I’m ill in bed today with the rotten cold that seems to be sweeping through London. And it’s at times like these that I can’t live without my old-fashioned Chinese thermos flask. Actually I have two of them – a small one, which I use to top up a pot of Chinese tea as I work at my desk, and a large one, which is perfect not only for making Chinese tea al fresco, but also for hauling up to my bedside when I’m sick, so I can make lots of herbal tea without getting up.
Apart from being useful, these thermoses make me richly nostalgic. When I first started travelling to China, they were everywhere. I would check into a room in a remote guesthouse, weary after a bone-shaking bus-ride or a long hitch on the back of a timber truck, and a fuwuyuan would immediately bring a thermos of hot water for making tea – it felt like a welcome. Sitting with friends in their Chengdu living rooms, there would always be a thermos at hand, to top up mugfuls of jasmine tea that could last for a whole afternoon.
In the last few years, thermoses have gone out of fashion. Most hotel rooms are now equipped with plastic electric kettles, and many people have electrically-powered hot water dispensers at home. You only find the old-fashioned flasks, with their classic proportions and floral designs, in rural backwaters – or the occasional boutique hotel. It makes me sad, not just because of the memories they hold for me, but because they seem to me to be the perfect energy-saving device. Instead of boiling the kettle every time you want a cup of tea, or keeping it hot with non-stop electricity, you boil it once, and then, gradually, use all the water you’ve heated. Perhaps it’s time for a revival?