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Gathering over Tea and Incense with Wong Lip Chin

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It was a warm Sunday morning when my husband and I went for the Winding Stream Party Tea and Incense Experience with artist Wong Lip Chin.

The experience activates Wong’s artwork The Gathering, a site-specific installation in Kreta Ayer Square, Chinatown, produced and curated by John Z.W. Tung. The installation recreates a winding stream party set within a Chinese garden. Over 1,600 years ago, Chinese literati would sit by a winding river and compose poems as cups of rice wine float down to reach them.

Going back in time

Wong Lip Chin’s art practice is best summed up as Pop Art meets post-Nanyang sensibility, blending different media to reinvent tradition. He sits in front of us in a bright red Tang jacket, mixing the stoicism of traditional teahouses with the confidence of a third-wave coffee barista.

Wong is a skilled historian and facilitator, moving us from one topic to another with ease. His rich body of research on Chinese culture has been condensed into a one-hour performative conversation musing on disappearing Chinese heritage.

As the first incense wafted through the sunlight dramatically, we were treated to the first tisane (herbal tea) of the day, a heady mix of yuzu, rosemary and juniper berries. As Wong explained that he crafted the first tisane to whet appetites and welcome the advent of summer, I thought about how much the space around us had changed.

The typically bustling Kreta Ayer Square has calmed down a lot since the start of the pandemic. Time and place seemed to slow.

A connection across time and place

As Wong moved on to preparing the second tea pairing, he remarked “you know, our ancestors might have done this”. I’m not entirely convinced that mine did, because it’s likely that I descended from illiterate farmers, but I still felt a certain ache in my heart.

I’m a third-wave Chinese immigrant, joining my parents who came from post-Cultural Revolution China in the 1990s. This is a less nostalgic China compared to the one that Wong claims that the bulk of Singaporean Chinese has become disconnected from.

Indeed, China has many faces – irreverent, ever-shifting, and fully capable of reinventing itself with new stories connecting the past and present.

The second tea that Wong served us was somehow less assertive, despite bold notes of dried curry leaves, lemongrass, Sidr honey-glazed yuzu and pink peppercorns. The other participants could immediately identify notes of curry leaves, but I was left wishing for the punchy flavours to come through.

We also witnessed the incense go out due to a dodgy bit of charcoal. But hiccups like these made the experience all the more intriguing — Wong has a tendency of pulling back the curtain from time to time by admitting when things don’t run perfectly, drawing his audience further into the ceremony with refreshing candour.

Reinventing culture

As we were led further into the history of tea, I thought about the bubble tea of my childhood, where the tapioca pearls were foregrounded in bright, flashy advertisements promising immediate satisfaction.

And then I thought about the new wave of bubble tea shops — like Hey Tea or CHICHA San Chen — characterised by low-contrast pastel branding, where tea brewing is so important that jars of tea and brewing stands are literally used as interior decor.

The slowness of tea is making a comeback. Wong’s appreciation of history and provenance permeates every detail of the experience, such as in the exclusive teaware crafted from Singapore clay by Kim Whye Kee of Qi Pottery.

Wong told us that the final tea was the most divisive, and I could see why after taking a sip. It contained dried lotus and had savoury notes associated with hotpot broth. But this was also the tea that I found most interesting because it pushes the boundary of what you’d think tea tastes like.

All roads lead to the past

I succumb easily to sinus irritation and my husband often gets migraines from sensory experiences, so we had joked about who was going to walk away worse from wear afterwards.

But in the end, the incense played a less dramatic role during the experience. At points, the smoke generated by the charcoal heated the incense balls and permeated the space, but the scents faded quickly into the open air. Wearing masks also meant we couldn’t smell the scents fully, making the incense-burning seem like a secondary part of the experience.

The experience truly stayed with us in our conversations in the hours and days that followed. Wong’s way of moving fluidly across topics and connecting disparate topics of identity, ritual, history, and culture had left a lot of room for thinking. The party made me also consider how cultures can evolve: either by building on existing traditions or completely starting afresh. Balancing these two approaches seems to be the key to cultural preservation.

Chinese immigrants feel a particular sense of detachment to a China that has evolved too quickly to keep up with, and I suspect that this disconnect is what draws Wong to the topic. In looking back at the past, he seeks out new ways to craft the future.

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The Gathering runs until 25 March 2022.

The next edition of The Winding Stream Party, an intimate tea and incense experience will take place on Thu 24 March, 5pm. This event is currently waitlist only, please email info@yeoworkshop.com to register your interest.

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