A few acres of Taiwanese tea in the middle of China

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Last April, I was in China for a short tea sourcing trip. The main purpose of this trip was to visit my father in law in Huangshan. He happens to own a tea garden and factory in the middle of one of the mythical tea terroirs of China. You might have heard of Huang Shan Mao Feng Green Tea? Yet, this not tea that he makes at his garden. You see, my father in law is Taiwanese and a pioneer in his own discreet but original way. He chose to plant Taiwanese cultivars to make Taiwanese style teas right in the middle of China. And to add to the challenge, he decided to go organic right from the start, over 12 years ago. Now that’s what I call a true pioneering spirit! And very often, pioneers don’t have it so easy. This is even more the case when you’re a Taiwanese tea maker making tea in China.  This blog entry is my humble way to pay homage to him and his oeuvre.

Traveling to China, for me, has always been a bit trialling. Every time I visit China (I am referring to the People’s Republic of China here), I have this constant, uneasy feeling of being on a tortuous road where I am bounced from all the beauty in this world, to all of its ugliness. And, both of these extremes are very often experienced at the same given moment. I will not use the analogy of a love/hate relationship as this is clearly not the case here. Let me explain: When referring to ugliness, I will avoid the usual references to smog choked cities, chaotic urban developments, heavy industrial complexes powered by neighboring coal power plants, and so on. These aspects are well documented by the media and, in a certain sad way, expected. What I am more so referring to is a certain underlying mindset found in Chinese Society that allows no possible space for skepticism. Most everything seems dogmatic and presented to you in very categorical stances leaving you with no other choice but to accept what you’re being told as being undisputedly good or true. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to China, and I love Chinese culture with all that it encompasses. What I am referring to is quite subtle and difficult to witness or feel if you are a foreigner coming to China to enjoy the sights, food and culture (don’t forget tea!). Mainland Chinese people are very cordial and welcoming. But, If you have to interact with the Chinese for business or are in any kind of rapport where mutual interests are to be considered you might just fall into this other “zone” and its dynamics. In my case, since I’ve chosen to live in Taiwan and I am since “embedded” in a Taiwanese family, this uneasy feeling is becoming even more visible and has taken quite another proportion by often taking the form of hostile reactions that are quite unpleasant and unnecessary. Now, unless you’ve lived on another planet, you will not be surprised if I hint at tensions between the Chinese and Taiwanese, won’t you?

The trip started smoothly last April 19th with a necessary stop in Hong Kong for administrative, or maybe I should say travel taxation, purposes. A visa had to be procured to enter the People’s Republic and, for convenience’s sake, I’ve developed a habit of always getting my visa in Hong Kong. It’s fast (between 4 to 24 hours depending on how much you wish to pay) and gives me an excuse to spend time once more in one of my favorite cities. My companion, who is Taiwanese, travels with both her passport and a special document issued by the P. R. C. that resembles in essence to another passport. She just had it renewed before this trip.

We had a 6 hour lay over between flights which was just enough to book a lunch meeting in the City. We got to meet and be entertained to a wonderful dim sum lunch by an esteemed and passionate advocate of Chinese tea culture. It was a very pleasant lunch. Even more so that we had the pleasure to openly exchange with a person that puts the higher interests of tea above all, and is genuinely interested in, and understands that, the promotion of all of its diverse forms is the key to developing and nurturing new interests in tea drinking. What a refreshing and invigorating exchange this was. I hope this was the first of hopefully many more meetings.

