Tuesday June 13, 2006

Buying tea in China is a crapshoot. A friend of mine just asked me where to get tea in Shanghai. I am ashamed to say that even though I am technically a Shanghainese, I do not know. I’ve been to a few teashops in Shanghai, but none of them really stood out in quality. There was one that sold Fujianese tea, and the people there were nice, but I neither remember the name, not the exact location (I just know it’s near Old City God Temple, or Yuyuan as out-of-towners call it).

The problem with buying tea is not necessarily that there aren’t enough places. If anything, there are too many teashops, and for the most part, they sell the same stuff. In Shanghai, it’s going to be heavy on longjing and biluochun, and light on everything else. Shanghainese drink other teas, but longjing is our first love.

But for someone who’s not necessarily into tea, buying longjing (or anything else, really) is a real risk. Longjing can go from 100 RMB/jin to 5000 RMB/jin (one jin being 500g, silly mainland rationalization of Chinese weights). While even someone who knows nothing about longjing can probably tell that a 100 RMB longjing is no good, there’s no guarantee that they can tell that a 500 RMB longjing is not really worth 2000. Herein lies the danger — teashops are liable to scam you if they figured out that you don’t really know what you’re buying, whether you’re Chinese or foreign. With locals, it’s hard to scam since they figured you know the going rate, but if you look and act foreign, and especially if you look and act like you don’t know all that much about tea, you’re doomed.

Speaking Shanghainese helps, although it doesn’t always make a difference. Besides, many shopkeepers are from out of town, meaning they don’t know a word of Shanghainese, but if you start off with Shanghainese, they’d think you’re local (very few non-Shanghainese know the dialect) so they might be more on guard and less likely to give you ridiculous prices. The way I dress and look though sometimes give me away as a foreign student type, and unfortunately, recently I’ve had a number of people thinking I’m not Chinese at all. And when I’m in Beijing, all bets are off. I’m not much better off than the white guy who comes in speaking Mandarin.

In the end, I didn’t recommend a shop for my friend, since I don’t know any. Even if I do, I’d be afraid of recommending something that doesn’t turn out so well. The only defense against scammers and people trying to sell you overpriced stuff is education and knowledge… you can fake a tea’s brand, but you can’t fake a tea’s taste.


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