Hipsters in my tea

This post is largely a copy of a critique I posted on Facebook of the “Manual Tea Maker No 1”, a “modern” take on the gaiwan (a tea brewing device invented in the Ming dynasty) that I and several others found immensely irritating. Here’s the campaign video:

This is not “inspired by” a gaiwan. (No more than the beer opener – I’m sorry, the Bar Blade – on their website is “inspired” by a beer opener.) It is simply a white hipster trying to stake his claim on a “modernized” gaiwan against a backdrop of white people trying to make good tea into something mysterious and rarefied and elitist and confusing. It is literally a transparent insulated gaiwan with included cup…which you can get for 5-10 SGD on Taobao ($10 for a really nice one, or you can get two push-button-valve tea making devices at a capacity large enough to satisfy all your “Western quantity”* tea needs!)

By all means introduce the wonderfulness of gongfu teatime to a broader audience. But don’t make it sound like slowing down to enjoy tea is something you and your product have finally rediscovered from the mysterious depths of East Asia and made accessible and enlightened, instead of something my people have been doing and sharing (or having stolen) for centuries.

The teacup is also the wrong size and shape for its stated and implied purposes. Both the aroma (which such a tall cup would have been useful for) and emotional intensity of the act of drinking gongfu tea are lost when you drink it from a wide container even if the total amount of liquid is the same. Except by endeavouring to modify the teacup for Western tea quantities you lose an essential part of why we sit down for hours to drink gongfu tea in the first place and the entire “slowing down” idea that you are trying to promote.

I evidently have a lot of feelings about tea and the recent “discovery” by white people that tea is actually very interesting and complex. I find its hipsterization and subsequent gentrification and elitism of tea in the West silly and unfortunate.  It upsets me that many people’s first experience with good tea will involve some impractical Teavana device and a bag of overpriced loose leaf marketed to make people a little scared of drinking too much of it, and that for even more people this wonderful beverage and culture will become just a little more out of reach.

*On “Western quantities”… Chinese people also just guzzle tea like water (if they even drink tea regularly; not everyone does). We don’t actually sit down to do this Exotic Ritual every day, except the lucky few and maybe retirees.

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A trip down memory lane with Creative Technology

One of my friends shared this on Facebook yesterday. A genial middle-aged man in a dress shirt and slacks seems to be giving a standard product demonstration of a drum keyboard, but somehow it becomes this crazy drum solo, before ending as a standard presentation again. I probably find it particularly amusing because it starts with the stereotypical boring conservative Singaporean but gives you a glimpse of the underlying lightheartedness that I like to think runs through many of my countrymen.

This “Asian equipment demonstrator” is a Singaporean (probably) who is showcasing a product from Creative Technology, a Singaporean company that in the 90s made the Sound Blaster sound cards that pretty much had a monopoly on the PC market. They also had a line of MP3 players which were very feature-rich, and hold the patent for the invention of a user interface for portable media players. I owned one and was a big fan, happily filling it with anime soundtracks and Canadian pop-rock-punk. The media players, like everything else, died as the iPod ascended, something I watched with sadness while realizing that technical superiority was not enough: you had to make people feel good about your product.

I’m suddenly realizing this is probably the true origin of my interest in product design and usability. I actually got asked something similar the other day – which stumped me, I mean, I’m just…it’s interesting? I’ve always liked it? I’ve always been an artist something something something? Eventually I dashed off something lame about getting frustrated having to use US-centric resources as a non-US person. (“Enter your five-digit zipcode to view this information” – god! I still get riled up.)

When I was eight-ish I read Creative cofounder Sim Wong Hoo’s autobiography, which described No U-turn Syndrome and a lot of other stuff I didn’t fully understand. I am only now suddenly remembering that he had a chapter about taking computing exams in school and leaving answers dramatically unfinished to impress the grader with his integrity at stopping precisely when “pens down” was announced by the proctor. I know I definitely copied that behavior during later exams.

It’s funny I remember the book so vividly. It had spiral binding, “hyperlinks” by means of page number, and an awfully designed cover.