A Glimpse into the Teahouses and Tea Shops of
China and Taiwan
By Robin Stevens
Tea has played an important role in China for centuries: as a beverage, as part of the economy, and as a cultural commodity. There is an old Chinese saying that names tea along with firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce and vinegar as one of the seven daily necessities for life.
Tea is so ingrained
in life, that when you ask Chinese people about their experiences with tea growing up, they often have to think it over to answer any questions. Similarly, until a few years ago, many Americans did not know where their coffee came from or that there are a variety of ways to brew it.
Today, the booming Chinese economy is creating a whole new generation of tea connoisseurs, paving the way for new retail opportunities, some rooted in traditional Chinese culture and others a hybrid of traditional and contemporary styles. There’s much to learn from exploring these trends, even as we begin with a brief glimpse into the past.
The Role of Teahouses in China and Taiwan.
Over the centuries, there have been many varieties of teahouses in China. Teahouses were a social center where people could learn the news, gossip with friends, conduct business meetings, hire female companionship or simply be entertained. They were also places where travelers could get some needed rest and refreshment. Throughout history, teahouses have been influenced in large part by the economy and regional variation. The better the economy, the more teahouses there were. However, despite years of war and a poor economy in mainland China, prior to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), there still was a large number of traditional teahouses: open, noisy, social and usually inexpensive. Most people could afford to go to these teahouses. The upper classes have always had a greater variety of alternatives, sometimes preferring tearooms in their own homes or splendid outdoor locations said to bring man, nature and heaven closer together. Unfortunately, many public teahouses closed during the Cultural Revolution, some because of the traditional storytellers, who were considered too ‘feudal’ or backward by social reformers, and others simply because of the poor economy.
Recently, tea has again become a part of China’s growing leisure economy. As more people have discretionary income to spend, the number of teahouses is increasing and tea is once again rising in stature as a cultural commodity. Rather than buying tea in traditional markets, it can now be purchased in specialty teashops and teahouses. Traditionally, Chinese people did not buy tea in teahouses. Even today, many consumers in Taiwan will warn you not to purchase tea in teahouses, claiming that it is overpriced and of inferior quality. Although that is not necessarily true, teahouses certainly do mark up their tea to profit on impulse buying.
In Taiwan, a similar economic pattern emerged earlier in the 1970s and 80s. Although there were always ‘traditional’ teahouses, as Taiwan’s prosperity grew in the ‘70s people began to cultivate a more local tea culture and Taiwan’s famous ‘chayiguan’ or ‘tea-art teahouses’ were born. These teahouses were conceived as refuges, where tea was highlighted as a centerpiece of high culture rather than as a day-to-day commodity. This was, in part, to help set chayiguan teahouses apart from the more titillating ones that focused on providing services to men. Through the 1990s, the number of chayiguan teahouses grew, until finally coffeehouses surged past them in popularity. This change can be partially explained by the fact that Taiwanese people drink more coffee today than before, and also because chayiguan teahouses are notoriously expensive due to the cost of the tea, the water service fee (a per customer charge) and often the charge for the special rooms in which people sit. Teahouses charge these special fees to help offset the cost of customers lounging in these rooms for one to five hours at a time.
However, in coffeehouses, there are no fees for water and no special rooms, making it a lot less expensive – yet customers can still stay for indefinite periods of time. Again, there is an economic explanation. Taiwan’s economy began to slide in the 1990s and has yet to recover the strength it enjoyed in the 1980s. What Taiwan does enjoy now though is a firmly entrenched tea culture, with an island of tea experts who seek out fine teas, sometimes at exorbitant prices. In fact, today Taiwan imports more tea than it exports. Producers have little incentive to export their teas to countries like the U.S., where they face a tangle of bureaucratic import rules.
What Sets Teahouses In China And Taiwan Apart From The Western Experience?
Today, Taiwan’s chayiguan teahouses have found a foothold in Mainland China, where their numbers are growing across the country. These also have private rooms and highly decorative settings, aimed at immersing the customer into the imagined world of China’s past, like a Zhang Yimou movie [picture #2]. Chayiguan teahouses tend to focus on tea and tea snacks rather than on full meal service. Upon being seated, teahouse staffs provide customers with a menu of teas and snacks. The menus are often as stylized as the teahouse décor, some unfolding like ancient bamboo scrolls. In some places, customers can choose the type of teaware they will use. For example, they may be given the choice of using a guywan (a covered cup and saucer) or a gongfu set (small teapot, tea pitcher and tea cups at the minimum). Using the gongfu set can cost more and is oriented toward group use, as it is considered the more social way to enjoy tea. It also gives the host the opportunity to display his or her tea-making skills.
Although some teahouses include one or two snacks with the tea order, most charge extra.
Customers may select the snacks from the menu, or the waitperson may bring a display tray of small plates of snacks, like the dessert trays in fine restaurants [picture #3]. The customer chooses, and the waitperson usually brings the snack back on a larger plate or sometimes even in its original packaging, as I have seen in outdoor teahouses in the hills surrounding Taipei. In one particularly fine example of a chayiguan teahouse, designed in the style of the fabled Suzhou gardens, Shui Zhi Xie in Beijing, customers can order a tea service that includes tea, cold snacks (like nuts, seeds, dried fruit or shrimp), and an elaborate fruit platter with decorative pieces carved into animal shapes. In a famous teahouse located in Hangzhou, Qing Teng Cha Jia, a buffet is included with the cost of the tea. The buffet includes every imaginable snack, from plums to salty strips of dried fish.
