Monday, June 25, 2007

TREASURE ISLAND: A Voyage to Taiwan [v]

A Taiwan Tea Miscellany

Before we leave Taiwan, gentle reader, let me tell you about a few other things I learned about Treasure Island ... and as you read, bear in mind that (as in all CHA DAO posts) you can click on any of the graphic images and get a larger version of it.

Shann Garden

Shann Garden is a place to which I will definitely return when next I go to Taiwan. ('Shann' here is an idiosyncratic romanization for 禪, i.e. 'Chan,' the Chinese word for 'meditation' from which the Japanese term 'Zen' is taken.) Our group of academic symposiasts was taken there for dinner, after a long day of travel. The place is a small complex of buildings, nestled into the side of a hill, so one must walk down a fairly steep set of stairs to the restaurant area; one is actually looking down on the rooftops of the lower buildings as one descends.

In the restaurant, a fairly huge buffet is on offer. There is also a Mongolian Barbecue option, in which one assembles a bowlful of raw ingredients and hands them to a wokmeister, who flash-grills them at temperatures around 700°F. The food was just fine -- not world-class perhaps, but quite delicious, and the breadth of variety was really impressive. I was happy to see that in addition to some of the gaudiest platters, there were traditional Taiwan dishes on offer as well -- 魯肉飯 lu rou fan, for example, and that delicious, refreshing frozen dessert that one assembles oneself from shaved ice and fruit preserves: 欻冰 chua bing. (Again, it's a measure of the relentless heat of Taiwan that I craved this more than almost anthing else at the buffet.)

But it's actually not the restaurant at all that I most want to tell you about: it's the cha fang that one encounters as one begins to walk down the steps. It gave me a little pang to have to walk past it; there was really no proper way to excuse oneself from the dinner group, and go for tea instead! But I confess that I did sneak out briefly, somewhere between the seventh and twelfth courses, to go back up and take a few pictures of the cha fang. By this time the twilight was almost gone; this was the very moment at which I took the photograph that you will see at the head of this post. Whatever slight shimmer of beauty I managed to capture in that image is, believe me, only the dimmest reflection of the sublime reality I myself saw, as I stood there alone on the steps.

Shann Garden is a place with a remarkable and intricate history. The Japanese architectural idiom spoken by these buildings gives some indication of their construction during the period when Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese. Originally -- or as far back as I can trace its lineage -- this complex was the site of the Shin Gao Hotel; the spot was chosen because of the hot springs and fumaroles nearby. In the 1920s, it was made into a Japanese Officers' Club (evidence enough, right there, of the sumptuous beauty of the place). During World War II -- here's a detail to give one a bit of a frisson as one takes in the luxurious surroundings -- it was turned into a resort or spa for kamikaze pilots on their way to die, a pleasure garden where they could find some beauty and enjoyment on the last night of their lives.

After World War II, this was the spot where Zhang Xueliang (張學良), the 'Young Marshal' who died in 2001 at the age of 100, was held prisoner for several decades. Back in 1936, Zhang had been responsible for the notorious Xi'an Incident (西安事變) in which Chiang Kai-Shek was kidnapped and coerced into forming a 'Second United Front' with the Communist Chinese against the Japanese. After Chiang's release, Zhang was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison; but Chiang intervened on Zhang's behalf (perhaps because of Zhang's earlier history of support for Chiang's Guo Min Dang regime during the late 1920s), and had the sentence commuted to house arrest. Zhang remained at what is now Shann Garden from 1949 until his eventual release in 1990. The complex was subsequently made into what it is today.

But one need not know any of these historical details to be struck by the beauty of the locale, or of the tea house there. When I peeked in briefly to take a few pictures, the place was almost empty; the two women overseeing it gave me a warm welcome and invited me in. The cha fang is constructed on a very open plan, though divided into several parts; there is seating in the Japanese style, of course, as befits the nature of the house, but one can also sit on chairs at higher tables. The woodwork, rich and dark in hue, is obviously both very old and very well cared-for; the patina of age one perceives here is not something that could easily be fabricated. There is a fireplace (though not, of course, in use at this time of year!), and a small room partitioned off to one side, for more secluded meetings.

I wish i could tell you something about the actual experience of drinking tea in this cha fang; but such was not to be my lot on this particular journey. Nonetheless it was a rare and precious experience to be able to spend some time wandering about this magical place. I hope to do so again sometime. If I am there during the daylight hours, I will be able to see, off in the distance, the famous ridges of Guan Yin Shan (觀音山), the jagged set of peaks that is said to look like the profile of Guan Yin, the 'Bodhisattva of Compassion' so beloved of buddhists (and known in Sanskrit as Avalokitesvara, literally the 'Lord who surveys' the suffering of the world). Guan Yin is said to have been a buddhist nun who actually attained enlightenment, but voluntarily renounced nirvana in order to remain in this world and help all suffering beings.

