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Humans of Hong Kong: Preserving memory with Lau Yuen-yik

By Nicole Hurip 4 August 2020 | Last Updated 2 June 2022

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. Tea master Lau Yuen-yik is the third-generation purveyor of his family’s teahouse. We sat down with him and his father, Lau Kwok-ho, to talk about how taste invokes nostalgia and the fleetingness of time. 

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“When I was young, people didn’t have phones or cellphones. I think people are really lucky now; they get to keep a lot of photos. We didn’t have that in the past. People ask for pictures of the teahouse’s past, but they forget that taking pictures wasn’t as commonplace back then.

“When people want to observe the cultures of the past, it really depends on luck, whether pictures were taken of whatever it is you want to see. My father liked taking pictures, so we’re fortunate to have a few photographs from the 1960s and 1970s. A roll of film was expensive in the past, around a dollar to develop each image. A bowl of wonton noodles only cost 30 cents back then. Imagine having to pay the price of three bowls of noodles to develop one photograph now. It is easy to preserve memory now, but that was precious in the past.”

“If I can, I would love to purchase some 1992 Iron Buddha tea. It was drunk from 1992 to 1995, and we tried to recreate the flavour in 2006, but failed. It is now a distant memory. Another thing I would like to have again would be my youth, or actually, my hair. A lot of things I want to have, but I know money cannot buy. We have to be practical and look to the future instead of the past, and to improve ourselves.

“Time passes very quickly. When you’re young, you don’t feel it, but now that I have children of my own, it really sinks in. My daughter grew so much in this past year, it’s almost scary. In my mind, she is still a baby—how is she so tall now? She used to rush into my arms whenever she would see me, but not anymore. Time really flies. I feel like a lot of people would wish for the same thing, to be able to buy time, and to slow it down.”

“The art of tea is changing. The Bible says, ‘There is no new thing under the sun,’ so what has changed is actually people’s attitude towards tea. Society is wealthier, and people seek to use technology and different materials to improve the art. Sometimes, if you want to make something better, you have to go the other way and simplify it.

“I tell my students that they can play around with all these shiny new things, gold and silver pots and whatnot because they all have their uses. Your job is to understand their qualities and learn to choose, to go back to basics. You have to find the one thing that works for you. You cannot be distracted by all the noise in the world; you can experiment, but when it boils down to honing your craft, you cannot just go with the flow. You need to know your direction, and that is the most important thing.”

“Tea is like life; it gets smoother with age. Especially pu’er tea; when the tea is young, it is really bitter, but once it is aged, it becomes very smooth to drink. When you’re young, things are often hard, because you’re stubborn and don’t know the proper way to deal with people and things yet. As you get older, you see things differently and mellow out.”

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.