Sichuan tea master performs in SF

In Xumin Liu’s hands, a long-spouted copper kettle becomes a rapier, a whip, a copper wash of light. Three lunches a week, Liu travels from table to table at the Z&Y restaurant, spinning the kettle around her head in intricate circles and letting it spin in the air. Each sequence of rotations ends with the base of the kettle held high, its meter long spout laser projecting a jet of steaming water into a cup of tea leaves.

In China, Liu is one of the best-known masters of Sichuan gongfu cha, a traditional performance that dates back to the Three Kingdoms period over a thousand years ago. From January to March, he will divide his time between the two Sichuan restaurants of Lijun and Michelle Han, Z & Y in Chinatown and Chili House in the Richmond district, demonstrating his art to diners in San Francisco.

Xiumin Liu is a master of two traditional Sichuan arts: gongfu tea, poured into a copper kettle with a 90cm spout, and “face changing”. He performed at two Sichuan restaurants in San Francisco until March 2018. Video: Gabrielle Lurie

Liu, 35, was born into a tea-growing family on Mengding Mountain southwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. In his early twenties, he studied the 18 forms of “dragon flight” gongfu cha postures under the guidance of a Szechuan tea master named Shifu Chen, then went to a Taoist monastery on Qingcheng Mountain. to practice a form of martial arts called wushu. The two traditions combine in the fluidity of his movements and the way he can hold his body at improbable angles for minutes at a time.

Travelers to Chengdu can catch sightseeing shows at teahouses, but few gongfu cha masters make it to the United States. Even fewer are also skilled in Liu’s second art: the exchange of Sichuan faces.

Ten years ago, Liu was demonstrating gongfu cha in Korea when Shimen Lu, a famous face exchange performer, noticed the young man’s performance and invited him to become a student. This second art, Liu, is now demonstrated in Hans restaurants at dinner time. To the rhythm of lively music, he walks among the tables, golden balls on his headdress quivering, his face covered with a blue growl. Her red fan passes in front of her face and – op! – the blue mask changes to green. You can watch the transformation a dozen times, even getting closer, and not see the skill behind the surprise.

When serving tea the Sichuan style, Liu said through a translator, the purpose of the copper kettle is not simply aesthetic. The thin stream of water releases the flavor and aroma of the tea leaves. “The water in this copper kettle is good for your skin, your brain and your health,” he adds.

He was surprised by Americans who put their cups of tea on their heads when he walks by, or who simply open their mouths, not realizing that the water spurting out of his kettle spout is close to boiling. Everyone also asks for a photo. Liu is used to it, at least.

Lijun Han says he asked Master Liu to travel from his home in Mengding Mountain to Old Gold Mountain – the ancient Chinese name for San Francisco – to introduce Americans to these traditional arts. “In this way, Sichuan tea, masks, and food complement an understanding of Sichuan culture,” Han explains. “You only see the food. “

Liu has only been in town for a few weeks, so his impressions of San Francisco are low. He is in awe of the Hetch Hetchy water, which is very smooth, very beautiful, he says. Ideal for making tea.

Xiumin Liu is a master of two traditional Sichuan arts: gongfu tea, poured into a copper kettle with a 90cm spout, and “face changing”. He performed at two Sichuan restaurants in San Francisco until March 2018. Video: Gabrielle Lurie, Chronicle of San Francisco

Last week he visited the city and the sight of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge inspired him so much that he started practicing his 18 forms on the street. “The air is good for training,” he says. “It’s very neat and clean.”

Z & Y Restaurant: 655 Jackson St., San Francisco, (415) 981-8988 or www.zandyrestaurant.com

Chili House: 726 Clement St., San Francisco, (415) 387-2658 or www.chilihousesf.com

Al Cheng contributed to the translation assistance.

Jonathan Kauffman is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jkauffman@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @jonkauffman

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