In the Old City of Shanghai, just outside the Yu Yuan Garden, sits the Huxinting tea house, said to have been built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) as a private retreat, and restored in 1855, when it became a public tea house. The tea house is reached via the Bridge of Nine Turnings, designed to frustrate evil spirits, who prefer to travel in straight lines. Westerners have long referred to it as the Willow Pattern Teahouse, as it resembles the scene from the classic blue & white Willow chinaware.
The tea house has hosted a variety of guests. Among the early uninvited visitors were officers of the British Army under Sir Hugh Gough, who, in June of 1842, during the First Opium War, took over the tea house as a command center for a few days before moving on to another virtually defenseless city. More visitors were to come; I’ll let them speak for themselves. First, an account from 1879:
“I enter upon the crooked water-walk, and cross to the tea-house. Before I enter it I look around. I am in the centre of an oblong reserve of which the tea island forms the middle part. There is a piece of fenced-in grass at one end, in which a deer is browsing. The place has evidently seen better days. The water was not always the clayey colour it is now, and the tea-house and its approaches had a gayer appearance in the days that were, and when its picture was painted for our dinner-plates.
“Entering this house of houses, I take a seat with the Chinamen who are drinking tea there, and eating curry with chopsticks. I get some tea, and wait until its scalding-hot state has abated. It is sugarless, of course, and without milk, but what of that? Its surroundings will make it taste like unto nectar, served as it is in that wondrous tea-house—a place that my young eyes had looked upon as a paradise, and my infant fancy pictured as the great pleasure-spot of the world.”
– From The Australian Abroad (1879) by James Hingston
“I visited many of the best tea houses and gardens, most of which are situated within, and form part of the grounds belonging to the various joss houses. There is one more noteworthy than the rest, being built on an island in the centre of a small lake, and approached by several fanciful bridges, which make it the very realisation of that most familiar of objects, the house and bridge of a willow-pattern plate. We passed a pleasant hour at this tea-house, sitting upstairs by a tiny latticed window overlooking the smooth but rather yellow water, and sipped little cups of tea, and watched the Chinese refreshment seekers coming in and out.”
– From Wanderings South and East (1882) by Walter Coote
“Restaurants and tea houses of all grades abound, and noteworthy among the latter is the picturesque building on the Zig-Zag Bridge.”
– Isabella Lucy Bird in The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899)
“There is a tea-house in the middle of a sewery pond, approached by zigzag bridges, which is not the house of the willow-pattern plates, despite its claim. This pond is a center of city life, the one glimpse of the sky within the walls, and besides the daily sales of jade and cheap jewelry, letter-writers, fortune-tellers, cobblers, barbers, peripatetic cooks with portable kitchens, menders, and peddlers hold the crowds there.”
– From China: The Long-Lived Empire (1900) by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore
“You are now in China town and Europe is left behind. The streets are narrow with high houses on both sides with swinging signboards hanging from top to bottom, underfoot is unutterable filth and around are jostling Chinese crowds. You must with walk or go in a wheel barrow, both means of progression are unpleasant but there is no other. The chief things to see are the Buddhist temples, very tawdry but often containing fine bronzes, the tea-house on the island reached by the zigzag bridge which possesses some really fine furniture and some unique scents from the sewer over which it stands.”
– From “Eastward Home” by F.A. Coleridge in The Calcutta Review, April 1901
“The old town is most interesting, but it is, without exception, the filthiest place I was ever in. A stream runs through it that makes you close your nostrils when in the vicinity. Dead animals abound in a decaying state, and if Chinamen escape fever they must have charmed lives. In the centre of the town, surrounded by a vile stream, is the celebrated tea house which is supposed to have been the origin of the willow pattern copied on English pottery. We had intended to have had a native tea in it, but the smell within and without drove us away.”
– “Notes of a Journey Around the World” by Alderman Sir Bosdin Leech in The Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society (1902)
“Our guide was to take us to a famous tea-house, and the remembrance of the Japanese tea-house, with its exquisite neatness, simple and satisfying surroundings, and quiet demeanor of the attendants—all girls—was fresh in my mind, so I looked forward with interest to the sight of a Chinese tea-house, and a famous one at that. I felt assured that here, at least, were to be seen some attractive features in the way of cleanliness and pleasant surroundings—some contrast to the squalor through which we had been roaming during the morning.
“I fully expected to have a new experience, and here was the tea-house: a two-storied building in typical Chinese style, certainly quaint in its architecture, and recalling pictures one sees rudely depicted on blue-and-white china. The building rose from the centre of a pond, and was approached by a zigzag bridge. Now the house, bridge and pond were in an equally dirty condition. The water was covered with green slime and emitted foul odors.