That same evening we ended up in Shanghai where the first of our dogmatic experiences was waiting for us not long after deplaning. Friends were waiting for us downtown so we made a mad dash to the Passport control wickets hoping to bypass a flock of Airbuses that arrived at the same time. Not thinking twice, we both entered the line-up for Foreign passport holders. I go through first, and got a welcoming smile from the lady officer when she handed back my stamped passport. I go through and turn around behind the wicket to wait for my companion. Her turn in front of the officer seemed to take more time than all the others and I could see that there was a longer than usual verbal exchange between the two. Finally her documents were handed back but the expression on my companion’s face was rather grim. As she arrived next to me, she asks: “Did you hear what just happened? I just got scolded by that officer lady!”, she said in a more than irate tone of voice. I was so surprised to hear that since I knew my companion was the most rule conforming person I knew. Never would she want to confront any form of authority. She wet on to explain that she was greeted not by smile, but a long sigh at the sight of her Taiwanese Passport which also triggered reprimands for not taking the right lane. You see, she could not take the Foreign passport line since she was “Chinese” and therefore had to “go through the line-up for Nationals of the People’s Republic of China” An ensuing condescending sermon about proper procedure followed. My companion tried explaining that she simply accompanied me and that we were together and didn’t think twice about it but the officer did not even look at her or offer an answer. She simply slammed her documents back on the ledge of the counter and gestured her to move-on. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing! What she had experienced was clearly hostile. As we made our way to the carousel and out of the arrivals hall to catch the Maglev train to the City, she kept mostly silent all the time, trying to calm down. At one point, she voices: “You know what? They want you to be part of their country when you’re just an individual but when you’re Taiwanese and you want to start a business here, they treat you like all the foreigners and they ask for your money first! Never will they help you out like they would any local business people” Clearly, something kept brewing in silence inside of her. What happened at the airport triggered a domino effect that made all of family’s ordeals in China resurface. Now that the floodgate was open, I got to hear the family’s story in China and how the Huangshan tea garden came about. All trip long, I asked questions I wouldn’t dare asking before, and got many answers.

The following morning, after experiencing the city and its flavors with good friends and a good night’s sleep looking over the Bund, we opted for the early morning 6 hour bus ride to get to Huangshan with the hope of catching some of the scenery through Hangzhou and the mountains of Zhejiang whilst getting there. The plan was technically possible but did not take into account the cold and foggy weather outside, but mainly the state of cleanliness of the bus. Our rig was about 10 years old I would guess, and by the looks of it had never been cleaned on the inside. Maybe that was a good thing since the crusty smudges and dirt that veneered all the interior surfaces, including the windows, seemed to help keep the whole bus in one piece. After many demonstrations on how to push the limits on the mechanics of a passenger vehicle, we finally made it in one piece. Hoping that this was the manifestation of “ugly” for the day, we had the afternoon left to focus on the visit of the family’s estate.

The garden was a few kilometers away from the outskirts of the city. Enough to see the scenery change from an urban setting to a more rural one and greenery replacing insipid massive concrete structures. As we left the main road for the little alley that gets us to the factory and its living quarters, one familiar sight reconnected us with Taiwan. It was the linear arrangement of the tea trees in curvaceous lines that followed the contour of the terrain. This is not the usual configuration in China, at least in Anhui. The garden was beautiful, and huge, covering a vast area of rolling hills with ponds, woods, a few houses here and there, and marshlands with a great diversity of different styles of vegetation spread all through the terrain. The rain made it look even more serene and rich.

We had a quick look around but, for the remainder of this wet day, we retreated to Mr. Chen’s office, that meant the tasting room. We were craving for a warm cup to chase the dampness away but were instead offered a cup of bottled tea to start off! I learnt at the same moment that Mr. Chen was also in Shanghai the previous day and spent the night assisting his customer in the brewing of a custom blend of Mr. Chen’s roasted oolongs to make a 100% natural and organic bottled tea called “Taiwan Gongfu Oolong Tea” (see pictures). This was the first batch that was to be commercialized in all of southern China. While we were tasting this nectar (there is no better word to describe this wonderful tea which is quite simply the best bottled tea I’ve ever had), I couldn’t help but ask myself if our welcoming Immigration Officer would ever dare bring one of these bottles to her lips if offered one… But the thought was soon eclipsed by my awe towards the succession of Mr. Chen’s other Taiwan-style Chinese-made teas (warm ones this time) that we sampled all afternoon long. Here I was, sat in a tea factory in Anhui, listening to a father and daughter exchanging in Taiwanese about teas that were clearly familiar in flavor and aroma and yet very indescribably unique: they were made in Anhui, China. And this, I thought, is how you can best experience the unequivocally defining concept of terroir as the cornerstone in the foundation of a tea’s taste. For a moment, my western mind was trying to figure out in which little category drawer these teas could fit in, but what dominated my thought was my conviction about the merit of these teas. They were plainly and simply good. And that’s the most important thing! After all, I thought, if the French were now coming to China to plant some vineyards, why couldn’t the Taiwanese come and plant some of their uniquely Taiwanese cultivars and make Taiwan-style teas? There was definitely proof in my cup that this scenario worked. Sadly, I also knew that the French would possibly have more appeal from the mainlanders with their vineyards than Taiwan-style teas made in China.

