. After a three-day intensive program with the teacher, she spent the next few months doing homework and Skype lessons. After that--zing!--tea master status. Or master tea status. Choose your blend.
“I didn’t think tea came from the same plant until I took that class,” she tells me.
Hobbs also regularly visits Taiwan to scope out Alishan teas. Since the store does not sell blends of any sort, everything is pure tea, straight up. This is how she remains ‘true to the terroir.’ What a phrase.
“We don’t add any ingredients,” Hobbs tells me. “No Earl Grey.”
“What idiot would walk in here and order Earl Grey?” I say with a laugh. Then, after thinking a moment: “Well, at craft brew places, occasionally people wander in and order crap like Coors, right? Or Budweiser. So I guess it probably happens.”
As I sit there, sipping one of the smoothest oolong teas I’ve ever tasted, she places the wet leaves in front of me, right next to the dry leaves, just for comparison. This gives me a sense of how the tea evolves.
Just then, a customer walks in and asks if the store has any Earl Grey. This time I don’t laugh. As Hobbs repeats to the customer what she had just told me -- no Earl Grey, no blends, etc., -- I get up and peruse the selection for purchase. What an amazing place. She even has a GABA tea for anti-anxiety. I only know about GABA because I once had to take gabapentin for alcohol withdrawals. It's an anti-convulsant.
So of course, you see, the Fairmont Empress offers perhaps the most famous tea service in North America, but last time I was here three years ago, it seemed like people were paying just for the place, the ambiance and the history. You know, like designer jean idiots pay just for the brand name. The tea service itself was rather traditional compared to the more esoteric offerings of other places around the neighborhood.
But now as I'm walking into the place three years later, a complete remodel is almost complete. The tearoom area is more open and friendly, the natural light more prevalent. A piano player rips into some classics from the Great American Songbook. On my last visit, customers were herded like cattle, in and out of the place, as the property tried to jam as many sittings into the space as possible. It's much more relaxed these days. The reservation desk now sits in the middle of the tearoom, surrounded by open space, rather than austerely occupying the front entryway, like some military checkpoint. The tea area connects to the main restaurant through an open walkway. Everything feels more modern, as opposed to the old-lady-style British-influenced stuffiness I experienced last time.
From my window seat overlooking the front lawn of the Empress, I hear the piano player doing I’ll Be Seeing You and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. I’m digging it. They’ve opened the whole inside of the tearoom up a tremendous bit. Everyone can see everyone else across the room. The ivy is gone from the front of the hotel. There's seems to be more room inside, with more light shining in. And Assam is on my mind.
The senior-aged server has no idea why I’m excited about the lounge tunes on the piano. This is my heritage, I tell her. I grew up playing these same cheesy listening tunes. But they’re not cheesy. These are actually great old songs. Well written songs. She laughs. Not with me, but at me. Or maybe both.
On the other hand, Kerouac was a jazz dude, of course. That speedy, agitated beatnik stuff, in particular. It fit his vibe. He probably didn’t drink enough tea.
I have to go home soon, but in Victoria, Chris Adams knows more about the history of Chinatown than any person in this entire city except for his dad, John Adams. In any case, during my last afternoon here, I meet a group at the corner of Government Street and Fisgard to start his tour. We’re all wearing wireless microphones and carrying umbrellas, since it’s pouring. But the tour is fantastic.
Chris is also a huge tea drinker. He has several pots of tea at home, just for each kind of tea. A serious connoisseur. With such a knowledge of Chinese history, he travels there quite a bit. Throughout our tour, he speaks Mandarin to many local seniors as they pass by.
Massive knowledge and research skills, this guy Chris has. This entire neighborhood, he knows it. Quite well. I learn about railroad history, opium history and how Victoria is still pissed off that Vancouver wound up being the “big” city in this part of Canada. The whole shootin’ match of Victoria Chinatown -- I drink it down slowly, sip by sip, like an aged pu’erh.
Between Chris in Victoria and Judy in Vancouver, I am turning Chinese. Channeling the Tang Dynasty poets. Tea and travel and poetry are inseparable components of life. Kerouac would be proud.
Back at Silk Road, I'm in the home stretch. It’s Harvest Moon and the manager is performing a Tea Ceremony for three of us -- it’s just me and a tourist couple, with moon cake included. I’m dreading having to go back home to San Jose, but I am content.