There are still many examples of traditional teahouses throughout China, very open and sometimes crowded with dozens of square tables positioned close together for a less formal tea service. Some can be found in parks or temple areas. In the late ‘90s, I visited one such place in Suzhou, where I enjoyed one of the best Suzhou opera performances I have ever seen. Members of the audience took turns participating, playing amazing music and singing famous traditional songs, all the while wait staff ran here and there refilling guywans of tea with steaming hot water. In these places, water pourers come around constantly to refill cups or they provide customers with a thermos of hot water. At the more elaborate chayiguan teahouses, there is a water boiler at each table and often a standby supply of hot water in a thermos.
In Taiwan, some well-known chayiguan teahouses offer specialty meals, often including a choice of cold tea drinks or hot tea for a nominal additional charge. These places survive in expensive retail and restaurant areas by offering such innovative choices as vegetarian or tea-themed hot pot meals and meat dishes, for lunch and dinner. One chain with locations all over Taiwan, Geng Du Yuan, offers a different menu between and after main meal periods, with a variety of cold snacks, small plates of hot snacks (like steamed buns, fried tofu, etc.) and even a couple of simple noodle soup dishes. Although these kinds of teahouses do not serve the same range of purposes in society as traditional teahouses did, people still do occupy them as social spaces, socializing with friends and family for two to three hours at a time. Mid-afternoon and well into the evening, groups of students come to play games, chat, read or do homework. Gatherings can be large. In a Fulbright research study I conducted while living in Taiwan in 2002, I found that 66% out of the 3,651 customers observed frequented teahouses in groups of three or more people, with the average group size being about four to five people, but as large as 24. Unlike Western social spaces, such as bars and coffeehouses, few people frequent teahouses alone or even in pairs.
Where Do People Buy Tea If They Don’t Get It In Teahouses?
Traditionally, people bought it in farmer’s markets, mom and pop grocery stores, in producing areas from the producers themselves and in small teashops. Most people didn’t have a lot of money, so the specialty tea industry did not really exist as we know it today. Of course, there has always been demand for what we now call “specialty” tea, but historically only the upper classes and royalty had access to such high-quality products. Retail choices have expanded a great deal in recent years with a new emphasis on premium tea. According to Jackson Huang, president of ABC Tea and former chairman of the Taiwan Tea Manufacturer’s Association, in Taiwan there are at least three types of specialty tea stores: local neighborhood tea shops, wholesale stores and tea boutiques. At the neighborhood shops, customers buy small quantities of loose-leaf tea, just a few grams or ounces, enough for a month or two. Usually they sit down and try several teas, chatting with the staff and locals who come and go, before deciding on their purchase. Like many other kinds of small businesses in Taiwan, these stores are open long hours, as late as 10 PM, to accommodate people’s work hours.
Wholesale tea stores, however, have a broader business focus, and although some customers sit down with the staff to try tea, this is rare. People shop from large drums of tea, selecting the grade and price they want to pay [picture #4]. According to Lin Hua Tai Tea Company, one of the oldest wholesale teashops in Taipei, customers, who include the general public, teahouses and retailers, usually know what they want and buy larger quantities of tea (a jin or more, which is 500g in mainland China and 600g in Taiwan, about 1.1-1.3 lbs). They also buy tea from growers, who bring huge bags of tea into the shop, where the owner, Mr. Mao Sen Lin, selects the teas he will buy on the spot through a process of smelling and touching the samples. This is unique in that most tea buyers make tea cupping a central part of their selection procedure.
Wholesale markets are open to the public in mainland China as well, although people don’t always buy and sell in them. In Ma Lian Dao, a well-known tea area in Beijing, there are hundreds of tea stores and shops. In some high-rise buildings there are floors of retailers and wholesalers of tea and teaware, calling out to customers as they walk by. Customers can taste the tea and bargain for better prices. Many of these stores are partners with or owned by tea producers in different growing regions around the country. For example, there are dozens of pu-er shops with roots in the Yunnan region.
In boutique teashops, a growing phenomenon in mainland China as well, customers can choose from an array of artfully pre-packaged teas or from the many tins of loose-leaf tea behind the counter. There is a strong emphasis on service and premium packaging, even down to the shopping bag the customer walks out the door with [picture #5]. If customers want a better grade of tea, there are usually three or more grades of tea from which to choose. People rarely taste the tea prior to buying it though, and make decisions according to the appearance and smell of the tea, as well as the reputation of the teashop. In Beijing, Wu Yu Tai, a well-established teashop chain, has a large store in the famous tourist pedestrian area, Wangfujing Dajie. On the ground floor it sells a wide range of teaware, pre-packaged tea and loose-leaf tea. There are sales people everywhere offering samples and helping customers make their selections. The packaging of loose-leaf tea is a specialty here. After selecting the tea, the clerk weighs it and then deftly folds it into a small rectangular bundle, without using tape or any other kind of fastener [pictures #6-8]. Upstairs there is a large teahouse with a large, open central area, as well private rooms that can accommodate up to 20 customers, and its own small tea museum. It also offers tea service and snacks for harried shoppers and tourists. When I was there last year, I even saw people lying down and napping on their seats.
There are so many examples of distinctive teahouses and shops in China and Taiwan that it is impossible to discuss them all here. What is important is to get a feeling for the overall emphasis they have on providing good service, a special ambiance and fine packaging. In addition, we must consider their ability to be flexible and to adapt to an ever-changing economy. As the number of Western teashops and teahouses grow, retailers can learn to fuse together the familiar and the exotic to craft a new tea culture, a culture that will grow in size and vitality to rival its coffee cousin. In the end, tea people everywhere hope for a society of tea connoisseurs who demand high quality tea, artistic packaging and playful yet aesthetic settings capable of muting the stresses of day-to-day life and elevating tea to its rightful place as a part of artful living.
Tea & Coffee - September, 2007
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