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15,000 Cups of Tea:
On the Road in Montréal

Story and photos by Gary Singh

panoramic view of Montreal
15,000 cups of tea are following me in Montréal

poster for the Les Routes du the exhibit at Pointe-a-Collie, Montreal
Les Routes du thé

hroughout the world, 15,000 cups of tea are consumed every second. In Montréal, I feel like every single of one of them is following me. Just seconds after confessing to my hosts the muse-like nature of tea in my life back home, and that I'd like to visit some tea-related places while in Montréal, we walk up the steps, toward the side entrance of Pointe-à-Callière, in order to dine in the restaurant upstairs. As soon as we cross the threshold – bang! – the tea poster appears on the wall in front of us. A shining synchronicity.

Turns out Les Routes du thé, an exhibit at Pointe-à-Callière, explores the entire history of tea. My hosts did not originally know of my intentions to explore tea in Montréal and I didn't know the exhibit was even happening. Synchronicities of this nature usually indicate a heightened sense of awareness, meaning, I must write. The muse is with me. I can tell because the first text panel in the exhibit finishes with this: "Poetry, sophistication, and an abiding love of tea await you at every step along the way. Welcome!"

I walked in that door for a reason.

circular display of twelve different jars of loose-leaf tea
Surrounded by a few thousand years of tea culture

What a welcome, I think, as I read the first panel. I was not expecting this. Throughout the show, I see displays and artifacts. I read explications of tea routes throughout the Old World, plus histories of various tea methods and prominent events. Luminous video projections constantly change across cloth tapestries. In one area, there's even a circular display of twelve different jars of loose-leaf tea, each with a large red button. One pushes the button, which opens a vent, and then one takes in the aroma, straight out of the jar.

circular display of loose-leaf tea with a large red button for letting out tea aroma
Push the button and smell

Chinese character for tea
Chinese character for tea

The Chinese character for tea figures prominently in the exhibit. It hangs, ten feet-tall, from crossbeams and I learn its history. In the third century BCE, it was pronounced tu, referring to a bitter herb. However, a later emperor ordered that the character, when referring to tea, should be pronounced cha.

Other sections of the show document the role of tea in Buddhism, the Victorian era and the rise of the U.S. colonies. The history of the world is the history of tea itself, it appears. And French Canada just winds up being the place where I experience this history. Parfait.

This is a happy synchronicity. Just as I'm telling my friends that tea is my muse and I should probably seek out some tea-related experiences, this show explodes out of nowhere. I don't go looking for Les Routes du thé. The exhibit just comes into my life unexpectedly. I don't find the road; instead, the road finds me. A collective muse of 15,000 interconnected teacups watches over me, I'm certain of it.

exhibit at Les Routes du thé showing the role of tea during the Victorian era
One exhibit at Les Routes du thé


display at the Ming Tao Xuan tea shop
The mysterious Ming Tao Xuan tea shop

Situated on Rue Saint-Sulpice, a cobblestone street bordering the famous Notre-Dame Basilica in Montréal, the Ming Tao Xuan tea shop is a peculiar and esoteric place. I cannot possibly know the family that runs this joint, but I feel a sense of mystery within seconds of walking in the door. I feel like lurking for hours, but the proprietor is already observing me, as if I'm up to something. And they won't let me take photos, so I have to sneak a few.

Without exaggeration, at least 100 sets of imported Chinese teaware, on various shelves, floor to ceiling, highlight the establishment. One shelf runs the length of the whole place, straight down the middle and is filled with teapots and cups of all shapes, colors and sizes. Every corner of the joint is stuffed with more artifacts and statues, more Buddhist ephemera and even still more teapots. Along the window, on the other side of the bisecting partition, one finds a handful of beautifully carved tables where people dine and drink tea with meditative slowness. Unidentifiable aromas of loose-leaf teas fill the room. People talk in a hush-hush manner while their tableware clinks. The chilly drizzle and totality of grayness outside turns the window reflections into a scattered mush, while the basilica bells across the street chime away with grandeur.

teaware at Ming Tao Xuan at the Rue Saint-Sulpice
At Ming Tao Xuan, looking through the teaware towards Rue de Brésoles

Two menus present themselves to me, one for dining in and the other for purchasing any of the hundred-plus loose leaf blends, which are stored in containers, floor to ceiling, behind the front counter. The layout of the whole place seems designed according to feng shui principles. A free and eloquent energy seems to flow through the property.

In a strange way, the family in charge exudes an odd secrecy, without even trying, which intrigues me even more. It seems as if there exists something here I'm not being completely clued in on, like I've not yet penetrated the inner circle. I am not yet a true adept, or something similar.

In any event, the variety of tea here is plentiful, with dozens of oddball Chinese blends ruling the scene. The family scampers about the place, chattering to each other in Chinese and to the tourist customers in both French and English. In another strange way, it feels like a Cold War-era scene straight out of a John Le Carre novel. I imagine, somewhere in this place, a clandestine exchange of intelligence information is going on, as if, immediately outside, the hundreds of tourists milling around the basilica should have no idea that buried within this mysterious tea shop a secret transnational rendezvous is unfolding at one of the tables.

honey ginger tea
Honey ginger tea is excellent for digesting everything in the universe

I also discover through second-hand hearsay that someone at Ming Tao Xuan is a bona fide tasseomancer who does tea leaf readings. That is, once your cup is done, they "read" the remaining leaves and determine your fortune. Which only adds to the overall esoteric mystery of this wonderful place.

It's the tea that elicits these thoughts, but in a positive way. The tea is a fortifier, a galvanizer, a muse. My crass judgmental associating of the Chinese with secrecy is transformed into something more positive and creative instead. The tea, as a muse, tells me this. It conjures up the poetic and the surreal, while transforming the depressions, frustrations and critical nonsense of everyday life into much more useful attributes.


The road of tea unfolds again at Birk's Café par Europea in Square Phillips. This is not some exotic cauldron of mystery. Far from it. Rather, Birk's is one of Canada's premier luxury jewelry brands and this Montréal location is one of its flagship stores.

Another synchronicity. My friends in Montréal have no idea I'm even interested in tea, yet Birk's, a place they were already planning on taking me to, is one of the most popular spots for high tea in the whole city. A variety of $150-dollar teapots occupy glass shelves like royalty and the tea menu offers such elaborate concoctions like, Thé sur le Nil, a "fine green tea enhanced with refined spices and citrus fruit from exotic countries."

That last blend, for example, evokes intrigues from the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I feel transported to 1940s Egypt, where "in my mind's eye the city rises against the flat mirror of the green lake and the broken loins of sandstone mark the desert's edge." And especially since Thé sur le Nil is served to me in a heavy cast iron teapot, austere and ritualistic in its half-eastern, half-western presence, I channel the slime of plot and counterplot from the Alexandria Quartet, right there at the table. Very inspiring.

Again, it's the tea that conjures up these thoughts. The muse is doing things with me that I cannot control.

teaware from Birk's Café par Europea
Opulent teaware from Birk's Café par Europea

As customers wander in from the cold Montréal rain and sit down amid the high-end teaware and the boxed sets of exquisite macarons, there are no secrets here and no fortune telling. I think next time I will try the Rouge Métis, a Rooibos tea from South Africa.

After those 15,000 cups of tea finally finish with me, I can say my life is better as a result. I have found the road.

macarons from Birk's Café par Europea
Macarons from Birk's Café par Europea

Related Articles:
The Ravan in Edmonton; Prince Rupert/Digby Island Airport; Calgary Folk Fest; Canadian Rockies; Queen Charlotte Islands; Toronto; New Brunswick Autumn; My Private Montreal

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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA

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