A teahouse where locals go for friendship, entertainment

The tradition of tea drinking and performances of old storytelling lives on in a teahouse on Qibao Old Street. Many colorful oldsters pass time there with great enjoyment.
Wang Rongjiang

The Qibao Teahouse combines traditions of drinking tea, socializing and watching storytelling performances.

Wang Rongjiang

Many of the patrons are retirees who enjoy a daily chitchat over tea.

I have visited a number of ancient water towns, often to leave feeling disappointed. The cafés with modern interiors, the stores selling cheap versions of cheongsam dresses, the silver trinkets and sometimes tacky souvenirs, and even the stench of stinky tofu stalls.

The traditional, easygoing lifestyle that local residents there followed for thousands of years — the soul of the ancient towns — seems to have gotten swallowed up by crass commercialism and a loss of charm.

Just like other ancient towns, Qibao Old Street in Minhang District has become a popular tourist attraction. It’s only about a 40-minute drive from downtown Shanghai.

As I strolled through a shabby back alley and over a stone bridge there, I found a hidden gem — the Qibao Teahouse.

It’s located in an area of shops selling local culinary specialties like pig’s trotters and boiled lamb. But it’s more than just a site for having a cup of tea. The teahouse features a placard outside announcing entertainment on tap for the day. Perhaps a performance of traditional pinghua storytelling, which originated in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279).

When I stepped into the teahouse, the customers — all elderly men — looked me up and down. I suppose that they seldom see younger women there.

Even the mosquitoes gave me a “warm welcome,” resulting in six insect bites in half an hour.

“The elderly patrons are mainly in their 70s and 80s,” said a female cashier surnamed Wei. “The oldest is in his 90s. Your young skin is much more inviting than theirs, so the mosquitoes of course seize the opportunity to bite you.”

I paid 20 yuan (US$3) for tea and the performance. That was more expensive than advertised online.

“The price went up on July 1,” Wei explained.

How had that affected business, I asked.

“It goes without saying,” said Wei, “That you think the price is expensive, let alone the oldsters.”

Nevertheless, the teahouse was still crowded. Of its six tables, the one nearest to the antique wooden doors was the most popular, with seven people seated there. They talked among themselves while keeping an eye on passers-by outside.

No doubt because of hearing loss, some of the old men talked loudly and in a local dialect. Their conversation seemed to center around family relationships, politics, the stock market and food bought in the wet market.

“I leave home at 11 in the morning and walk 30 minutes to the teahouse every day,” said an 82-year-old man. “It’s my daily routine. My wife passed away around 20 years ago, so I come here to pass time. I have made many friends here.”

Indeed, the teahouse is small, close-knit community unto itself.

One of the regular customers kindly advised me that I didn’t have to pay the full price for the tea. He told me to just give the cashier 10 yuan next time.

But I thought the 20 yuan was well spent. It buys green tea or black tea brewed in a Yixing zisha teapot.

The teahouse harks back to Old Shanghai. It contains a laohuzao, or literally “tiger stove,” which was traditionally used to boil water, and square, wooden tables called baxian and old-style benches.

Wang Rongjiang

One patron passes time in the teahouse by reading a newspaper and listening to the radio.

Wang Rongjiang

A laohuzao, or literally “tiger stove” traditionally used to boil water, remains in the teahouse.

It’s a marvelous place to rub shoulders with old Shanghainese happy to discuss their life experiences with young people.

One elderly man wearing a neat white shirt and a pair of white and orange boat shoes came and talked to me. Our conversation started from Yixing zisha teapot. The elderly man seemed to be well-educated, with a very distinctive personality.

“I’m 72 years old, modestly,” he informed me. “When some people get up to offer me their seats on the bus, I always feel upset and politely refuse them.”

According to him, the “modesty” means the real age minus five years.

