Before my departure for Taiwan, my learned colleague Steven Owyoung kindly put me in touch with a longtime friend of his, Rita Chang, Director of the Asian Cultural Council, which is based in Taipei. It would be difficult to exaggerate my debt to Rita, as she was absolutely pivotal in my discovering some of the rich tea culture of Taiwan; without her help, many doors would have remained not only closed to me, but completely unknown.
We met one afternoon after Rita had finished her day's work. A cab drove us through some narrow winding streets until we came to a walled yard that led to an apartment building. This was the temporary home of the fabled Wistaria Tea House, designated a historic landmark in Taiwan (and justly so). The Chinese name for this is 紫藤廬, 'zi teng lu,' i.e. 'wisteria cottage.' (Some of my readers may have seen the original site of Zi Teng Lu without realizing it; it is one of the locations in Ang Lee's award-winning 1994 film EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN.) The historic site (address: No 1, Lane 16, Sinsheng South Road, Section 3, Taipei; telephone:  2363.7375) is currently closed for renovation/restoration, but this 'temporary' site (29, Lane 61, Lin-Yi Street, Taipei; telephone: 2321.9089 -- which may indeed become a permanent, second location) very effectively evokes the ambience and feel of the original.
The proprietor of Zi Teng Lu is as legendary as the place itself. Zhou Yu is part and parcel of the history and the energy of the place. It was my honor to be introduced to him by Rita, and moreover, to have him sit at our table and brew us tea. He chose a ming-qian long jing cha, and brewed it for us in genuine Song-Dynasty tea bowls, which were decorated in 'hare's fur' glaze. His brewing style was aggressive -- he favors a much hotter water than most people use for lu cha. But it would be difficult to argue with his results; the tea was superb.
We had a relaxed, congenial conversation over tea, during which Mr Zhou presented me with an autographed copy of a gorgeous French-language publication, La civilisation du thé, in which three of his essays have been translated from Chinese into French. Our visit was punctuated by the occasional arrival of other patrons of the tea house, in groups of three or four; each group greeted Mr Zhou like a long-lost relative. It was clear that he is deeply beloved and honored in Taiwan, and with good reason.
The next day, Rita met me again after work -- this time in the trendy neighborhood of Yong Kang Park (永康公園), one of the liveliest and most exciting parts of Taipei. This may actually be the part of Taipei in which tea-houses are to be found in the densest number. It seemed as though there was one (or more) on every block. We started at a place known as Ya Hon (No. 10, Lane 10, Yong Kang Street, Taipei; tel 02.2321.5119), one of the many places in Taipei that combines the function of cha ye dian (a shop where you go to buy tea-leaf to brew at home) and cha fang (a tea house where they brew tea and serve it to you -- or set you up to brew it at your own table). This was after 5.00 pm, so the good folk of Taipei were more likely to be thinking about going home for supper than about lounging in a tea house; Ya Hon was virtually empty. The proprietor was sitting with a couple of friends, brewing pu'er tea. When Rita and I walked in, introductions were made, and then the talk quickly turned to the tea itself. This gentleman's style of interaction with a waiguoren was typical of what one finds in Taiwan: very polite, congenial, and welcoming of foreign visitors. He did speak some English, and used it to describe his ideas about pu'er tea (with Rita chiming in occasionally, in Chinese, when clarification was needed). He assumed that I did not know anything about pu'er, and seemed genuinely taken aback to learn that in fact I did; he was truly stupefied when I pulled a brick of sheng Jingmai pu'er out of my bag to show him. He not only served us tea, but also whittled off a chunk of his tuo cha for me to take away with me (though he refused to take any of my Jingmai in return). It was a very relaxed and enjoyable (brief) visit; I felt under no pressure at all to purchase any tea, which was nice.
From Ya Hon we moved on to a place that Rita especially favors: 'Off-Chaism' (6, Lane 12. Yong Kang Street, Taipei; tel: 886.2.2341.8272; email: firstname.lastname@example.org). It is perhaps best to understand Off-Chaism in tandem with Chrysanthemum Chaism Studies (17-1, Lane 31, Yong Kang Street, Taipei), which was founded in 1996 by Li Shu-yun (李曙韻) as a way of preserving and celebrating traditional Taiwan tea culture. Because I feel very acutely the speed with which global culture is developing and shape-shifting, I am especially grateful for those who are moved to try and preserve what is best about the past, in order to cherish it in the present and to hand it over to the future. Chrysanthemum Chaism Studies is dedicated to just such an end.
The word 'Chaism' is itself worth commenting on briefly here, if only because of its likely unfamiliarity. I suggest that the notion probably comes from Kakuzo Okakura's 1906 book THE BOOK OF TEA, which propounds the doctrine of 'teaism.' (The complete text of this fascinating book can be downloaded for free at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/769.) Okakura writes:
Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism -- Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.If I am right about this, then 'Cha-ism' would be a sinification of Okakura's term 'Teaism' (one must remember that THE BOOK OF TEA was composed -- for reading aloud at Isabella Stewart Gardner's salon -- not in Japanese but in English). Given the East/West dialogue that so thoroughly imbues Okakura's work, there is something deeply fitting about an Asian institution's now reclaiming an Asian concept of ancient lineage that gained its first modern articulation in the West.
