The teapot from hell? Why the Chinese restaurant staple needs a rethink – the traditional design is cheap, leaky and dangerous to handle, so why are we still using it?

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The painful memory of my first run-in with this teapot still burns. When I was about 10 years old, my parents taught me the courtesy of pouring tea for everyone else at the table before mine. On that fateful Saturday, during yum cha, they asked me to pick up the teapot and pour tea for my grandma.

The experience was comical yet traumatic. I remember that the teapot, filled to the brim with boiling water, was too heavy for me to pick up by the handle with one hand. The unbalanced weight of the pot caused it to tilt forward, mashing its scalding belly against my fingers.

But before I even had time to react, hot tea was spurting from the spout and spilling all over the table. By this point, my hand was cramping as well as suffering from first degree burns. I lost grip of the pot, the lid fell off and scalding water splashed everywhere but into my grandmother’s cup!

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The traditional Chinese teapot has evolved little over the years. Photo: SCMP Archive

Cacophony ensued, with my parents telling me off, my grandmother questioning their intelligence in getting a little girl to handle boiling water, and me crying in despair, wondering what I had done to deserve this cruel and unusual punishment.

Decades later, I had largely forgotten this incident, until I was at a dim sum lunch with my son. The sight of him next to the teapot brought back memories of that scalding experience and I couldn’t help but wonder – why are we still using it?

This teapot ticks all the boxes but the only thing it does not do is pour a decent cup of tea

But first, is the teapot really that bad?

“Yeah, it leaks and it’s purely just a bad spout design. The tip of the spout is too fat, and the angle is wrong,” says Kenny Son Yong-soo, a Sydney-based object designer, whose creations include a famous line of teapots.

“But it’s impossible to craft a thin spout with the cheap material they use,” Son adds.

The handle is too flat, making it almost impossible to hold, and the recessed lid keeps falling off because of how far one must tip the wide teapot to get all the tea out.

“Ergonomics have not been thought out at all in making that teapot,” he concludes.

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The spout is too short and leaks everywhere, the belly is too wide and burns the fingers, the handles crushes the fingers and the lid falls off all the time … yet we continue to use the traditional Chinese “teapot from hell”. Photo: Chow Kwok-wang

The traditional Chinese teapot has been sold by ceramic suppliers since the 60s. “We’ve been buying the same teapots since the restaurant opened and we’ve been in business for over 60 years,” says Tam Kwok-king, general manager and director of Hong Kong’s Fung Shing Restaurant.

“The teapots have a lot of wear and tear in a busy restaurant. The spout and the lid suffer the most damage and this design lasts a bit longer than others.”

In an attempt to reduce the damage from the ravages of daily yum cha use, Tam and other restaurateurs have attached a plastic tube to extend the teapot’s spout, which reduces the leak and protects the ceramic. They’ve also attached fishing lines to tie the lid to the handle, preventing the lid from falling off.

“Back in the 80s, we bought rubber tubing at the hardware store to extend the spout. Now, there are specially made plastic extenders and they work very well,” says Tam.

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Dim sum served the traditional way at Flory City Restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui East, in 1969. Photo: SCMP Archive

Because tea drinkers have been complacent about the leaky teapot, the problem is a global one.

“We don’t pour our own tea when we go to yum cha,” says Barbara Ackerman, a New Jersey resident in the US. “Our waiter usually takes the teapot to a separate table behind us and it leaks all over the side table when he pours our tea.”

Son’s suggestion that cost is involved in the decision rings true. We asked Jonathan Yee, director and general manager of Emperor Garden, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants offering yum cha in Sydney, Australia, if he had explored better teapots for the lunch crowd.

His answer was succinct: “Nope, due to wear and tear, cost plays a big role in the choice of purchase.” He confirmed that this is the most prevalent teapot in Chinese restaurants outside Hong Kong, because it is the most budget-friendly.

Despite being ungainly to use, the cost effectiveness has caused the teapot with the leaky spout to be used worldwide.

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Kezia Chan, tea master of Rùn, at The St Regis Hong Kong demonstrates how single-handled teapots are best used while standing up. Photo: Alex Chan

“It really just evolved from dining culture,” says Kezia Chan, tea master of Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Rùn, at The St. Regis Hong Kong. “People started to serve themselves tea at the table, so a bigger pot was needed.”

If that’s the case, then a bit of tea and dim sum culture needs to be explored.

Pre-war China was the time of the Mandarins. No matter high- or low-ranking, a Mandarin owned land and a big house that served not only as abode, but as something of a town hall, where meetings took place and big events in the village such as weddings and Lunar New Year celebrations were held. We can still see remnants of this culture in Hong Kong’s New Territories.

Ergonomics have not been thought out at all in making that teapot

Kenny Yong-soo Son

Tea houses were a place outside the home where the rich and powerful would gather to chat or talk business. Dim sum was in its rudimentary form and the tea itself was the star of the show.

Back then, teapots were made of clay and much smaller as dedicated wait staff would walk around with a huge brass kettle full of boiling water to refill the guests’ teapots. The Chinese have a saying, “boiling water makes the best tea”. And without any technology to keep the water warm, this arrangement served the purpose to make the most enjoyable brew.

There is also lore connected to the clay texture of these small teapots. As unglazed clay is porous, tea enthusiasts would keep a separate pot for every different kind of leaf they drank. Eventually, when the teapot had absorbed enough of the tea aroma, pouring boiling water into the same pot should produce the fragrance of the tea it housed. This practice is observed till this very day.

“I keep different coloured unglazed clay pots for different teas, as some of our regulars are very particular about their teapots too,” says Chan.

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A Hong Kong dim sum restaurant in 1969. Photo: SCMP

Pre-war Hong Kong was a port colony known for squalor and terrible living conditions. While the local population still struggled with poverty, by the post-war years of the late 50s and early 60s, Hong Kong was stable and transitioning into a manufacturing economy. Families still lived in subdivided flats, but everyone was employed and children went to school.

What was missing from communities was a village hall or town centre in which to gather. Customers at tea houses started asking for larger tables as families, while still strapped for cash, could afford to meet over dim sum and tea at restaurants. This meant the teapots had to be big enough to fill every cup of a large table at least once, with some to spare.

“A traditional teapot for the home would have a single handle arching over the top,” says Chan. “That is optimal for serving over a table or standing up. But if you’re pouring tea for someone sitting next to you, you can only use a side handle, or you’d be dangling a pot of boiling water over your head.”

So ceramicists fashioned a large version of the only side-handled teapot they knew, the small individual clay teapots. In the 50s and 60s, dishes were still washed by hand and inevitably, a shorter spout would have reduced the damage and chipping.

“Glazing the teapot served two purposes – durability and easier cleaning,” Chan adds. “Not everyone could have a teapot for different teas – the last thing you want is the pot absorbing the fragrance of all the different teas.”

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A collection of teapots of different designs, at Rùn in The St Regis Hong Kong. Photo: Alex Chan

Another practical aspect was that with a larger teapot at each table, the number of wait staff a restaurant would need on the floor was reduced. Imagine a dining room with 10 tables seating 12 people each. The more water the teapot on the table could hold, the less staff you would need to refill with boiling water.

Economical, durable and very practical for diners to serve themselves, this white ceramic teapot ticks all the boxes for restaurant owners and customers. The only thing it does not do well is pour a cup of tea properly.

In this world of disruptive innovation, this teapot is ripe for the taking. Surely there is an Elon Musk of ceramics out there who can make a teapot that does not leak, at the price of the current one, if not cheaper? Have a heart for the children and their poor, crushed and burning fingers.

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