Cups of Tea:
On the Road in Montréal
Story and photos by Gary Singh
15,000 cups of tea are following me in Montréal
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.
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.
Push the button and smell
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
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.
One exhibit at Les Routes du thé
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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