As we passed the junk shops, a glass teapot that was lounging on a wooden cart among its peers caught my eye.
We stood on the side of the road after a long afternoon stroll through Yuexiu Park, famed for its Statue of Five Rams. The park was finally closing, and the last of the tourists, both Chinese and foreign alike, were heading home. We decided to find a nearby place to have dinner before turning in for the night. Just outside the emptying park was a line of shops that had seen better days. They, like the park, were empty, but still open—and scattered with junk.
As we passed the junk shops, a glass teapot that was lounging on a wooden cart among its peers caught my eye. I had wanted a teapot for loose tea leaves, and this one, blanketed with the perpetual street dust of China, was only 30 Renminbi.
I moved toward the cart to more critically inspect the teapot, right beneath the awning of one of the shops. A middle-aged man sat at a low table and watched us from inside. I realized that they were quite similar, these shops, jumbled with tea and teapots nobody really wanted; it was immaterial really, a matter of chance, that we happened to stop at this one.
Soon curious, the middle-aged man came out to greet us, a calculator dangling from his hand. I assumed he was the shopkeeper, for he quickly made calculations to show me the price of the teapot in US dollars. I told him that I would take it, and, pleased with the sale, he invited us inside for tea.
He sat us down at a beautiful table of carved wood. This was his tea table. To cleanse our cups and various teapots, he poured boiling water all over his wares. Instead of splashing on us, the water found its way to a drain disguised as a decorative frog; the table was designed so perfectly that nearly every drop of liquid found its way off the its surface, sleek and shiny despite the onslaught of heated water.
After our first cup of tea, I made my second purchase. And although the shopkeeper seemed mildly pleased, absently tossing my notes in a drawer of cash, selling us tea did not appear to be his intended goal. He kept us there, serving tea after tea, as he enthusiastically explained in Chinese the health benefits of each brew. He even took out his best teas, some of which were 600 RMB per 500 grams; his passion was catching.
Before we knew it, more than an hour had passed and we were full of tea. We had barely understood the shopkeeper’s extensive knowledge of tea and its relation to Chinese medicine. But we suspected that we were merely an excuse to display his pent up passion for his craft so that it could be recognized in the world. It did not matter that we did not understand, only that we sat and drank tea.
Guangzhou is the third largest city in China. But rather than its delicious global cuisine, tourist sites, homage to Sun Yat-sen, and China-modern architecture, it is Guangzhou’s junk shops and what they preserve of Chinese culture that strike my sensibilities.
Although life is rapidly changing and these otherwise worthless junk shops will be replaced by high-end malls (as is the case in Hong Kong), there is something genuine within these cheaply-made, standardized accumulations of junk: the ancient pride of tea. And with the medicinal boiled broth of fragrant leaves comes the fact that, even in Guangzhou, things are still sometimes done out of love, rather than duty.