The Melting Pot Of Tea: A Tea Appreciation Cultural Tour delivers quite a kick.

As a lifelong coffee drinker, I was unprepared for the serious caffeine buzz that resulted from imbibing four different doses of tea over the course of a leisurely morning.

At dinner, some six hours after the tour had ended, a friend observes that I am talking faster than usual. So, consider yourself forewarned if you intend to sign up for Monster Day Tours’ latest offering.

Other than the threat of caffeine-induced hyperactivity, this heritage walk is actually a fairly relaxed affair, incorporating light activities in an easy amble around Chinatown.

I am intrigued by the premise, especially since few Singaporeans think about the heritage aspects of this familiar brew.

Tour guide Jamie Lee Jia Min, 33, who studied history, has done her homework. She kicks off her tour with a quick precis of the “cha if by land, teh if by sea” explanation for why the world has two words for this popular cuppa.

This etymological guide is based on how the tea leaf reached its destination from its origins in China.

If the leaf travelled over land via the Silk Road, then the name is derived from the Chinese word “cha” – for example, chai in India.

The sea route, funnelled through the early ports in Fujian which used Hokkien, inspired variations on “teh”, so the English word “tea”.

Of course, there are exceptions, as Ms Lee notes: The Portuguese call it “cha” as they got their supply via Hong Kong and Macau.

The history buff in me loves this nerdy introduction and Ms Lee does not disappoint, doling out intriguing bits of trivia throughout the tour.

On the way to our first stop, she points out the Anxi Clan Association building.

The association was set up in 1922. The Singapore Tea Merchants Association formed a few years after that, with about 15 out of 20 members hailing from the Anxi region, which is famous for its Tie Guan Yin tea.

Along the way, Ms Lee also throws in non-tea-related information, pointing out a building that used to house opium dens – just across from former labourers’ quarters and the Lai Chun Yuen Opera House, now home to a hotel.

These info-drops give the tour some heft, and are a good appetiser for participants to find out more about the rich history of Chinatown, which many locals tend to dismiss as a tourist trap.

On the bright side, closed borders means this district, so often clogged with souvenir stalls and tourists, is now more accessible to Singaporeans.

Even if you are not a history buff, this tour packs in four engaging stops that will satisfy tea devotees and those in search of Instagram fodder.

The first stop is a mini-breakfast at local institution Tong Ah Eating House. While its new location lacks the ambience of the original shop, the crisp toast slathered with kaya and soft-boiled egg accompanied by a cup of teh is comfort food at its best.

I learn from Ms Lee that Tong Ah ages the Sri Lankan black tea in-house for nine months.

The Tea Crafters is a fun stop where participants get to blend a custom tea.

Choose from six types of tea leaves, from oolong to white tea, and 15 flavours, including goji berries and strawberries. Then take home your experimental blend in a cute tea caddy.

The teh halia at SMH drinks stall is good reason to stop at Maxwell Food Centre. The spicy tea packs a powerful punch, thanks to the ginger, imported from Thailand and freshly ground every day.

The final stop at Tea Chapter is a lesson in the proper way to brew Chinese tea.

I never knew the tea in the pot must first be poured into the “justice” cup before being distributed to drinkers to ensure that everyone gets a balanced brew.

This traditional teahouse also brewed the most elegant cuppa of the day – Imperial Golden Cassia – which was also served to Queen Elizabeth when she visited 32 years ago.

By the end of the tour, I am sloshed with tea. But this walk, brimming with information and activity, is a great way to spend a weekend morning.

Blend your own flavoured teas at The Tea Crafters. Credit: Ng Sor Luan/ST
Sample teh halia at Maxwell Food Centre. Credit: Ng Sor Luan/ST

The Melting Pot Of Tea: A Tea Appreciation Cultural Tour

  • What: Walking tour of Chinatown with a focus on tea
  • Where: Outram Park MRT station, exit H
  • Fee: $65 per adult, SingapoRediscover vouchers accepted
  • Company: Monster Day Tours
  • Duration: Three and a half hours. The tour is currently conducted on Saturdays but those wishing to do a weekday tour can contact the company.
  • Info: Monster Day Tours website

Text: Ong Sor Fern/The Straits Times