For Instants, hotelier-writer Marie-Christine Clément shares her travelogue in six exquisite, “unforgettable moments” across China, exploring the land’s traditional crops and culture. The second leg of this journey takes us to Chaptel Hangzhou for a secret tea-time.
They walk arm in arm along the shore of West Lake. They sing and laugh, they talk loudly and freely tease and jostle the boys. These are the new Chinese girls, impeccably turned out in their red and white makeup, long coats, and gleaming nails. Today is Saturday. They have stuck small, multicolored windmills in their hair that spin with the speed of their footsteps. In the distance, a boisterous crowd rushes over the broken bridge, indefatigably repeating the pilgrimage around the lake, marching to the imperious blare of the loudspeakers belonging to the guides who herd the masses beneath their conspicuously colorful banners. Along the Su Causeway, the soft yellow locks of weeping willows sway in the breeze. Entwined lovers snuggle before the ducks. In the Melting Snow Pavilion, an operatic artist sings herself hoarse trying to outdo the impatient horns. It's a springtime Saturday like any other in Hangzhou. A father guides his son’s first wobbling attempts on a bike; a photographer is in raptures at modest buttercups; onlookers with chiseled faces, Mao jackets and hands behind their backs gaze, mesmerized, through the display window of a Starbucks coffee shop. In the distance, the impassive, flat-bottomed boats glide over the lake towards the Leifeng Pagoda.
Just outside town, workers are picking the first Longjing leaves and the village’s narrow streets attract passers-by with the smell of freshly roasted tea. But only savvy connoisseurs truly know. Between the lake and the luxurious stores along Ping Hai Road is a little-known address, the former residence of General Yin Lu. The visitor ventures beneath a porch, walks along high, dark-brick walls of purest Shikumen style, to come upon a labyrinth of small courtyards and narrow inner streets, the longtang. I'm sitting in the last courtyard, the farthest away. From behind every window, people are perhaps watching me. The dark wood screens shield me from inquisitive eyes. Parasols bloom broadly and lean over the tables. The ‘five o'clock’ can begin. Someone brings a large English porcelain teapot, the cups are adorned with pink roses, the three-tiered serving tray is copiously covered with caviar-stuffed eggs, salmon bites, pineapple madeleines and raspberry macarons. Cakes striped with blueberry frosting, creamy swirls and chocolate commas compete for the appetite’s attention. The tea will be an Orange Pekoe from Ceylon, neither milk nor cream in short supply. At the next table, an elegant woman watches her child intent on a coloring book, while on the other side of the pruned boxwood bush, people discuss business in muffled voices. Tonight, the illumined lake will replay notable scenes of grandiloquent mythology and, on the promenade, along the shores of the lake, the young girls will buy large, glowing balloons that will bounce through the darkness like phosphorescent jellyfish.