At 4:00 am the kettles crackle on a charcoal stove as regulars crowd inside an ancient Chinese temple turned teahouse, a relic in a country being overrun by Starbucks cafes.
Wearing a cap and a blue vest, Li Qiang gets up in the middle of the night, as he does every day, to light the fire and prepare portions of tea in tiny cups that can be purchased for a modest two yuan (29 US cents) each.
Outside the Guanyin Pavilion teahouse, named for the goddess the temple was once dedicated to, elderly men chat as they wait for the 300-year-old building’s large wooden doors to open.
Inside, decorations from past eras are visible in the shadows: religious frescoes and motifs on high beams, dating from before it was converted just over a century ago.
Lower down, decaying paintings on wooden panels depict Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong surrounded by solar rays, or slogans glorifying socialism and hoping for the Great Helmsman’s longevity.
“Nothing has changed since the Cultural Revolution,” says Li.
The 50-seat teahouse in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, and the way of life it represents are a throwback to the past in a society that is becoming increasingly frenetic and internationalised by its status as the world’s second-largest economy.
Unlike upmarket teahouses in the city centre, the state-owned establishment does not offer rare and expensive teas at premium prices.
Instead customers sit on bamboo chairs in small groups, under the pale glow of naked light bulbs suspended from the high ceiling.
“Nowhere else in Chengdu will you find a similar tea house,” says customer Ning Shucheng, who is in his 80s. “There are none. They have been ruined or completely demolished.”
– ‘Second family’ –
Teahouses were once emblematic of Chinese urban culture but are now struggling to revitalise their public image in the face of ever-expanding foreign or foreign-inspired coffee chains.
“Here we are all local people, faithful,” laughs another customer, a 73-year-old surnamed Zhang.
Pouring boiling water into thermos bottles decorated with flowers, Li greeted everyone.
“For them this is a second home, it’s like being in a family,” he explains, especially for those whose own children live far from Chengdu.
Li was around 30 when he was appointed manager more than two decades ago, but has been careful not to change anything during his tenure.
He muses: “What’s the point? This is a place that breathes humanity, the lives of the regulars. This is not profitable, admittedly, but how could I give it up? Some regulars walk 10 kilometres every morning to come here.”
Across the street, an umbrella repairer opens his stall, while a butcher can be heard chopping meat in the distance. Under a lean-to, a hunchbacked hairdresser plugs in his hair clippers.
The teahouse offers customers a place to socialise and escape a materialistic and individualistic society they struggle to fit into, according to Tian Zaipo, a comparatively young client at 50.
“In today’s world people are getting further and further apart,” he says. “It’s so good to see your friends here.”
But he acknowledges that a new generation of Chinese beverage drinkers preferred coffeeshops — US chain Starbucks had only 400 outlets in the country in 2011, but within five years had almost six times as many, and was aiming to double that.
“The young people do not come anymore,” said Tian.
– Barbarian invasion –
But there is one new group of visitors to the Guanyin Pavilion — the establishment and its clientele have become renowned as a picturesque subject among China’s army of amateur photographers, a crucial market for camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon.
Soon after the mid-morning arrival of an ear cleaner — a traditional but declining Sichuanese service to scrub out ear canals for 20 yuan — a dozen camera-wielding shutterbugs piled in.
Without hesitation, request or consent, they proceeded to rearrange the crockery, and sometimes even the customers themselves, to improve their compositions.
The teahouse is renowned for its timelessness, but manager Li resents its resulting popularity.
The photographers never buy a cup of tea, he said — and for his part, he does not let them sit down.
“It’s even worse at the weekend,” he grimaces.