“We crossed the bridge, entered the building, and found our way to the second story. Taking a seat at one of the tables, we ordered the usual tea, which was brought to us by a male attendant, in large covered porcelain cups, accompanied by a tray full of unsavory-looking cakes… The Chinese tea offered us was far more to the foreigner’s taste than is the best of the Japanese. One of the unsavory-looking cakes was carefully dissected. Its contents appeared to be closely chopped vegetables or fruit or something else, and its taste resembled the odor of mouldy salve. A dish of finely chopped ginger sprouts salted was exceedingly good; the preserves were rather too sweet for our taste; the tea was perfectly delicious.
“At a table near us were three mandarins, and, judging by their fine clothing, evidently of the better class. They looked at us inquiringly for a while, and finally one of them arose, crossed to our table, and shook hands with Dr. Drew, who thereupon presented him to me as one of the famous class of Hartford students who were all recalled by the government while in the midst of their studies.”
– From Glimpses of China and Chinese Homes (1903) by Edward S. Morse
“In the middle of the Chinese city we came upon a stagnant and most offensive piece of ‘ornamental’ water bearing a strangely familiar aspect, with its zigzag bridge across it, and the tea-house planted on an island in the centre.”
– Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Notebook (1904)
“In the native city of Shanghai is a very quaint and curious old tea house called by the Chinese ‘Woo Sing Ding.’ … All around it lies a broad moat of black water filled with innumerable, century-old carp and sprinkled here and there patches of fine, green water-weeds. Wherever a free space of dark surface permits, the pool reflects, as in a bronze mirror, the curled eaves with their suggestion of elasticity and joyfulness, and the fantastic ornamentation of the tiles. A zigzag bridge crosses to the pleasure house—a bridge built like a jointed snake. Hideous beggars take refuge in its corners and scream for cash, holding up their maimed limbs to excite the pity of passers-by.
“Were it not for these horrible sights there would be genuine pleasure in lingering to look across at the fine old buildings, now, of course, like all the monuments of China, falling into decay. It stands there in the sunshine mournful, yet contented, dying serenely but tranquilly with a great and noble dignity…
“Behind the little paper windows set in a carved wood trellis work of elegant design, a bent, brown guardian serves fragrant tea to visitors with ancient leisureliness. He seems almost as old as his medieval pavilion, and the umbers and chocolates and chestnuts of its polished timbers are faithfully repeated in the folds and wrinkles of his face.”
– From “The Willow Pattern Tea-House” by Charles E. Lorrimer in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1907)
“This tea-house, if tradition is to be believed, is supposed to be the building which originally inspired the designer of the famous willow pattern chinaware. The native quarter of Shanghai, by the way, is not safe for white people to penetrate alone.”
– From The Wide World Magazine (1907)
“At last we came out into a square, the only place where we saw a patch of sky in Old Shanghai—where, spanning a slimy, green pool, is the famous Crooked Bridge, familiar to our eyes from the willow-pattern plates of our childhood. Over the bridge, which ‘evil spirits cannot cross,’ we wavered, while an old woman, with visible signs of leprosy, held out stumps and shrieked for alms; and children, dirty and diseased and clothed only in scraps of bagging, bobbed their heads against the flooring, whining distressingly. A tea-house of fantastic shape was inhabited by the chief of beggars, so we contented ourselves with looking in at the open door.”
– From “A Trip to China, October 1909” in An Army Woman in the Philippines by Caroline Saxe Shunk
“The old mandarin castle in its large pond-like moat, even if it is filthy, looks lovely, with its curved roof and lovely old blue-tiled windows and fine bronze window-gratings. The big-tea house, besides, to be reached over a long zigzag bridge, swarming with people to-day, looked lovely in the full sunshine with the green reeds round it.”
– From An Eastern Voyage: A Journal of the Travels of Count Fritz Hochberg Through the British Empire in the East and Japan (1910)
In 1911, the American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (who gave us the lines, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.”) came to the tea house, but had little to say beyond, “We visited a remarkable tea house and crossed the bridge familiar to us in our willow pattern chinaware.”
“Here are bridges of zigzag pattern leading to the beautiful old building, with its many gables and quaint windows of oyster shell, built on piles and tilted considerably out of the perpendicular.”
