The Chinese Tea Ceremony is one of the most meaningful and popular components of the Museum’s annual Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas festival. Held in the serene women’s balcony, the ceremony teaches participants the fine points of serving, enjoying, and honoring tea in the Chinese tradition. It’s a complex history, and the ceremony’s leader, Ken Lo, has been studying the tradition for nearly 30 years. We spoke with Ken about the Lower East Side, his journey in learning traditional Chinese arts, and what makes the tea ceremony such a meaningful experience. Read all about it below!
How did you first get involved with the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas festival?
I was born here and I kind of spent my early childhood here. I lived in a tenement building, had the bathtub in the kitchen. It was kind of like a railroad apartment. It was really crazy, little holes in the wall. This was life.
This area was predominantly Jewish, but then the Chinese started moving in and took over. In New York City, and, you know, Manhattan, it’s not a really a melting pot but a tapestry of different cultures, who all have their own little area. So there are these little enclaves of different colors and when you see them kind of converging a little bit, in one small area, like here, where you have three cultures, actually, it’s nice to represent them and see them.
The festival has always tried to have elements of traditional Jewish culture, and elements of Chinese culture. And the last few years, they decided to add Latin and Spanish culture, because there’s also a Latin community here. And it’s kind of a day that is very interesting, because you get to see the makeup of these three cultures in this little community. [At the beginning,] I was a liaison to the Chinese Community. I would do the MC work, and I am a Kung Fu master. So we would have a demonstration of Kung Fu and the Lion Dance. And this was many years ago, maybe six or eight years ago. But then I suggested to them, maybe they should do a tea ceremony because it’s very rare art.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Chinese Tea ceremony?
What the Chinese tea ceremony is about is really, really good tea.
So why is it a ceremony? It’s a ceremony because to make the tea really good, you have to make a tea concentrate, and to make the tea concentrate, you need skill.
So they call this in Chinese culture, they call this “high skill tea” or Gong Fu Cha. The Gung Fu is also used in martial arts because it means high skill. And it’s used in tea because it requires high skill to make this tea. So there are people who train in making tea really well with very good tea. And I’m one of those people, I have a tea master that I’ve had now for 29 years. At year 30, I will officially have finished my training and be a tea master myself. So I’m one year away from being truly a master. So during a ceremony, I’m going to curate a bunch of teas and I’m going to take you on a little tea journey. I’m going to start you with this kind of tea, and then move you to that kind of tea and other kinds of tea. And I’m going to move you from levels of teas, from one level to a higher level, higher level, higher level. So if you stay for a full ceremony, which takes two hours, you’ll reach a crescendo like this, with the best tea at the very end when your palate has been prepared for it.
What have you learned on your 30-year journey to become a tea master?
You learn all about the leaves, the kinds of varieties of teas, the age of the trees, where they come from, the weather conditions that affect the tea, everything about the horticultural aspects of tea. Then you learn about the process of how they dry the tea and turn it from green to oolong to red. And then you learn the properties of each of those teas. And of course, all along the way, you’re drinking amazing tea, you’re drinking the best green tea, the best oolong tea, the best red tea. And you learn what makes them the best.
The Chinese word for art is the same as the word for beauty. So the tea table is arranged as a work of art with very beautiful tea ware, beautiful tea pots that are collector artworks. And the tea, is of course, really, really fine tea. Then the way that we drink it, the way that we make it, is with great care and reverence like this tea is precious, which it is. And then we drink it very slowly with a lot of attention. And it becomes like a meditation.
The tea, when it’s really, really good does somehow affect your mind. Not like a drug, but like it’s a guide that encourages you to see things in a certain way, look at this and look at that, notice this and notice that. You become very alert and your senses become very refined.
In Buddhism, they serve tea to people meditating, to keep them awake and keep their mind clear. And when we do the tea ceremony, we bring people to kind of a meditative state in the process. And during that time, I show people art. I create my own art, Chinese art. I am a calligrapher. And I explain Chinese art and the principles of Chinese art and what that’s about. And then I read poems that I write about tea and about life and about art. And by doing that, we create this whole world. It’s a little bit like the European salon where people have these philosophic discussions. It’s like a discovery of the world of beauty and art and creativity. So we talk about tea in a poetic way. We look at art, we might listen to music, some of this wonderful music happening here during the festival. I’m an artist, my teacher’s an artist, and we practice tea drinking as a part of our art. And the ceremony is this beautiful, elaborate, wonderful experience.
