Learning from Xiao Long Bao

The inspiration for designing a tea pavilion

Architect Imu Chan’s humanistic approach focuses on light and nature, two elements he feels are essential to human well-being. He will build a teahouse specifically for a tea ceremony to be held at the Luxury Home & Design Show.

Chan shares with us his diary, providing a rare glimpse into the story and heart behind such a creation. In this entry, he shows us how inspiration can come in surprising forms.

Barely a week has passed since we returned from our trip in Taiwan, and I find myself again in the good company of Wendy Guo and Lauren DePhillips from Taste of Life magazine, this time in a Shanghainese restaurant in Richmond.

When we were still in Taiwan, Wendy had been teasing about visiting a restaurant there famous for its xiao long bao – a pork steamed bun originating from Shanghai. When we finally made it to that famed restaurant, we were told that 80 customers were ahead of us in the queue. “Don’t worry,” Wendy said. “I know a restaurant back in Richmond that serves excellent xiao long bao.” We left Taiwan on the promising note that the best lunch meeting was yet to come.

English writer Adeline Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” (A Room of One’s Own, 1929.) When we met again in Richmond, I asked Wendy if the nomenclature behind Taste of Life magazine doesn’t also bear reference to her undeclared love for food. She meekly glanced at Lauren across the lunch table, and together, they cracked wide grins that could melt the winter away.

While waiting for the steamed buns, we dabbled around the various subjects pertaining to the Show. In the lightness of our conversation, we all felt the enormous tasks ahead of us. The Luxury Home and Design Show 2018 will be a four-day sprint that demands months of incubation. The amount of time and energy invested into the event, and the dedication of Wendy, Lauren and all others working tirelessly behind the scenes, cannot be understated.

I have my part to play as well, having been assigned the design of the tea pavilion for Pottery Master Tian Chengtai and Tea Master David Tsay. Master Tian will create the potteryware for a special tea ceremony, and Master Tsay, the tea.

Since the trip to meet Master Tian in Taiwan, I have been sailing in the vast sea of my imagination, searching for the lighthouse. But I remind myself to be patient with my design. I know sometimes I need to let the idea steep in my head like a good cup of tea.

The Chinese often say that the dining table is where deals are signed and friends are tied. I believe the dining table is also where design can be inspired, if one is willing to look for inspirations.

Food is an all-encompassing humanistic subject, much like design. Ever since our tool-wielding ancestors learned how to start a fire, we also learned how to cook. An encyclopedia of human civilization can be written solely on food alone — how various cuisines are prepared, how kitchenware and dinnerware are made, and how the cultures of eating have evolved.

Surely, one can draw parallels between the subjects of food and design. As I was about to learn, even some xiao long bao can point a designer in the right direction.

Traditionally prepared in small, bamboo baskets (similar to how dim sum is cooked), xiao long bao is a type of savoury steamed bun. Its charm, however, does not lie in the pork nor in the bun, but in the broth. This broth inside is created by inserting pockets of meat aspic into the filling. When the bun is steamed, the aspic melts into hot soup cocooned within the seductive, translucent skin, giving the bun a soft, poofy shape.

That explains why we all let out a gasp of excitement when the first basket of delicacies arrived. Wendy playfully demonstrated the proper way of eating xiao long bao: with feather lightness she picked up a bun with her chopsticks, lifting the small parcel at its tip so as not to accidentally puncture the skin, lest the broth would spill.

While the bun was still hovering above the bamboo basket, she slipped a spoon beneath the bun to catch it, in doing so relieving the chopsticks of their duty. Holding her breath just as Lauren and I were also holding ours, Wendy — like an acrobat tiptoeing on a tightrope — slowly shifted the spoon close to her mouth and nibbled a small opening on the side of the bun. Steam instantly escaped from within. From the hole, she slurped the broth and winked at us.

“You are supposed to savour the broth directly from the bun without breaking it” was her mantra of the day.

I watched with bemused intensity, beholding the suspense and excitement in that moment of auditing how someone eats a bun! Something was burgeoning inside me. A feeling of a space, the essence of which can be glimpsed from the outside through a small opening, emerged in my mind like the steam emitting from the xiao long bao.

The atmosphere in the interior will be kept pristine and mysterious from outsiders’ view. Once you enter the space, however, there will be a whole new discovery from within.

“I think I have an idea,” I exclaimed quietly in my heart, sensing the beginning of a blurry vision of the tea pavilion design. Across the table, Lauren was already attempting the nearly impossible mission of picking up her first xiao long bao, and Wendy’s coaching mingled with her laughter along the way. I duly joined in, knowing we all have to begin somewhere. And like everything we put our hearts and souls into mastering, the best is yet to come.

Read Imu Chan’s first diary entry, “Prelude to a Potter’s Kiln.” http://www.tasteoflifemag.com/articles/prelude-to-a-potters-kiln

Imu Chan is the founder and principal architect of FSOARK, a Vancouver-based architecture practice. Through projects spanning a broad range of scales and mediums, his practice explores the essential, humanistic, and emotional qualities of space, which often demand cross-disciplinary examination. A licensed architect, certified passive house professional, public artist and product designer, Imu believes design has an obligation to the people and places it intends to serve, a capacity to influence life in profound ways. Imu holds a master’s degree in architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a visiting scholar in Japan and China, and has practiced in the United States and Canada.