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An art tea venture
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At GTH, food is served as a work of art.


Musician JinR (Zhang Jinjie) opened her first teahouse in Beijing in 1997. Tucked away in Sanlitun, the city's diplomatic quarters and popular night life center, the 12-sq-m room was big enough for just three tables and her favorite instruments - the yangqin (dulcimer) and guzheng (seven-stringed plucked instrument similar to the zither).


For days, she waited for a customer to come, wondering if the whole idea was a mistake.


Eventually, a Japanese woman showed up and ordered a pot of tea. JinR was so excited to see her that she played a classical song on the yangqin to welcome her.


But the Beijinger's passionate performance was so loud she ran out.


Though JinR's first customer was scared away, her bad luck also fled and business has blossomed since then.


Now, Green T. House (GTH) has become one of the hottest destinations in the capital, featuring innovative design and distinctive cuisine.


"I am an artist of life," the 35-year-old says.


"I am stubborn, but I don't think it is my weakness because any defects can be converted into advantages, depending on how you work on it.


"It has driven me to try my hardest to reach for excellence even with tiny things. It might be torture for some people, but this is happiness for me."


Opened in 2002, GTH is big enough to house at least two basketball courts. Designed by JinR, the furniture is in either black or white, and is all tall, Wooden chairs have more than 2-m high backs, and there is a huge cage and big Chinese-style screens.


JinR regards it as home, thus every customer should ring the bell first to enter.


Wearing delicate make-up and an elegant dress, JinR looks trendier than most heavily pregnant woman.



She makes few references to her success, instead she shares stories from her past.


At her parents' wish, JinR started to learn yangqin at the age of 6.


Playing traditional Chinese songs, she discovered, was not all that interesting. She felt depressed about never being allowed to play her own pieces.


Sometimes she worked up the courage to play one, but her teacher would criticize her and tell her to play classical music.


In 1990, she enrolled at the Central Conservatory of Music, majoring in the instrument. Two years later, she dropped out and left for Guangdong province to follow her dream of becoming a famous pop singer.


But the dream soured.


She found the record company was trying to turn her into something she didn't want to be.


"I am like a dog, running fast. But if you raise a dog like a cat imagine how uncomfortable it would be," she says.


After returning to Beijing, JinR began playing at various restaurants and teahouses to make a living. After doing this for three years, a friend asked her if she would be interested in running a shop in Sanlitun.


Drawn to the idea of a traditional Chinese teahouse, she accepted the challenge.


Life was tough at the beginning.


She loved to have customers but was too poor to hire a cleaner and had to do all the washing-up, with her delicate musician's hands.


"It feels like I did a lifetime of washing-up during that period," she says.


JinR then decided to take advantage of the demand for food at her teahouse, but didn't know how to cook.


"I am inspired by being under pressure. I always practiced yangqin many times before a performance. I had stage fright, but there is no point hiding, you just move forward."


She spent nights wondering around the city's bars, taking note of those dishes. When she dined out, JinR wrote down every ingredient she could identify from the dish she ate.


JinR has now developed her own concept of cooking.


"Food should be served as a work of art rather than just a dish, and any unsightly thing should not be seen on a dining table," she says.


The interior of Green T. House Living features innovative design. Photos courtesy of JinR


For instance, a bowl of common noodles, can be served with green tea soup and some colorful extras on the top - slices of red carrots, green cucumber or eggs to make it look nice.


She believes Chinese traditional food needs innovation and improvement, especially in how it is presented. But she denies artists are the only people who can recognize beauty.


"Every one has two eyes - the physical and the spiritual. The physical eye is to see the appearance of an object, while the spiritual one is to explore the beauty and layers under the substance," she says.


In order to find inspiration, JinR's chefs are required to visit local galleries or attend art exhibitions.


In 2002/03, JinR participated at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore, the first Chinese female to do so. Despite this achievement, you'll never hear her brag about it.


"Many of my friends are expanding their businesses across the country, while I am still struggling putting two pieces of dessert in a better position," she says. "It might sound ridiculous, but I am convinced what has kept me going is that I love what I do, and I enjoy beautiful things."


Two years ago, JinR launched Green T. House Living in Beijing to promote tea culture and fine dining. She opened another GTH in Hong Kong last year.


The trendsetter claims the most precious things in life are free of charge - sunshine and fresh air for instance - and some of her deftest creations cost little more than that.


One day, she picked up some branches on the street and brought them back to the restaurant. After painting them black, they looked good enough to be placed on tables.


JinR married an Australian man in 2006. Their first baby is due next month. But the mother-to-be doesn't plan on a big break after her delivery.


"Not working is a real torture for me," she says.


(China Daily January 24, 2008)


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