Yum cha events serve up help to local charities

(Carmen Lee has been nominated for a Cultural Preservation Award in the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.)

「Did you know if you touch your ear at a waiter at a chalau, or teahouse, you’re indicating you want Pu’er tea? Prefer jasmine tea? Just touch your nose.」

“Back in the day, chalaus were particularly bustling and noisy, so people developed ways of communicating non-verbally,” Carmen Lee Ka-man explains. Both her parents were dim sum chefs and the backdrop of her childhood memories is mostly the inside of a dim sum restaurant.

Yum cha, literally meaning “drink tea”, is a distinctively Hong Kong feature. “It’s still a standard greeting to say to each other, ‘Let’s yum cha when we’re free.’” For Lee, it’s not just a culinary culture; she sees the yum cha tradition as an embodiment of the “Lion rock spirit”. “It reminds me of that can-do ethos, as my parents worked hard in the industry to bring me up; and it forges that sense of community, as people bond over sharing dim sum and pouring each other tea.”

In 2014, she published a book, Yum Cha Together, which shares stories of those in the industry, through which she hoped to rekindle that “Lion Rock spirit” in society.

A lawyer by profession, Lee often volunteered advice to social enterprises and NGOs. She realised many of them lacked resources and needed more help and exposure. So Lee and her husband, both long time volunteers, decided to turn the book’s intentions into a whole movement.

They set up the Yum Cha Together event, aiming to connect under-resourced charitable organisations with an audience, while boosting their understanding of the tea-drinking tradition.

Those interested can sign up to visit a particular NGO at its site, where they learn about its background, what it does and who it helps.

After the visit, comes the highlight of the event – everyone goes to yum cha together.

“Listening to a talk about an organisation is a one-way activity, but when we all sit together and share food, it becomes interactive.”

It doesn’t end there. While everyone enjoys their dim sum, Lee also involves them in little games that share fun facts about the yum cha culture the community of today may not know about, such as which facial feature represents what tea you want.

Lee has been nominated by Yum Cha Together for a Cultural Preservation Award in the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards.

Each event is planned with a different charitable organisation, and Yum Cha Together also caters to specific groups or companies who want to try a more unconventional way to do charitable work.

Earlier this year, a law firm reached out to them for its corporate social responsibility programme. Yum Cha Together arranged a date with We-Cycle, an initiative run by Cheer Lutheran Centre to help young drug addicts shake their dark past. The young people are trained as tour guides to take participants on cycling tours, where they introduce the local history and culture of the area along the route.

For lawyers, it’s usually at court that they meet recovering drug addicts, where they take the lead in negotiations and are in a position of advantage. But on the bike tour through Sheung Shui, it was the young guides leading the way and imparting knowledge, allowing for a role switch that provided both sides with a new experience and understanding of each other.

That is the fellowship Lee loves to see, and the idea that anyone can make something of themselves, no matter how humble their background.