In 1841, the British battleship Nemesis, clad in iron, laden with guns and powered by steam, led the attack against Chinese wooden battle junks and mudbank fortifications, which were reduced to burning splinters and ashes.
The eventual result of the battle, the Treaty of Nanking, ceded Hong Kong to the British, ended the first Opium War and gave them control of the tea trade.
Meanwhile, the tea wars have begun in Manila, and they look to be just as vicious. A huge offensive has been launched by TWG, the Singapore-based luxury tea group.
Tea has never been as popular a stimulant in this country as coffee, the battleground for price-blind espresso shot drinks to get working urbanites up in the morning and keep them going through late shifts at night. Tea has been seen as the feebler alternative, more suited for dawdling and lingering and long conversations.
As it turns out, there’s a lot of money to be made from the dawdling set. TWG was full on a weekday afternoon, a time that I wouldn’t usually be wandering around the mall if our office weren’t being fumigated. It’s nestled amongst the very expensive shoe and bag shops at Greenbelt 5, and it was filled with people who had just finished buying very expensive shoes and bags.
Viennese waltz music played through the overhead speakers, and starched white tablecloths were draped over the tables and over patrons’ laps. There are few things that I love more than a good salon de thé, so I went in.
TWG isn’t a salon de thé, though. It’s a facsimile of one that was created in Singapore that takes the orientalist elements of the Paris and London tea salons (a bit of Ladurée and Angelina and Fauchon, a large bit of Fortnum and Mason) and then sells it right back to them.
There’s something very satisfying about the fact that the tea salon at Harrods, in London, is run by Asians and housed in a store now owned by a Qatar-based company. And to complete the circle, the tourists who take their tea there are mostly mainland Chinese.
The tea is brought to the table in a spherical, very shiny copper-colored teapot, like a decapitated C-3PO. Their website tells me that they have over a thousand teas, and I spent a happy half hour sniffing through what seemed like a thousand before settling, out of habit and intimidation, for an Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches and scones.
The Earl Grey packed an unusual wallop, as though the good Earl had gotten up extra early and done a couple of laps in the pool; it’s supposed to be lightly scented with bergamot and not soaked in potpourri. I exchanged it for a Smoky Russian, which was much better. It was, in fact, rather good.
The problem I have with TWG, which is not limited to the franchise here but to the concept in general, is that it doesn’t let the teas speak for themselves. Good tea is very easy to differentiate from bad tea: the former is a transcendental beverage, while the second is good only for washing your chopsticks. It doesn’t need to be gussied up with names that sound like a Shanghainese harlot (Geisha Flower), or, for many of the flavored teas, excessively doused with perfume.
Or perhaps they do? The TWG Empire seems to know what it is doing; it is, after all, an extremely successful one.
The food suffers from the same lack of restraint. A cucumber sandwich is an extremely subtle thing, a polite bit of buttered bread with a bit of crunch that plays off the delicacy of the tea;
theirs is hearty and flavorful. But then it matches the tea, and it’s well-executed and abundant, so in the end I found it hard to complain.
Despite my reservations about the over-the-top décor and pushing the orientalist theme to its limits, I will stick my neck out and say that the teas, as long as one avoids the dubious creations and stays close to the classics, are very good indeed, and this is not something I say lightly about tea whether in Europe or Asia, where a lot of junk is sold off in fine packaging.
The food is good, too, in a kind of ladies who lunch (and dawdle) sort of vein. And it’s very nice to get white tablecloths in the middle of the day, especially since we’re getting so very little of it when we eat out at night these days.
In the end, though, while it’s difficult to put a price on a good cup of tea, much of what one pays for at TWG is the concept: packaging, exotic names, gaudy brass and all. And it is a fair bit of coin one doles out, much like the silver that the British were having to scrounge for before they turned the tables on the Chinese and got them hooked on opium, and hence the flattening of the villages up along the Yangtze by gunboats.
The wars are just beginning; but this time it looks like the Orient’s revenge.