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For the authenticity of Ching Ching Cha to stay after rent hike, it had to leave Georgetown

February 3, 2023


Photos by Joanna Li; Illustration by Dane Tedder and Joanna Li

Not many shop owners ask how you are and genuinely mean it. Fewer would already know the answer based on your order. And in Georgetown, there was only one who would sit with you for the time it takes to finish a hot cup of tea. 

Ching Ching (Hollie) Wong opened the doors of Ching Ching Cha on Wisconsin Avenue after moving to D.C. from Hong Kong. Since 1998, the teahouse has served the Georgetown community; now, following unprecedented rent hikes, it’s moving to Dupont Circle. In these 25 years, the teahouse was a hub for building connections and escaping the noisy stress of everyday life. 

When asked whether creating this dynamic atmosphere was ever her goal, Wong’s answer was simple: “Not really. I just want a teahouse.” 

Ching Ching Cha is a lively yet tranquil space. There are no laptops or background music—Wong won’t allow it. In a neighborhood filled with busy shops and boisterous students, the quietness was what made the teahouse unique. It’s what tea does to people, Wong explained.

“You walk in, the whole atmosphere calm you down, slow you down. You just be yourself, and quiet help you think right,” Wong said. “It is naturally that way. You walk in, you will laugh. After you stay five minutes, you will be quiet.” 

This quietness allowed for undiluted conversations, which drew in regulars. Jeremy Davis and Aris Hart, friends since their college days, came to the teahouse every Monday for the last five years. Davis described it as the “single most consistent routine in [his] life.”

“We hang out literally until closing every single time we come here,” Hart said. They would talk for hours—usually they casually banter, but occasionally they vigorously debate. “What other place is going to accommodate that?”

But the two of them, along with the rest of Wong’s regulars, are parting from their routine visits to the teahouse—at least for now.

Despite its popularity, Ching Ching Cha closed the doors on its Georgetown location on Jan. 29. A 48 percent rent increase prompted Wong to choose between running a business focused on raising revenue or running a teahouse her way—even if that means moving to a smaller space in Dupont Circle. 

The former has never been Wong’s style—she doesn’t even consider running a teahouse her “career.” Rather than working, Wong thinks of herself as “flowing comfortably.” The relocation of Ching Ching Cha to Dupont is just her “moving to another stage of life.” 

“I’m just quietly doing what I like to do. It’s not a career. I’m just living my life, I just follow myself,” she told us. “I work hard but I don’t feel I work hard, because I always love what I do.” 

“Sometimes we don’t understand what she’s saying,” long-time employee Harry Pang said endearingly. “You don’t want a business, but you’re running business. Her friends try to show her how to make revenue, and she says ‘I don’t want to know.’”  

Although Wong doesn’t consider herself a business owner, she is well aware of the rules of the game. She understands why her landlord would prefer a tenant that can provide a faster, higher cash flow. But she thinks that the smart investment would be in the teahouse run by a “very steady tenant that he can keep.”

Wong could stay, but she would need to raise prices by 150 percent to keep up with rent. 

“I am too old to accommodate that, and I’m not going to,” Wong said. “I will not change my original idea of how I run my teahouse.” 

Running Ching Ching Cha like a typical business may also look like sacrificing the open layout, no-laptop policy, and music-free setting that makes the teahouse more than just a trendy location to sip on fancy imported tea. 

Staying in Georgetown could also mean prematurely cutting off customer conversations to optimize table turnover time—something Wong already resented having to do to accommodate the teahouse’s spike in popularity during its final days in town. 

“There’s never been a problem with us staying for a long time,” Davis told us. “Now, with the place closing, she’s put a [75-minute] time limit on sitting down because so many people have shown up.”

Wong told us that one recent weekend, the line wrapped around the block, and people were waiting over two hours for a table. She apologized to every single one. 

Like its tea, the popularity of the teahouse is authentic—it stems entirely from word of mouth. Wong has never advertised, nor does she have the passwords to her Facebook or Instagram, which her staff handles.

As the teahouse got busier over the years, Pang noted that the lines of people made it feel like too much of a business for Wong’s liking. It became increasingly difficult to serve customers without sacrificing the authentic human connection sourced from unhurriedly enjoying equally authentic tea. 

Ching Ching Cha is contrasted by the trendy boba shops—like Gong cha—that have popped up nearby in recent years. Wong isn’t fazed; to her, they’re still authentic teahouses, just in different forms.

Nonetheless, these newer shops are franchised chains—they’re everywhere in the country, and don’t offer nearly the sense of kinship that a small store like Ching Ching Cha does. Customers know from the moment they walk in that Hollie Wong will be at the teahouse. The staff’s been here all along, too. “My first staff been here for 16 years. My kitchen girl was with me for 24 years,” Wong said. Pang, who’s currently getting his Ph.D. in economics, had been at Ching Ching Cha for nine years. “So we know customer,” Wong added. 

A Georgetown student and Ching Ching Cha regular, Yara, sees the tea shop as a nurturing space. She spoke on the condition that the Voice use a pseudonym when referencing her experience, and explained that campus can feel unsafe at times; but when she would go to Ching Ching Cha, her anxiety would dissipate.

“When I come to Ching Ching’s, I feel like I can just chill. I just feel a lot calmer, [when I] eat the food and drink tea,” Yara said.

