One of the supposed clichés of candid photography is the coffee shop interior, usually somewhere in Paris, with a woman sitting beneath a mirror, looking wistfully at the street outside.
I try to avoid cliché, so my solution is to add tea lounges to the repertoire. You could scarcely have a subject that’s more different.
Greater formality surrounds the drinking of tea, probably because it was the preferred drink of the English upper classes at the end of the eighteenth century when formality was at its height. However, let’s not forget the traditions of tea drinking in Japan where the ritual of making and drinking tea became a rarified art form.
Invitation to a Ritual
Why does tea invite ritual? I have no idea. It must be something to do with the subtlety of its flavour. To obtain the correct flavour you have to follow a certain ritual: warming the pot, letting it stand, and so on. One thing leads to another — and eventually an entire pattern of behaviour emerges, not only in the preparation of tea but also in the drinking of it.
Today, typical up-market tea lounges don’t specify how customers should behave. They simply impose control through the formality of their design. For example, there’s no question of chairs and tables being scattered, higgledy-piggledy (a word I’ve never written before!) around the room. They’re laid out in regular fashion, where customers can sit comfortably but not slumped.
Coffee shops are quite the opposite. They’re relaxed places where casual behaviour is positively encouraged. If you want to do homework or office work in a branch of Starbucks, like the young people in my photo below — that’s fine. You don’t even have to drink coffee: a milk shake will do.
It’s hard to find a really traditional tea lounge, especially one where you can take photographs without people objecting. I took my featured image (at the top) in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. It’s not a tea lounge, as such, but a combined tea/bar/café where journalists sit, talk and write. I think photography was forbidden, but I couldn’t resist. I told myself I was working undercover.
The image is entirely candid. I was taking it to remind myself of the English club-like atmosphere when a waitress showed up with a tray. It’s the nearest I could get to recreating the past at five o’clock in the afternoon.
We are now, of course, a world away from the dirt and dust of the street — because clubs and tea lounges keep themselves apart. They rarely have outdoor tables like the coffee shop. To drink tea and enjoy hushed conversation you need the peace and quiet of being enclosed, preferably on all four sides.
Genuinely old interiors in the Far East are rapidly disappearing, but there are plenty of new, purpose-built tea lounges in malls and hotels. They tend to be “design-intensive,” using a plethora of decorative items to signal their function.
The photo below shows an “1823 Tea Lounge” belonging to the Ronnefeldt group, a company that has adopted the epithet: “Serving the world’s finest tea since 1823.” As you can deduce, even a modern tea lounge needs traditional credentials to attract customers, despite having over fifty teapots arranged in rows along the walls and counter.
I took the above shot from public space — the mall equivalent of “the street” — without entering the lounge itself. You can see right through the room to further public space beyond.
The image demonstrates all kinds of contradictions, as confirmed by the deceptive reflection of the woman in the centre. It almost looks as though she’s sitting alone, like the man behind her, but she’s actually photographing her partner’s tea. They didn’t do that in…1823.