On the last day of our stay in Huangshan, the weather finally turned good and we had a chance to spend the day in the garden. Actually, in this case, I should use the word “estate” that is mostly heard when identifying British heritage tea plantations, since it sounds more grand. One could easily spend a whole day wandering around the 68 hectares (165 acres) it covers without coming back on your steps.

Our first stop was to witness the start of the picking season in one of the oldest sections of the garden that was planted with Cing Xin cultivars (the same used to make High Mountain Oolongs in Taiwan). The plan was to make a green tea out of these first pickings. Joyful chatter could be heard as we approached a group of about 20 pickers (mostly women) that were casually plucking the bushes and filling their tiny red-riding-hood-style wicker baskets with Taiwanese style pluckings (one bud and three leaves). There was a definitive atmosphere of fete as I took pictures of the whole group and maneuvered to set the picture I was hoping to take: a good picture of the father and daughter team. Mission accomplished. We then decided to walk our way back to the factory through the fields. As we walked, Mr. Chen was pointing here and there to evoke anecdotes, always with a chuckle. I got to hear how this section had to be replanted 10 years ago since all the bushes were stolen in one night, or how someone decided to come and build a cabin in one section of the garden (without permission of course). But as we moved across one mound to the other guided by the rows of tea shrubs, walking through rows of fragrant flower trees (for scenting tea), and then marshes visited by aigrets and woods of balsam firs and wild berry shrubs and meeting a few workers picking wild ferns and bamboo shoots for the evening dinner, I couldn’t help myself but be moved by the beauty of this man’s “oeuvre” and could now start to understand why this was all worthwhile.

As we continued our walk, I couldn’t help but notice a small abandoned cabin that is built on what seems to be the highest mound in the middle of the garden. Intrigued, I ask what was this cabin for? Mr. Chen answers: “Well, after getting trees stolen and people taking our land for theirs, we hired a night guard and this is where he lived”. Reassuringly so, the night guard is no longer needed. Things have improved since then. The local people now respect Mr. Chen as they too can witness and attest to the beauty and the good he has made around him.


As a footnote, I allow myself to point out to you the green tea made with the first pickings described above is exceptionally available to you for a very limited time. We will not offer any other of Mr. Chen’s teas. The first reason being that we remain committed to our mandate of promoting Taiwan’s offerings and its specific terroirs. The second reason is that we can’t. Chinese teas cannot, as of now, be imported (legally) into Taiwan, especially oolong teas. We may occasionally be able to bring back (smuggle) some other limited lots. But these will remain sporadic and exceptional. We’ll keep you posted.


3 replies
  1. Jesse
    Jesse says:

    Great writing,

    Wow that is the first I’ve heard of banning tea imports from china to taiwan – do you know the reasoning behind this?

    • Taiwan Tea Crafts
      Taiwan Tea Crafts says:

      Hi Jesse,

      Thanks! Basically I could reply with one word: politics. But a more nuanced answer would be to tell you that Chinese pu’er tea is allowed in but none of the other styles that may enter in direct competition with any of the local produced teas. So, white, green, oolong of course, and black teas are forbidden to enter. It’s funny that pu’er is not part of the list since we can certainly find Taiwanese aged teas (we carry some ourselves) and now post-fermented teas similar to shou. It would also be fair to add that in the case of Taiwan and China it is more than a protectionist measure, but I don’t think this is the tribune to debate this (although I would welcome the opportunity over a Taiwan Beer one day!). But this deadlock will come to an end eventually with recent easing of tensions between the two parties. We can expect that less than marginal duty rates will replace the ban much like it is the case with many teas coming in from other producing countries like India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and so forth.


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