Yara’s first visit to Ching Ching Cha was right before closing time. Trying to ease Wong’s distress that she wouldn’t have enough time to drink her tea, Yara offered to pay ahead of time. Wong shooed her to her seat and refused—if Yara didn’t like the tea, she didn’t have to pay at all. 

“What our teahouse is, is a connection, it’s not a transaction,” Wong explained. She has infused the teahouse with the love for her work, her spirit of generosity, and her genuine care for others. “If you talk to me one more hour, I will want to know exactly how are you doing all the time,” she said.

Davis, who has tried every tea on Ching Ching Cha’s menu, told us, “Whenever I’ve had a bad day or I’m stressed and I have a lot on my mind, I specifically order Pu’er, to the point where everyone who works here … knows if I order Pu’er, I’ve had a bad day. And Hollie will ask me, ‘What’s wrong?’”

Wong refers to Ching Ching Cha’s customers as her people and her community. She hopes to bring these connections from Georgetown to Dupont.

Being the sole manager and owner of the teahouse lets Wong be her own boss. While that means hard work, it never feels like it, she says. She doesn’t need to be in the teahouse everyday—she wants to be. 

“[My landlord] said, ‘You must be rich because no business in Georgetown opens five days a week and close at seven.’ But he’s very wrong. I just love my life, and I love time more than he does. And he would say, ‘Why don’t you find a manager?’ But I want to be here.”

Wong is taking her love for the teahouse to Dupont, even if that means some logistical changes. The Dupont location is half the size of the Georgetown one. There’s no kitchen space, so the teahouse will have to forgo its food options and let go of the kitchen staff and servers. Wong doesn’t want to rush to open the Dupont location either—she wants to take her time before jumping into a new venture, and doesn’t want to burden her current, long-time employees with this choice.

“I cannot say, ‘Oh, stay until I know what I’m going to do,’” Wong said. She doesn’t want to impose an uncertain time gap in paying her employees a steady wage—iIt wouldn’t be fair. 

A full staff could run the new teahouse for her while she’s on break, Wong said, but being in the teahouse is a habit, even if she has to work solo. The break would also give her the time to envision the new Ching Ching Cha.

“The idea for the new place, I really don’t know. Everyone asks. I do not have a crystal clear idea of what kind of [work] to do,” she said. “I’m going to take my time, and focus on closing this one, and I will take my time to start the next one.”

“Every emotion you name it, I’m going through all of it,” Wong reflected. 

Some, like Pang, have a positive view of the move. Maintaining a huge location demands a lot of time and energy, especially while doing it alone. A smaller teahouse can provide more intimacy with less day-to-day stress for Wong. 

That doesn’t mean Wong’s regulars won’t miss the intricately detailed arches of the Georgetown location or the meaningful conversations that have echoed off of the walls. Davis describes the teahouse’s closing being “like having a whole bunch of friends move away all at once.”

“Coming here really is a home away from home for me,” Davis said. “It’s not that I can’t imagine having other routines or doing other things, but it’s more that I can’t imagine doing anything else because I’ve been coming here so often for so long.”

For Davis’ last pre-pandemic birthday, he and 20 of his best friends celebrated with him at the tea house. “We were all talking about how it’s like ‘Oh, maybe we can finally do that again,’ and then we get the news that she’s closing.”

In addition to birthdays, the versatile teahouse has hosted weddings, graduations, and memorial services. “There’s a lot of memories here. There’s a lot of celebration, there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of many things,” Wong said. 

In the interim, regulars may have to find alternatives from the teahouse, but it’ll be difficult. “There are plenty of coffee shops that fit the bill but they’re usually a lot busier, especially when you come right after work. Also, there’s not a lot of places with that same sort of atmosphere that are open late, so it’s hard to find anywhere that has the same vibe,” Davis said.

Still, the community is optimistic for the future of Ching Ching Cha. “I’m excited to see what comes next,” Davis said. Monday evening regular Jeannette interjected our conversation with Wong to share hopeful words as her final visit to the teahouse concluded: “As the Queen Elizabeth said, ‘We will meet again.’” 

“We will meet again, thank you,” Wong responded. 

Because Ching Ching Cha will eventually reopen, its closing lends itself to emotional complexity. “It’s not like the end forever, which is cool,” Hart said. “That means it’s harder to feel … actively sad about it.”

“But definitely, for the months between then and now, it’s like, oh no, what am I gonna [do]?” Davis said.

“And we won’t be able to hang out in here for three hours at a time,” Hart added. “I wouldn’t really go to another teahouse. It’d be like cheating on your girlfriend or something at that point.”

In the meantime, Wong will continue to embody the teahouse’s spirit by embracing the time she has between now and the new location’s opening.  

“It’s nice to have a break, because a lot of good ideas will come,” she shared. The idea for Ching Ching Cha itself, for example, emerged during a two- and- a- half- year break from her job as a hairstylist. 

Whatever the next step is, Wong is confident in the community she’s crafted during the last 25 years and in the ideas to come.  

“Come back when I know. Come back whenever you can.”

 

*This article was updated on 2/3/23 to reflect a correction in the spelling of Harry Pang’s last name.


Angelena Bougiamas
Angelena is a sophomore studying Political Economy from Queens, New York. She is a fan of print newsmagazines (duh), lemon tea (with honey) and humoring her father by finally updating this bio (hi dad!).

Joanna Li
Eons ago, Joanna was the executive news editor. Much has changed, but she still enjoys chess, researches altruism, and has a lot of love for people in this magazine. A lot.


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