The Okakura connection might also partly explain why the decor here is in part Japanese-flavored; to pass to the rear of the shop, where the tea-table is situated with its low benches, one must doff one's shoes. The atmosphere at Off-Chaism is serene, peaceful, as carefully nurtured as a beloved bonsai. Every implement, every drinking vessel is a delicate treasure. No less jewel-like was Jia Min (佳敏), whose English nickname is Salvinia. Jia Min greeted us with a warm smile and a gentle voice; she led us back to the table and benches, where we were able to sit and take in our beautiful surroundings while she prepared to serve us some tea.
It was not long before Jia Min joined us at the table. As we sat and sipped, she explained to us something of the history and mission of Chrysanthemum Chaism Studies and its retail offshoot, Off-Chaism (which opened in 2005). It was clear that this small establishment becomes an oasis of calm amid the bustle of the city, for those who need to seek a moment of quietude and tranquility.
Jia Min furnished me with some printed materials about Off-Chaism and the work and mission of Chrysanthemum. These were produced and packaged with the kind of sumptuousness one associated -- in days of yore -- with the most elegant engraved wedding invitations. One of the brochures proclaims: 'Along with Chrysanthemum Chaism Studies, Off Chaism will dedicate to achieving a fusion among Tea, Aesthetic and Art. And bringing the visual, acoustic and gustatory beauty of Tea to everyone.' Again, the visual aesthetic of these brochures is palpably Japanese; again, I could not help but think of the connection that Okakura explicitly draws, in THE BOOK OF TEA, between Teaism and Zen. Is that what (however subtly) inspires the calm stillness that prevails over the atmosphere of Off-Chaism?
Night was falling in earnest now. It was time for Rita to say goodbye, but I was not left alone at Off-Chaism: besides Jia Min, there was Mr Huang, an affable young man who goes by the nickname of Nill. Nill volunteered to show me round the Yong Kang area a bit more. Saying goodbye to Jia Min, we stopped first at Hui Liu (No. 9, Lane 31, Yong Kang St., Taipei, TEL: 886.2.2861.9840 or 2392.6707), a tea-house/restaurant that specializes in wild foods, including wild teas. Their business card specifies 'Wild Tea/Vegetarian Food/Ceramics,' which struck me as an accurate précis of what I was observing around me there. When I visited them, their website was not yet completed, but they did give me the URL (http://www.huiliu.info/), of which at least the portal page is now active. The dining and retail space were airy and comfortably informal, and there was some attractive tea-ware for sale. Given time, this is a place I would return to.
Continuing our walk, Nill and I proceeded to another Taipei tea landmark: Yeh Tang (冶堂), situated at No. 20-2, Lane 31, Yong Kang Street, Taipei (tel 886.2.3393.8988). It was quite dark outside, and the tea house was aglow with warm lighting that reflected off the surfaces of the porcelains here and there on its shelves. Its walls are attractively hung with calligraphic scrolls and paintings. We were greeted by Mr Ho Chien, the proprietor, a dignified iron-haired gentleman who carried a fan for relief from the humid heat of Taipei, still intense at that late hour. Mr Ho seated us at a comfortably-worn wooden table with some long jing tea.
Writing in the Taipei Times (31 May 2007), Ho Yi says,
The history of tea can easily be picked up from Ho Chien (何健), founder of Yeh Tang (冶堂), a tea space situated on a quiet alley off Yungkang Street (永康街). Having studied Taiwan's tea culture and history for the past 20 years, Ho has made his establishment into a Taiwan tea gallery showcasing a collection of folk antiques. While perhaps not museum-grade, they nevertheless preserve the collective memory and experience of tea drinking in Taiwan. It is a homey setting where visitors can calm the mind, have time with themselves and sip various local teas. "To me, drinking tea is a way of life, an attitude toward life. It helps you to gain an insight into your relations with people, things and nature ... . There is no superior or inferior way with tea. If you are willing to explore its world, you can learn a lot. But if you are not, it's simply a good way to quench the thirst," said the tea connoisseur and historian.Mr Ho's business card lists the full name as 'Yeh Tang Tea Culture Research Institute.' I got the feeling that there was much more to Yeh Tang than met the eye; I would have liked to converse more with Mr Ho than I was able to do, given that his regular clientele was beginning to show up for their evening tea. I browsed about a bit among the beautiful tea-ware for sale; the prices ranged from moderate to quite steep, but the quality was uniformly high. Yeh Tang is a small cluster of rooms, one leading to another, each of them comfortably appointed, and as well-stocked with merchandise as they could be without clutter; it was clear that this was an establishment that cares about the material goods that fill its physical space, and the total effect that its component parts achieve.
Poor Nill's cell-phone importuned him without ceasing, so I eventually bade him adieu. On my way back to the hotel I stopped off at a small take-away frozen yogurt counter called YOGURT ME (tel 02.2396.0237), which faces directly onto Yong Kang Park itself. Seeing their sign made me think about how desperately hot I was, even at that time of night, but -- also -- what a negligible place dairy products occupy in the Asian diet. This was probably the only dairy substance I had eaten in over a week.
All of the personnel at YOGURT ME were Taiwanese, but I saw no other clients while I purchased a cup of their frozen yogurt. Eschewing all the various toppings they offered to decorate it with, I took it plain, and its fresh tang reminded me of nothing so much as the yogurt-flavored gelato that one can find in the best gelaterie in Florence or Rome. (Of American purveyors, the one that best approximates this is Pink Berry in Los Angeles.)
Another day rich in tea culture -- culminating, ironically, in the sense that I had only scratched the surface of what is to be found in Taipei.
[to be continued]