AAI's "HOT TEA" serves meaningful cups of conversation

By Sean Corbett
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 18, 2013

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Cups of community: AAI’s interactive "HOT TEA" connects Philadelphians via its traveling tricycle cart. (Photo courtesy of Asian Arts Initiative)

The simple idea behind public art is its magical ability to give you a double-take and nudge you into re-thinking the world around you. Rolling down Chinatown’s sidewalks and through its public spaces, HOT TEA has been doing just that with its free tea all year, connecting local strangers to each other with nothing more than a hot beverage, a bicycle-driven table (with chairs) and maybe some herbal education, yoga, poetry or history lessons. They provide little cups of hand-crafted sustenance in exchange for nothing more than conversation.

Created and run by Philadelphia-based artists, curators and educators Laura Deutch, Lee Tusman, Kathryn Sclavi, Katya Gorker, the idea for HOT TEA comes from a shared love of bicycles, mobile art projects, a recent trip to Burning Man, an unfortunate lack of options for drinking tea together after 3pm and a mutal strong passion for creating public services to help bring the Chinatown neighborhood together through social interactions.

“We noticed there were several different community members in the neighborhood of Chinatown North/Callowhill—loft dwellers, artists, a homeless population, light industry workers and a longstanding residential neighborhood—and we wanted to create public events to bring these disparate communities together,” Tusman says.

One of seven art projects funded by an ArtPlace America Grant awarded to Asian Arts Initiative for the 2013 year, HOT TEA is part of AAI’s Social Practice Lab and, just like the other six, it is intended for engaging with the Chinatown North community. The team works with and receives valuable feedback from an advisory team of nationally known artists working in the field and local partners that run nonprofits, businesses and community organizations in the area.

Random Tea Room in Northern Liberties helps supply a variety of teas to match the perfect teas to the HOT TEA events. Deutch says they’ve also had a “great relationship” with Haley Trikes owner Stephen Horcha. “We were able to work with him locally to custom build the bike.” The cart itself “became the literal vehicle to help us facilitate other events and gatherings that we wanted to undertake … and we didn’t always need an ‘activity’ for people to do. It was enough to just invite them over to sit down, have tea and talk.”

Ripe for more than just popping over to some popular local block parties (which they do, too), the collective has made tea cups with school children and run film screenings, yoga gatherings and a public poetry workshop with poets Sueyeun Juliette Lee and Quyen Nghiem. They’ve also done things like poll people in line for Traffic Court and made little LED-light bunches for the community to add some color and safety to the streets at night. The future has lots in store for HOT TEA, too. Look for more mobile events after they train more community members to use the cart, as well as a series of poetic and informational “Tea Talks,” programming surrounding their “really excellent” mobile printer and a better utilization of their wireless mic/amp system.

This Friday, Asian Arts Initiative hosts a free night of tea-drinking and storytelling to celebrate the release of the HOT TEA zine. Folks can head over to Asian Arts Initiative’s salon space to get a free copy of the limited-edition publication, complete with original stories and photographs from their urban tea exploits or check out their gallery space for an eerie exhibit of new works by Hua Hua Zhang, master puppet theater artist and sculptor.

“I’d say the mixture of planned events to impromptu cart roamings is maybe 50/50,” Tusman says. “The nature of the cart … [and] the role of tea in creating moments of exchange really helps conversations to develop between people previously strangers to one another.”

Sclavi says that while some people come out because they know the cart, “It’s really great when someone stumbles upon it because they initially think the tea costs money, but when they learn it’s free and its a place to enjoy conversation and a community event, they are usually pleasantly surprised!”

And no, HOT TEA does not accept your tips. This is art, people. Come on.

One time at the cart, Sclavi says, “Jim James of the band My Morning Jacket and his [touring] band were walking by on the way to their gig at Union Transfer. They stopped for tea, and he even gave my friend tickets and backstage passes to the show later that night!”

Surprises like this, along with the public double-take, are definitely part of the fun with HOT TEA. As Sclavi says, “There is something about the element of surprise to a stranger that I think really makes for a special experience. I hope people walk away feeling like something really great happened to them that day.” 


HOT TEA: Zine Release Party, Fri., Dec. 20, 6pm. Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St. 215.557.0455. asianartsinitiative.org

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