– From “Shanghai” by T. Hodgson Liddell in China as Described by Great Writers (1912)
“The same pool surrounds the tea-house, with—I verily believe—the same water that was there some hundreds of years ago, to judge from the thick bubbly green shine on its surface. A man stood fishing in one of the angles of the bridge, and not far from him I saw something dropped into the water, which was not fit for human consumption. Tea is still obtainable in the tea house, but I was not tempted to partake; a barber shop was in operation in one corner; in another, a group of men were hunting ‘small game’ for each other (a very usual sight in the Orient). Tea seemed a minor matter in this famous place, though a few were drinking. We passed hurriedly by and returned to our hotel.”
– From “A Glimpse of Modern China” by Mrs. Fred W. Wood in The California Outlook, July 4, 1914
“The old willow-pattern tea-house I was glad to see is still intact, also the garden from which the lovers fled who were turned into doves. It is not safe to venture into the old city unaccompanied, and the beggars are truly awful.”
– From Chinese Mettle (1921) by Emily Georgiana Kemp
The following comes from a novel, The Fortune of the Indies (1922) by Edith Ballinger Price, and was too good to pass by:
“They passed houses of slate-colored brick, and strange shops where ivory and jade and amber and brass and black-wood were displayed, and other shops where unsavory strings of wizened edibles hung from the doorways, and still others with curious canisters and jars of medicine—herbs and roots and nauseous bones and Chinese drugs. Then presently, sure enough, there opened at the end of the street a dark pond lit by uncertain moonlight, and there could be discerned the shadowy angles of a zigzag bridge and the upward-curving eaves of the Willow Pattern Tea-house.
“‘Velly famous, plecious, nice tea-house,’ Mark’s guide explained. ‘Melican man not often catchem piecee moonlight on him.’ With which remark he whisked off again.
“It was dark here and unwholesome. The houses were unlighted and there seemed to be a sinister murmuring, instead of the shrill, unconcerned babel of the crowd through which they had passed earlier. Mark looked back with a slight shiver to the moonlight on the pond, and then went on, to find his guide smiling beside an open dark doorway.
“‘Velly nice temple,’ the man explained softly. ‘You see Chinee-man say he prayers velly click. You mebbe catchem one little incense for joss, all same Chinee-man.’
“Mark mistrusted the temple. He stepped back carelessly. ‘No time,’ he said, ‘Must go hotel-side again. Come again some other time.’
“With a swift look around at the almost deserted streets where only a few Chinese grinned impassively at the ‘foreign devil,’ the guide seized Mark suddenly and thrust him within the place. The door clanged to with a substantial crash, and Mark felt other hands grasp him.”
Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, author of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, visited in 1929. In A Novelist’s Tour of the World, he wrote, “In the middle of the lake is an island, entirely occupied by a tea-house and a weeping willow, that dangles its green veils over the darker green of the water.”
In 1933, poet and author Langston Hughes took tea here, and discovered that Shanghai’s Old City was not dangerous for westerners, only for white westerners. Being multi-racial, he was treated with respect and kindness by the Chinese; in the International settlement, however, he was not allowed in the hotels.
“On the way to the bird market you will pass the so-called Willow Pattern Tea-House, resting on piles above a scum-covered pond.”
– From Finding the Worth While in the Orient (1936) by Lucian Swift Kirtland
“After this he stood for a time on the zigzag bridge and looked at the turtles in the green, stagnant water.”
– Austrian writer Vicki Baum in a novel, Shanghai ’37 (1939)
“But as a ramble, it’s marvelous. Sometimes helped by the full moon that manages to penetrate this labyrinth of narrow lanes, we emerge after a seemingly endless walk on a pond bathed in golden light. And a zigzag bridge leads us to an exquisite little pagoda.”
– Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jacques Hébert, Two Innocents in Red China (1961)
Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1986 and enjoyed a cup of Dragonwell (Longjing) green tea. Her photo is on the wall in the spot where she sat.
And lastly, here’s the tea house appearing in a novel by one of my favorite authors:
“Nell had never looked through a real telescope before. It had a tendency to jiggle and go out of focus, it didn’t zoom, and panning was tricky. But for all that, the image quality was a lot better than photographic, and she quickly forgot herself and began sweeping it back and forth across the city. She checked out the little Celestial Kingdom Clave in the heart of the old city, where a couple of Mandarins stood on a zigzag bridge across a pond, contemplating a swarm of golden carp, wispy silver beards trailing down over the colorful silk of their lapels, blue sapphire buttons on their caps flashing as they nodded their heads.”
– Neal Stephenson in The Diamond Age (1995)
1906 photo of the interior on a stereoview card by Underwood & Underwood, of New York, London, Toronto, and Ottawa, Kansas (where the firm was founded), with caption, “Where Shanghai’s wealthy Natives pass the time.”
The tea house on a trade card for the “Trois Cloches” (“Three Bells”) brand of egg noodles and macaroni.