Text and Photography by Andy Yale
When Kingston Lam was deployed to the Iraqi desert in 2003, among the few things he took with him were two small Yixing teapots. The water in the desert was so salty, a crystalline coating began to form on the teapots. The tea was brackish and muddy, but, Kingston made it every day. His comrades couldn’t understand why he drank tea in the searing desert heat. Kingston didn’t try to explain that making tea kept his thoughts connected to home.
Back in his parents’ house in Brooklyn, the shelves in his bedroom were lined with teapots, the solid nucleus of a major collection. He was 24 years old. Today, at 33, Kingston owns “about 400” teapots—an assortment of objects imbued with a rich and complex history. Among them are the pots he took into battle, still coated with Iraqi salt.
Kingston has had to create a special space for the pots—The Orchid Tea House in the basement of his Brooklyn home. In neat glass cabinets and antique Chinese lacquered sideboards, an imposing array of teapots welcome visitors.
At the first sight of this collection, one feels a rising burst of exhilaration mixed with awe. The eye dances back and forth between a multitude of treasures—here is an intricately carved cinnabar pot, bright as a jazz solo; there a Ming Dynasty masterpiece, simple as a Shaker hymn. A square pot brightly painted with scholars quaffing tea shares shelf space with utilitarian wares designed for the export trade. There are pots that are plain, painted, embossed, overlaid with pewter, decorated with dogs, water buffalos, and fanciful dragons. Yet these diverse vessels share a trait—they are all made from a material called purple sand, or zisha.
This unique product is found only in China’s Jiangsu province, near the city of Yixing, a pottery center since time immemorial. Purple clay has qualities that sound almost human—it is flexible, can breathe, and retains warmth. Its plasticity makes it the ideal medium for the appliqué ornamentation that enriches many Yixing pots. Because of its high mica and quartz content, it emerges from the kiln with a silky sheen, requiring no glaze. But more important than these characteristics is the clay’s ability to breathe and retain warmth—both functions of a remarkable porosity that makes Yixing tea wares the most sought after in the world.
Purple clay has been fired in Yixing District since the Soong Dynasty, but only after the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, ascended the throne did the teapot as we know it appear. Yixing teapots from Hongwu’s time are elegant in form but largely undecorated. Later, innovative potters like Gong Chun began using ornamental appliqués and varied shapes, creating the style of pottery called hua ho. Gong Chun made large wares, often reminiscent of gourds and pumpkins. The use of exaggerated natural objects as decorative motifs is a hallmark of his work.
A generation later, the celebrated Shi Dabin pioneered the use of small, one-person pots, renowned for a glittering finish reminiscent of a star-filled sky. Yixing tradition evolved to embrace all sizes of vessels and eventually included painted, inscribed, and inlaid teapots.
When the first wave of tea washed over Europe in the 1600s, purple sand ware rode along on the crest. Small pots of zisha clay were the universal method for brewing the new beverage. Packed amongst tea leaves to prevent breakage, they filled the hulls of the East India Company’s ships, and a healthy export trade kept the Yixing kilns humming.
The large porcelain teapots we know today appeared 100 years later when the British gained control of the black-tea market and introduced blends. These mixtures of different teas were chopped so finely that large pots with filters were devised to prepare them.
Sitting in the Orchid Tea House, one is surrounded by mute objects that have witnessed these developments and in company with the erudite man who can give them voice. Part collector, part scholar, and part connoisseur, Kingston Lam knows not only the provenance of each piece he owns but also its context in the rich tapestry of Chinese history.
Born in rural Fujian province, in a village still strong in the old ways, Kingston came to the United States with his family when he was 14. On a trip home to China a few years later, he saw a couple of Yixing pots at a local market. “I bought them—I wanted to brew tea and see if they were really better.”
Kingston began experimenting—with tea, water, different wares. First he brewed humble supermarket tea in several teapots and compared the results. He found that some pots suited one tea but did poorly with others.
“So I bought some books and learned about the different clay,” Kingston recalls. “And I continued comparing and started to like the experimental part. If you’re serious about tea, you should try everything. If you want to taste good tea, you must taste what’s bad. Comparison makes obvious.”
At the same time he was exploring all the variables in the tea equation, Kingston picked up the pace of his collecting. “I started by collecting new teapots. Then I met people specializing in older Yixing ware, and it just opened the door to a whole new world. The history, the literature—it’s amazing . . . It’s a way to maintain and deepen my identity as Chinese.”
Despite the depth of his motivations, Kingston has suffered the same ills that universally beset collectors. There are stories of contemporary collectors selling houses and businesses to buy a single famous pot. While Kingston never sank to these extremes, he wryly recalls his own case of “Collector’s Disease.”
“I was spending all my money on the collection. After a while, I realized I needed to refocus on quality, variety, and meaning. But I was still only buying;
I wasn’t selling anything.”
When Kingston married, the responsibilities of family life made him realize he needed to part with some of his collection. And he did.
“But at a certain level, selling no longer makes perfect sense. Certain items are so rare and unique, you can’t measure by money, . . . so I trade with other collectors. In a trade, I can get something I value as much as what I’m trading. It’s a process all collectors go through—because you’re always one short. Even today, I’m still one teapot short. But I’m immune to it now. I know how to live with it.”
For more information about Kingston Lam’s teapot collection, visit orchidteahouse.com.
A lifelong tea drinker, writer, and photographer, Andy Yale owns two Yixing pots and is in the market for a third. He lives in southern Maine.