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Shanghai & Tea: The emergence of the tea house in Shanghai

Shanghai's First Tea House

The opening of the port harbour was a turning point in Shanghai's history, giving rise to influx of people and money, both domestic and foreign. The city grew rapidly, easily exceeding the boundaries of the old city walls. In less than a decade after the Treaty of Nanjing, spurred on by a booming population, Shanghai's first tea house opened; Li Shui Tai, an elegant 3-storey venue serving tea and refreshments to members of high society. Not long after, a second tea house opened near the Number Two Racecourse, serving tea to customers who could enjoy local theatre performances alongside horse racing; illustrating, that in Shanghai in the late 19th Century, tea houses were marketed at well-paying clientele.

 C 1880's Photo China Shanghai Bandstand and Bund (ebay via pinterest)

© 1880s Photo China Shanghai Bandstand and Bund (ebay via pinterest)

Burgeoning Tea House Culture

Others quickly followed, and by the 1870s tea houses were an increasingly common sight on the streets of Shanghai. In 1876, Cantonese businessmen opened another tea house which also doubled as a breakfast cafe serving fish congee and dim sum for lunch, including such delectables as Lotus Root & Ginger and Almond Mousse. As they became more popular, their customer base inevitably broadened, and tea houses, no longer just an enclave for the well-to-do, began to cater to all sections of society. They became a vaudeville of local culture, cuisine and entertainment; a place where fortune tellers could mingle with singers and local tradesman. Increasing competition for customers forced owners to widen the appeal and function of tea houses evolved to meet this changing market. Storytellers and comics began to populate the tea houses as they jostled for ways to attract more customers.

Despite the often lurid mix of Shanghai's low and high society, tea houses also provided a place for more serious-minded people to congregate, attracting large numbers of merchants and traders from a variety of interests; each industry seeking out their own quiet niche in specific tea houses to further their own networking needs: Architects met in Chang Le Park, florists in Lao Ximen, and news-makers and journalists at Dong Tian tea house.

More from our Shanghai tea house series.

1. Shanghai Tea Houses: A timeline

2. Brief Introduction

3. Shanghai Emerges from Aftermath of the Opium War(s)

4. Emergence of the teahouse in Shanghai

5. Speaking Tea - a function of tea houses in Shanghai

6. Early 20th Century Tea houses

7. Afternoon tea and Cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 30s

8. Teahouses in Contemporary Shanghai


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