The history of tea in Taiwan is quite long – the first tea plants arrived from China in the 18th century. Surprisingly the history of what today we consider Taiwan tea houses is much more recent: these tea houses appeared during the ’70s, just 30 years ago.
Before there were two different kinds of public spaces where people could drink tea. Both, for different reasons, were considered not acceptable by most Taiwanese.
The first was called “chashi” that means “tea room“. “Chashi” tea rooms, beside tea and wine, provided also “nüpei” – that are … “escorts”. So these “tea rooms” had strong connotations of sex and prostitutes.
The second public space has virtually disappeared today. It was called with the colorful name of “old man tea house” – “laoren chaguan“.
“Old man tea houses” were simple and usually not very clean places. Their customers were mostly older “waishengren“, the Mainlanders that followed Chang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949.
These retired and often lonely old men, former soldiers or public officers, used to get together in the “laoren chaguan”. They killed the time chatting, eating pumpkin seeds and drinking cheap tea.
Many Taiwanese were not interested in these kind of premises.
Also, at that time, Taiwan was becoming more americanized … in a kind of funny way. Offering tea was considered “cheap”, at least in the cities. The new elite proudly served Coke to their guests!
Renaissance of Taiwan Tea Houses
The renaissance of Taiwan tea houses in the 70’s was mainly due to two things.
First, the quality of Taiwan tea was improving all the time.
Farmers left the production of low and medium quality tea, where they could no longer compete. Instead they focused on creating and perfecting the best – and most profitable – teas.
Second, the so called “chayiguan” began to appear. “Chayiguan” means “Tea Art House“. A tea art house provides teas of the best quality. The tea making follows the rules of the Chinese tea art so the tea house also supplies proper and elegant utensils for brewing the tea.
These Taiwan tea houses cater the new sophisticated city dwellers. Here the people come to find their own roots, their own past, if real or idealized it does not really matter. Here they can come with the friends or the family to elope for a few hours from the stress of modern life.
The Tea Art Houses have been extremely successfull.
Nowadays “chayiguan” are spreaded everywhere in Taiwan, in the countryside and in the cities. In the latter case, these tea houses are designed to keep out the noise and the sight of the city.
The best Taiwan tea houses are in Taichung and Taipei. Also, Taichung tea houses gave birth to phenomena as the “bubble tea” and “pearl milk tea”.
So Taiwan tea houses are considered amongst the top attractions in Taichung. And I suggest, you like tea or not, a travel in Taiwan is not complete without a visit to a tea house. It might change your mind about tea.
Which are the different types of Taiwan Tea?: an easy guide to the different teas you can enjoy in Taiwan tea houses.
A very good article from which i summarized the history of tea art houses in Taiwan:
Mapping the Tea Art Houses of Taipei by Joe Wicentowski.