Feature: Exhibit profiling China's "greatest gift" proves a hit in Olympic City

09:31, March 09, 2010      

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by Al Campbell

Bryan Mulvihill is the kind of person you would likely really enjoy having a cup of tea with.

As the founder of the World Tea Party, a multi-media show currently running in Vancouver during the city's recent hosting of the Winter Olympic Games and upcoming Paralympics, the 59-year-old Canadian is a veritable encyclopedia about "China's greatest gift to the world" and how the simple beverage transcends cultures and is ultimately "a living art form."

In an old building that previously served as a bank and was originally the inter-city train station on Vancouver's downtown eastside, the country's poorest address notorious for its army of homeless people, Mulvihill, whose surname sounds like an exotic blend of tea itself, is holding court.

Surrounding him is a recreation of a Japanese tea house complete with tatami mats, various types of tea-making apparatus, Chinese scrolls, a sideboard full of old delicate china cups and jars of various types of teas from around the globe. There is also more hi-tech equipment in cameras, videos and projection screens, used for "Tea TV" broadcasts to watch and share in other people enjoying their tea parties in such far-off destinations as Shanghai, Beijing and London, to name but a few.

Mulvihill says since tea is now everywhere, far traveled from its original Chinese roots, it has become a world culture.

"Tea is something that wherever it's traveled, it's also manifest in a cultural context. It is not just this habit of drinking tea it is also this sense of human meeting ritual, and human interaction. Some sense of appreciating and creating a social and cultural occasion," he says.

He adds having tea is not like dinner or inviting someone to spend the weekend. With tea you can invite someone over that you hardly know or don't know at all.

"There a little bit of a ritual associated with it, a sense of a brief but aesthetically pleasing harmonious moment of sharing this simple beverage," he explains. "You wouldn't prepare tea and then drink it two hours later. It brings you into the present moment. You can quite simply do it in front of the guest, but at the same time, it's something that takes a minute off your busy day and brings you back into the now, the present."

Mulvihill, who is also an accomplished ink brush painter, says he first took an interest in all-things Asian as a child, enraptured by Vancouver's vibrant Chinese community. Creating a " mythological tea house" as an art project in the late 1960s, he took his passion to a new level a few years later when he made his first of many trips to Asia, marking the start of his large collection of tea-related iconography in visiting tea houses and photographing them.

In the early 1990s he collaborated with Quebec multimedia artist Daniel Dionne for the first World Tea Party to showcase his tea iconography for a show at Ottawa's National Gallery. With the popularity of its subject matter, the show took off and in the past 19 years has had over 90 manifestations, large and small, most notably at London's Kew Gardens and Victoria and Albert Museum, the Venice Biennial and in front of 17,000 people at Los Angeles' famed Hollywood Bowl. This summer, the show returns to Britain for the London Biennial with plans to hit New Delhi, India in the fall for the Commonwealth Games.

Mulvihill, who will be traveling to China next month, particularly to the southern province of Guangdong, where he will indulge in his passion for Ying De Hong (red tea -- or black tea as Westerners call it), says he would love to put on a show in the birthplace of tea where the first recorded mention of the plant was in 2 A.D..

In his travels to China, Mulvihill says he is constantly discovering teas not known in the West, ways of preparing them and the attitudes toward them that change quite a lot in different places around the country.

"China, of course, has a very old tea culture, and a very diverse one. But it has gone through a lot of changes during the various periods, in particular the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A lot of the old tea houses and the old sort of daily tea culture began to disappear rapidly. But now it's coming back and it really is integral to Chinese culture," he observes.

If given the chance to present his World Tea Party in China, Mulvihill's presentation would be over-the-top as he would like to do a Song Dynasty (960-1279) or Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) tea gathering to recreate the cultural traditions of a very specific type of tea.

He says with modern Chinese increasingly traveling around China and overseas, domestic consumers have become more demanding of the quality of the tea they drink. The same too has happened in foreign countries as green teas, oolong, ma cha (a green tea where the young leaves are ground into a fine powder) and white tea have become really popular, especially among yoga practitioners and health food consumers who will pay good money for high-end brews.

For domestic consumers looking to sample what's beyond China's border, he recommends high-quality black teas from Assam and Darjeeling in India, Ceylonese teas from Sri Lanka and Rooibos tea, a herbal hybrid from South Africa.

"With all this interest in tea, what they (Chinese tea companies) should really do is support the culture initiative. It is through the culture of tea that people really come to understand it and there could be a very harmonious relationship in the arts associated with tea," Mulvihill says with passionate conviction.

"It's not just a marketing ploy, that's where Starbucks is a different thing. It's a total marketing ploy. It is much better to promote tea through cultural events. The tea houses in China really were the cultural centers, they were the origins," he notes.

Hank Bull, executive director of the Vancouver International Center for Contemporary Asian Art (Center A) where the World Tea Party is exhibiting until March 21, says the show has been a huge success with record crowds, especially appreciated by those overwhelmed by the Olympic masses and lengthy line-ups.

"People are finding that the World Tea Party is an oasis of calm in the midst of all the Olympic excitement. While many of the Olympic sites are overrun with rock bands and people drinking and crowds, line-ups, this is a sanctuary," he said.

"We have had lots of people who have come back three, four, five times even. We had someone who came virtually every day because they just loved it. It's free and you can come in and have a cup of tea. It's a very interesting ambiance. It's not like going to Starbucks because it is not a commercial thing. It's just an open space."

Source: Xinhua
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