Life is full of wonderful moments of coincidence. Talking further, we were surprised to find that we shared the surname Zhu, which is somewhat rare, and come from the same native place. At some moments, I had the illusion that I was talking to my grandfather, who died when my father was young and never met.

Thinking the teahouse was too noisy, Zhu invited me to have lunch with him at McDonald’s.

“Actually, I don’t have friends here at the teahouse,” he confided in me. “We rarely have shared interests. I like the symphony and ballet, about which they know nothing. They often talk about trivial matters, and I am reluctant to get involved in the meaningless discussions.”

When we got there, Zhu told me he had already had two burgers for breakfast as he asked a waitress to change his drink from Coke to Americano.

“I relocated from the old city of Shanghai to Qibao,” he told me. “I once participated in the construction of the Qibao station of Metro Line 9, so I have feelings for the place. Several years ago, I wanted to live comfortably in retirement and moved to a villa in Qingpu District.”.

Previously, he said, he visited the teahouse about twice a week. This time, he was in the area to see a dentist. One of his front teeth was knocked out when he ate hairy crab the day before, he said.

Zhu said he wakes at 6am and spends an hour reading the news on his iPad in bed.

“My wife once had heart bypass surgery, so she stays home, doing gardening and raising chickens and ducks,” Zhu said. “She’s actually a bit wild at heart.”

Since childhood, Zhu said, he has been obsessed with pingtan, a music or oral storytelling genre that originated in the city of Suzhou and typically uses the Suzhou dialect.

“Performances were held in a camp near my neighborhood when I was young,” he said. “We children always watched the shows for free. My favorite stories are about swordsmen. Every boy dreams of becoming a hero. I often fancied myself as the main character of stories.”

As he spoke, Zhu moves his arms as if brandishing a sword.

“My mother didn’t receive any formal education, but she learned history, politics and morality through pingtan,” Zhu added.

Returning to the teahouse, we watched the pinghua performance. Normally, a performing troupe comes to the teahouse for a half-month stay. The storyteller narrates one chapter of a story each day.

Wang Rongjiang

A storyteller gives a pinghua performance in the Suzhou dialect, drawing on ancient heroic themes.

Luckily for Zhu, the story being told on this day was just about three swordsmen of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). I didn’t understand the content of the story because the narrator spoke in the Suzhou dialect. However, through the old man’s facial expressions, I could follow the characters’ emotional development. His almost toothless smile came from the heart.

Separated from the main tea-drinking area, the shuchang, or literally “storytelling hall,” seats about 220. But the day I was there, only 20 people attended, including one middle-aged woman and a young man. Three in the audience snoozed during the performance. Others ate seed snacks and chatted as they watched the performance.

Maybe for them, just being among other people was enough.

“How is it possible that a general of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) meets its counterpart of the Qing Dynasty?” one member of the audience asked aloud. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The history buff-cum-critic was surnamed Li, a former senior engineer who shifted into commerce in 1988.

There was a chessboard and chess pieces in his recycled fabric bag.

“After having lunch with my wife, I normally come to the teahouse while she plays the piano at home,” said Li, who is in his 70s. “After the performance is over, I play chess with other elderly men near the bell tower in Qibao Old Street.”

In the next 15 minutes, Li shared with me his opinions on investments, the real estate market and immigration.

A calligraphy corner is set up in the courtyard of the teahouse, with three tables for calligraphy lovers to meet and chat.

I found it heartwarming to see that more Chinese senior citizens are creating lives beyond just caring for children and grandchildren. They are independent, make friends, engage in social activities outside the home and cultivate hobbies.

“You’re never too old to learn,” said Zhu. “I don’t want to be obsolete.”

Wang Rongjiang

A calligraphy corner is set up in the courtyard of the teahouse.

Qibao Teahouse

Open: 5:30am-4pm

Address: 9 South Street, Qibao Old Street, Qibao Town

How to get there: Take Metro Line 9 to the Qibao Station. Get out at Exit 2.

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