When did you know you wanted to learn all this?
I used to throw Chinese New Year parties every year. And I’d invite like, 60 people to my home, and I would spend two days in preparation of this. And one day, a friend of mine invited this person who was his teacher, his calligraphy teacher, to my party. His name is the same as mine, by the way, Mr. Lo. I’m serving him a very nice Darjeeling tea, but he drinks Chinese teas only. I gave it to him and he’d just leave it on the table. Then, as he moved around, I’d move the tea and put it in front of him again. And he’d always kind of just leave it there. And then toward the end of the party he took out this little tea kit. It was tiny little cups and tiny little pots. He started making tea. And I’m like, “Oh, what is this?” So he served the tea to me, I drank the tea. And I just thought it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever had in my life.
Now, not everyone who taste tea of this level love it. It’s like, maybe, caviar. It’s an amazing thing but a lot of people when they first taste it say it just kind of tastes salty. So they don’t like it. But I loved it.
And so this person Mr. Lo liked me for appreciating it. So then he started coming to see me all the time. And he said, “I believe you’re an artist.” So he decided he was going to teach me art.
He started by taking me to different museums. For one year, he just took me to museums to look at Chinese works. And he would tell me everything about the works – “this is good, this is bad. This is a copy, this is a fake.” After the year, he said, “Now you tell me everything.” So I memorized that.I passed the test and told him everything.
Next he said, “I want you to pick out a Chinese calligraphy style.” There’s this one, which is like Tai Chi, it’s kind of weird and curvy. And then another one which is the classical one, like very scholarly. I wanted the one that was weird. He says “Only 15% of the people who do calligraphy want to do this one. Because nobody uses this anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s like a dead language.” And I decided to do it!
You know what he gave me for paper? He gave me like toilet paper. And then he suspended the toilet paper on toothpicks. And he gave me a kind of brush like a really rough cheap brush that’s like $1. And he had me try to write on the suspended toilet paper with a really bad brush. And it would dissolve it would be a blob. And I’m wondering why I am doing this. But that is how you begin.
When you’re a child, they teach you how to write the Chinese number one which is one stroke. Number two is two strokes. And number three, the three strokes. Very easy. But he gave me the first character to learn and the right hand had 17 strokes! Yes, that’s how you begin.
So I did that for months. And eventually I was able to actually write a character on the suspended toilet paper with a bad brush. Which meant I was able to control the wetness of the brush, so it wouldn’t go to the paper. Control is very, very important. And then to be able to suspend my arm and float and move it kind of like a machine floating above the toilet paper.
After I made my first successful character on the toilet paper, he brought out the very, very best Chinese paper that came from China. And it was this most beautiful paper that he brought out this wonderful black wool mat and put it under it. And then he gave me a brush that’s like, it’s like a jewel, made of this Fox fur, and it was so beautiful. And then I used that. And that’s how I learned calligraphy.
So once I realized what he was saying to me, I realized that you always start with the hardest. And if you can make it through the hardest, everything becomes easy in life. So the rest of my years of doing calligraphy was easy, fun, wow.
And so tea was like this, too. I drank incredibly delicious tea with him every single time we met. And then somewhere in the middle, he would serve me horrible tea, not bad tasting but difficult to drink good tea – meaning it’s very strong, very potent. And unless you are used to it, you can’t handle it. And then he taught me how to like bitter. There’s a Chinese saying, “one cannot learn a thing unless you learn to eat bitter.” There has to be some suffering in the process of learning. And it can all be fun. That’s what gives you the discipline.
We’re so grateful to Ken for taking the time to share his passion and expertise with us, during this interview and every year at our summer festival! Don’t miss your chance to experience Ken’s meditative tea ceremony yourself on Sunday June 16th. Ken’s ceremonies at the festival won’t quite last two hours like a traditional one, but he leads wonderfully immersive sessions that allow you to experience all the basics of a Chinese tea ceremony. We’re looking forward to seeing you then!
This interview was conducted by Jake Rosenberg. Jake is a playwright, folklorist, producer, and founder of American Lore Theater. Discover more about him at www.metarosenberg.com.