It is extremely common for buddhist temples to enshrine statues of Guan Yin as well as of the Buddha himself. East Asian depictions of Guan Yin typically show her with her hair coiffed high and draped with a veil. This is what one sees, in profile, in the ridges of Guan Yin Shan. Local legend in Taipei has it that if, while gazing at the mountain, one makes a wish, and sees Guan Yin smile, one's wish will come true. I can think of no better or more auspicious place to give this a try than from beautiful slopes of Shann Garden.

Taipei Story House

Not at all far from the campus of Tatung University, one can find the Taipei Story House, which I suppose could in a sense be called a 'tea house.' It is definitely part of the history of Taiwan tea. One of the placards inside the house reads as follows:
In 1914, Mr Chen Chao-chun, a tea merchant in the Tataocheng area of Taipei commissioned the building of an English Tudor style house on the bank of the Keelung River in the Yuanshan district, where he entertained members of the local gentry, political figures and tea merchants from around the world. The building has been reworked on numerous occasions and shortly after World War II was the residence of former Legislative Yuan President Huang Kuo-shu. In 1990, Taipei Fine Arts Museum used the structure as an Artists' Activity Center. In 1998, it was designated as a heritage site by the Taipei City Government.

The original architectural design was a half-wooden structure and English Tudor in style. The first floor is made of brick and serves as a load bearing wall, the second floor has a wooden framework and the outside walls are decorated in a branch pattern. The roof is covered with copper tiles, whereas the attic above the entrance is decorated with green, yellow and red glass.
Certainly the house is a picturesque Tudor-style confection, from the outside, though its interior decoration -- not surprisingly for the period in which it was built -- is part Art Nouveau, part Arts and Crafts. What is surprising is how small it feels inside. And though perfectly restored, and in superb condition, it does not feel as though it ever functioned as a home. In fact if I recall correctly, Mr Chen and his family did not actually live here; rather he used it (as cited above) for the entertainment of guests -- and of prospective clients in the tea-export industry. To the extent that these were from Great Britain, the very English flavor of the place would serve to make them feel a bit more at home, even here in the Far East. In those days, it would have been an elegant riverside retreat, not unlike the comfortable country-houses one finds in the south of England along the Thames. Today, finding it ringed about by highways, one is a bit harder-put to imagine the grace and ease of that vanished era.

As for 'tea house' in the more ordinary sense of the term, I should note as well that nowadays one can indeed enjoy a cup of Taiwan tea here -- under the red-and-white striped awning of the Taipei Story Tea House, which was recently constructed adjacent to the historic building. From the upper story (so to speak) of Mr Chen's house, one can look down at this modern building and its open-air tables.

[to be continued ... across the Taiwan Strait]


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Hobbes said...

Another excellent installment; many thanks for all of the care and effort that makes these detailed accounts so interesting. I find myself filing tidbits away for a future Taiwan trip.



P.s. When Mr. Chen asked for a house in the Tudor style, I suspect that his architect was having a wry joke at his considerable expense. The Taipei Story House seems to be to Tudor architecture what the Disney castle is to a French chateau...

corax said...

hobbes, i'm so glad you're
enjoying these travel-notes
of mine! it was a great pleasure
to make the journey, as you
can imagine; so it's a pleasure
recalling it as well.

> The Taipei Story House seems to
> be to Tudor architecture what the
> Disney castle is to a French chateau...

LOL, i'm afraid you're spot-on in that regard. what's interesting is that the interior, as i mentioned, is done [without irony] in the arts-&-crafts and art nouveau styles; william morris would have no quarrel with the fireplace tiles [and indeed i think his photograph figures somewhere in the house] ...

Unknown said...

Corax, do you know it was exactly a coffee shop the Tudor building itself in early 1990s. I went there often when I was in university. The “Tudor coffee shop” was famous at that time because of its exotic atmosphere, the unique architectural style and delicious cheese cake and ice cream it offered. It didn’t become Taipei Story House until 2003, when Taipei City Government designated it a heritage site in 1998 (as you mentioned) and took some years to renovate the building.

In the memory of people at my age, the Tudor Building was regarded as Western air and style. It is rather interesting that it’s deeply connected to the tea history in Taiwan from your view. Thank you for your great description.


corax said...

> Corax, do you know it was
> exactly a coffee shop the
> Tudor building itself in early
> 1990s.

CLK, i had no idea! thank you for sharing this historical tidbit. none of their pamphlets or placards mentions this fact.

> The “Tudor coffee shop” was famous
> at that time because of its exotic
> atmosphere, the unique architectural
> style and delicious cheese cake and
> ice cream it offered.

cheese cake and ice cream! -- that's pretty exotic itself, for taiwan [all that cow's milk/cream]. was this inside the main house itself, or in the new building next to it [with the striped awning]?

Unknown said...

The "Tudor coffee shop" was inside the main house itself. That's why it's full of exotic atmosphere, both for the outside architecture and inside decoration.


corax said...

> The "Tudor coffee shop" was
> inside the main house itself.

that must have been great
fun, then ...