A Tea Ceremony

Do not call Michael Wong of The Tea Gallery a tea “master.” He prefers the term “tea evangelizer,” and views his role as a “cultural ambassador.”

At the appointment only Tea Gallery, Wong conducts tea tastings, where he instructs on the finer points of brewing Chinese tea. One can have tea tastings and attend classes to learn about Chinese tea and culture. Wong specializes in the art of preparing Chiu Jao Gong Fu Cha, tea from Chui Jao province in China.

“Gongfu doesn’t mean martial art,” explains Wong. “Gong fu just means a lot of preparation and lots of practice.” “To make a good cup of gongfu tea is something that you really have to put an effort to it,” he says. Each step has a purpose in this ancient ceremony, with it’s arcane steps of heating the tea pot and cups with boiling water, to steeping tea leaves for a specific amount of time, and discarding the first brew designed to unlock the flavor of the leaves.

A tea ritual represents a meditation for Wong. “It feels like you are focused on doing just one thing,” says Wong who prefers silence so he can appreciate the sound of the water being poured or the tea leaves rustling. A perfect accompaniment to a tea ceremony would be the sound of nature and birds chirping or the gentle contemplative strains of a qin, a Chinese string instrument.

In making the above video, Wong goes through the process of brewing a roasted and unroasted Ti Kuan Yin, an oolong tea from China, named after the Chinese Goddess of Mercy. “The reason we like to use three seeping is because you want to appreciate the tea properly, “ he instructs. “You want to take small sips, rather than try to gulp down the tea in one go.”

A description of the story:

Michael Wong and his wife, Winnie Lee, started their tea shop, The Tea Gallery, in 2004 and moved to their downtown location at 21 Howard Street in November 2010. Their tea venture, located at 21 Howard Street, sprung out of Wong’s family’s antique business, where they used to serve customers tea. Wong and Lee are Hong Kong expats who brought their appreciation of Chinese tea culture with them to America.

“I call myself a cultural ambassador,” explains Wong. “Or tea evangelizer.” He demurs that he is not a tea master. “Master of tea, or tea master is a word where anything that involves tea, you have to be good at,” Wong says. He elaborates that
“You might be able to make a good cup of tea, but there are other process, from picking tea leaves, to rolling the leaves, there are so many different parts of it” and “other people involved.”

The video above shows a method of making tea with a clay teapot and small cups designed to enhance the appreciation of each leaves taste and aroma. “A lot of times people would ask, why are you using these small cups,” chuckles Wong, who says the cups he uses are “almost restaurant size,” and considerably bigger than cups normally used in a traditional tea ceremony. The purpose of the size small cups are “to help you, while you drink you are not going to gulp. It makes you try to drink it by slurping and savoring it.”

As Wong brewed a roasted Ti Kuan Yin, and Chinese oolong translated as “Iron Goddess,” he instructs, that at the third seeping, “you will see how the aroma and the flavor will kind of like merge together as one.” The method used to brew tea, from the amount of leaves used to the temperature of the water creates various flavors. For the roasted tea, Wong points out that he uses much more leaves compared to the non-roasted batch, which is one of ways to drink this tea, “we make it very strong, almost like an espresso.”

Drinking a good cup of tea, it kind of opens you to another world, kind off. You start to see things a little bit different. It kind of relaxes you. It also helps you focus.

Like you are in a zone. Your worries are sort of behind you. You don’t feel those worries when you are making tea. You are infused into just what you are doing. So I think it’s a very good meditation

You can also smell the lid.

When I’m making tea, I want tO put my kind of like, 100 percent of every part of my senses into making it.

From tea you meet friends. You’re able to meet interesting people through tea.

I have met a lot of people through this journey. Actually there are a lot of photographers; there are a lot of musicians. They are very particular. It’s like
This thing about timing or something. To me, when you take a photograph, developing a film, or everything else has to do with timing. Actually making tea is also very much about timing.

A short behind-the-scenes story about how I found the character, something interesting that happened that’s not in the final piece, why I created this story:

I’ve always been interested in traditional Chinese and Japanese methods of preparing tea and the proper way to brew teas and make coffee. I searched for a tea “master” to instruct me, and was intrigued when Michael insisted that he wasn’t fit to be called a tea master, but preferred to think of himself as a tea “evangelizer” awakening people to the subtleties of different verities of tea.

Most of the footage for the tea preparing sequence was shot on the first day. When I returned the second day to talk more wide shots, and open the scene up with the intention to showcase the beautiful gallery, I was thrown off when Michael cut his chin length hair to a closely shorn crop! I also went the second time later in the afternoon, and the different lighting, coupled with the different hair meant that when I was editing I ended up using all the first day footage, but the interviews from the second visit.

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