Buying Tea in Chinatown

New York's Chinatown
New York's Chinatown offers an abundance of tea choices for tea lovers.
Text and Photography by Andy Yale

New York’s Chinatown offers an abundance of tea choices for tea lovers.

If one word defines New York City’s Chinatown, it is abundance. For the tea lover, the opportunities to discover new riches seem endless. Tea is for sale everywhere in Chinatown’s myriad shops, where the tea drinker will find a friendly welcome and the chance to savor rare and unusual wares.

First-time visitors may find New York’s Chinatown overwhelming. Canal Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, is crowded, noisy, and chaotic. Tractor-trailers becalmed in traffic blare their horns. A multilingual cacophony rises as residents and tourists jostle for space on sidewalks bottlenecked by street vendors’ tables. A wild profusion of merchandise lines the street: fresh fish, herbal medicine, mangos, incense, kung fu regalia—all cascade on the eye as if from a swirling horn of plenty.

Kam Man Market
Fine green teas are sold in bulk at Kam Man market in New York’s Chinatown

200 Canal Street

The sidewalks’ abundance is a pale preview of the overflowing bounty inside Chinatown’s stores—stores like Kam Man, a three-story cornucopia stuffed with Asian treasures. Entering this venerable emporium from Canal Street, one finds the bustle unabated. Customers peruse the aisles, busily purchasing Peking duck, edible bird nests, ginseng, royal jelly, and a seemingly endless array of sauces, vegetables, baked goods, and sweets. But for me, the real treasure lies a few steps away, down two flights of stairs, where, in the heart of commotion, the tea awaits, shining with its own quiet light in huge glass jars.

It is estimated that thousands of teas are produced worldwide today. Kam Man carries 800 of them—tea in balls, bricks, boxes, bags, tins, and scooped loose with a porcelain bowl from glass containers. Three walls are packed with colorful tins, and nearby shelves hold myriad tea utensils. There are tea sets of every description, from traditional blue and white porcelain to the dark-hued Yixing redware favored for brewing black tea. Tea caddies of metal, ceramic, and lacquered wood are arranged next to five different kinds of tea strainers. Wicker baskets padded to embrace a traveling kettle hang above a plethora of cups, from delicate green-hued sipping thimbles to workingman’s mugs with built-in strainers. There are too many wonderful things for the eye to take in, even if one has been visiting here, as I have, for 30 years.

For a tea lover, Kam Man may seem like a vision of paradise. Aficionados of English and Russian tea will find new territory here to explore—the white, green, and oolong teas. One can dally at Kam Ran or go in search of even rarer tea.

Ten Ren Tea and Gingseng Store
Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Store offers an alcove dedicated to tea tasting.

75 Mott Street

Two blocks away, in the heart of Chinatown, the Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Store offers a selection of unique teas, fresh from its own plantations.

Tea and ginseng are all Ten Ren sells, and the atmosphere is more focused here. Large tin caddies line one wall of the shop, with ginseng in boxes and glass cases on the other. At the rear is an alcove dedicated to tea tasting. Here, at a handsome table beneath a wooden bas-relief of eighth-century tea scholar Lu Yu, Michael Wong (pictured above) graciously serves a pot of Dragon Well, a famous green tea developed during the Ming Dynasty.

Over tiny cups of this delicacy, Mike explains that the least-fermented teas lose their flavor quickest, making freshness paramount for green teas. Ten Ren vacuum packs tea like Dragon Well, stamping the place of origin, altitude, date of harvest, and kind of processing on each package.

“The finest teas are picked early in the morning,” Mike says, echoing Lu Yu’s dictate that tea be harvested “while the dew is still cool.”

Sun's Organic Garden
Shopping for tea at Sun’s Organic Garden is like a conversation between friends, thanks to the charm and warmth of proprietors Rick and Lorna.

79 Bayard Street

There are as many places in Chinatown to buy tea as there are varieties. And each place has its own particular ambiance. Big markets like Kam Man exude a wild abundance, while Ten Ren is a bastion of formality and tradition. And then there are more intimate places, like Sun’s Garden, where shopping takes on the flavor of a conversation between friends.

Rick and Lorna, who run this small, bright store, emanate charm and welcome that make customers instantly feel at home. Everything in the store is certified organic, and the emphasis is on health and spirituality. Indeed, Lorna is an instructor in Qui Gong, the ancient Chinese exercise form designed to balance energy and to promote well-being.

The staff at Sun’s Garden is deeply involved with the quality of water used in tea making. They utilize state-of-the-art machinery that filters water through 50 different kinds of stone, removing any pollutants and rendering it highly alkaline. All the tea sold in the shop is made with such water. Customers are invited to sample it and taste the difference.

At Sun’s Garden, one can find simple, single-ingredient medicinal teas such as chrysanthemum, a venerable remedy often prescribed to promote eyesight, as well as many other organic teas. It is one of the few places in the United States that offer organic persimmon tea. Sun’s Garden displays a variegated palette, from German fruit teas to balls of hand-tied tea leaves that blossom into exquisite floral arrangements when brewed.

Much has been written about tea’s health benefits, but perhaps not enough of its less-tangible virtues. Wandering through Chinatown, I am reminded that tea is first and foremost a connector. The Eastern religions give tea a special place, believing it promotes communion with the divine. We use it today to bring ourselves and others into the moment, to draw close to loved ones, and to make strangers friends. Tea transcends barriers of birth and language and helps us meet in our simple commonality. A cup of Chinese tea is more than a drink; it’s a window on the ancient virtues of beauty and balance.

Andy Yale, a writer and photographer, is a lifelong tea enthusiast and longtime student of Eastern cultures. His portrait studio was a short walk from New York’s Chinatown, where he frequented the teahouses and consulted traditional healers. Yale lives in southern Maine.

From TeaTime November/December 2010


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