“Do you know where Jane’s Tea is?” I ask a Chinese salesman standing in a Pender Street gift shop.
The man frowns and stares back at me, puzzled. “Is that a tea house?”
“Han Fung Cha Yi,” I say, repeating the name of the shop in Mandarin Chinese. I’m heading there to participate in a cultural event for ExplorASIAN, but I thought the shop would be easy to find and neglected to write down its address—now, all I can remember is the name of the store and nothing else.
His eyes glow with sudden recognition. “It’s right across the street.”
I chuckle and turn away, my cheeks turning red. Aside from the lone Millennium Gate with orange rooftops and gray columns that stands out as a landmark, everywhere look the same to me–red posts with Chinese signs, worn shops, and clusters of locals with T&T grocery bags. The stores all meld together, blurring and disappearing in the landscape.
Only after he points out the store, I notice it—the characters Han Fung on a wooden plaque, marking an entrance way with crimson doors and window displays of wooden tea sets. I’ve never been good at way finding, but how did I miss the shop when it’s so close by?
The high-pitched melody of an er hu, a Chinese two-stringed lute, greets me as I step inside. A man dressed like an ancient Chinese schoolmaster sits at the centre, surrounded by others wearing dresses or t-shirts and jeans.
Co-hosts Ariadne Sawyer and Jim-Wong Chu welcome the guests, followed by Godwin Barton, who gives a traditional First Nations welcome and shares his poetry. Joanna Wang plays several melodies on her er hu and Jim enchants the audience with the myth of the Coffee Ghost. I share my poetry along with Elaine Woo, Duke Ashrafuzzaman, Grant Hsu, Angelica Pohveherskie, Synn Kune Loh, who accompanies himself with guitar, and Kwame A. Yirenski, a visiting poet and artist from Ghana. Kowali Berman also demonstrates hand movements in Indian dance while teaching how they benefit physical and spiritual health.
After these performances, I head through a narrow doorway at the back of the shop, stumbling into a tiny courtyard. Xin Shu, dressed in a white martial arts costume, slices her sword through the air as she jumps and twirls, demonstrating kung fu.
Jim ends the event by briefly recounting memories of Canton Alley and Shanghai Alley—the former centres of Chinatown, now abandoned and forgotten by all except a few old timers.
“Every time I tell the story, it’s different,” Jim says in a smooth, thoughtful voice when we return to the tea shop. His hands wave emphatically as his eyes sweep across the room, dazed, as if lost in a distant place and time. “That’s the beauty of a good story. One that you can tell backwards and forwards, again and again… Find those stories that really get your imagination going, that give you a new way of seeing something.”
As the crowds disperse, I linger behind, savoring the tea and red bean pastries, the recited poems, the traditional melodies, the sword dance. Like stories that can be told again and again, they repeat in my mind, morphing and taking on new meanings. The tea sets, stone pendants, and Chinese watercolor landscape paintings in the tea shop become enchanting fragments of Chinatown’s past.
On Pender Street, the stores no longer fade into the background; I take a few steps, pause to glance at a gift shop, then take several stops and pause again. The lives of those who once lived and the few who remain in the neighborhood still seem beyond my grasp; their stories are locked behind gates and hidden in courtyards. But when I stop to caress the coarse wall of the alley beside Jane’s Tea–the narrowest in the neighborhood–I can almost hear the whispers and footsteps of those who came before, ghostly echoes reminiscent of a lively Chinatown.
I’m delving into journalism this summer, with a focus on narratives about travel, culture, and the arts. As a result, I decided to cover this event organized by ExplorASIAN in partnership with World Poetry, where I had the honor of sharing my poetry. Thank you to the amazing hosts, performers, and attendees! Please follow my blog for my next article.