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A priceless sip of old Beijing - Lao She Teahouse

By Ye Jun (China Daily)

08:09, September 10, 2012

Yin Zhijun (in white cap), the general manager of Lao She Teahouse, sells dawan cha with her father Yin Shengxi, founder of the teahouse. This photo was taken in 1999. (China Daily)

Tourists flock to this teahouse, attracted by the performances, the sing-song orders of the waiters, the old-world ambience and a simple serving of tea. Ye Jun tells us more about an old Beijing tradition.

A big bowl of tea offered to the thirsty is priceless, according to Yin Zhijun, general manager of the Lao She Teahouse in Beijing. That's why the teahouse still offers dawan cha, tea served in a big bowl, although the tradition has become almost obsolete elsewhere in the capital.

At the turn of the 20th century, these big bowls of tea were sold everywhere at roadside tea stands, a convenience offered to travelers, visitors and residents. But after New China was established in 1949, the tea stalls were abolished.

Lao She Teahouse was started in the early days of the economic reform of the 1980s, when the founder started selling big bowls of tea. As business boomed and the teahouse earned a reputation, the owners restored it to its former glory in 2004, and another tradition was revived and maintained to this day.

That bowl of jasmine-scented oolong tea is probably still the cheapest drink in Beijing, available in front of the Lao She Teahouse in Qianmen, at the heart of the capital. A bowl costs 2 fen ($0.03). But if you don't have the exact change, you just pay with what you have.

The counter is manned by two of Lao She Teahouse's waiters, and they sell tea drawn from a portable container, alongside two plastic buckets full of porcelain bowls and a paper box for the coins.

Many people no longer have 2-fen coins, so they often pay with a 5-fen coin, or a 10-fen coin. The tea is available daily from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, and at least several hundreds will stop by each day, according to Yin.

During peak tourist periods such as the May Day holidays or the National Day vacations in October, the tea stall serves more than a thousand thirsty patrons a day.

Lao She Teahouse makes very little from the almost-free service.

The nice, aromatic bowl of jasmine tea comes at a price. According to one manager, the tea used costs about 100 yuan ($15.74) per 500 grams, not a bad quality tea judging from its taste and price. Two fen per bowl hardly covers the cost.

In fact, the teahouse invests hundreds of thousands each year in the tea, water, hygiene and labor needed to maintain the tea stand, according to Yin. It is a homage to the teahouse's founder and history.

Yin Shengxi, Yin Zhijun's father, resigned from the civil service in 1979 and applied for a license to sell tea.

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