Tea in Taiwan 

by Tony Ryan

The son, Zhao junior, middle-aged and with a grin on his face, entered the tea tasting room and handed me a shot glass filled to the brim with a brown liquid. Oh no, not another tea, I thought. “Johnny Walker Black,” he whispered. Grabbing it eagerly, I downed the whisky in one gulp and immediately felt it as it scorched down my throat. It then dropped like a bomb into the reservoir of Chinese teas I’d acquired in the last two and a half hours. My Japanese colleague Yoshi, our Taiwanese colleague Janet, and our host, Zhao’s wizened old father, continued on, deep in conversation discussing the pros and cons of the latest tea the old man had placed before us. Now there’s just so much tea a bloke from country Queensland can drink, so begging off more, I went outside for a walk around – my goal to find a beer and settle my stomach.

We were at Janet’s favourite tea importer on Guisui Street, just off Dihua Street, the main thoroughfare in the Dadaocheng District of Old Taipei. Yoshi had made the ‘mistake’ of asking Janet if we could visit a tea shop so he could take some back for the folks back home. From my time in China, I knew we were in strife, as Janet jumped on the request eagerly. Pretty soon, we were weaving our way up Dihua Street, dodging cars, scooters, delivery trucks and what I estimated to be half the population of Taipei, all the while trying to keep her in sight ahead of us. With great enthusiasm she’d introduced us to Zhao, the elder, and our tea-tasting began.

The Dadaocheng District in Old Taipei is a must-see for visitors keen to experience what the locals do every day. It bustles with a multitude of tea, fabric and food importers, Chinese apothecaries, fortune tellers, souvenir shops, art ateliers, hole-in-the wall eateries, and people, multitudes of people, young and old. Apparently, there are almost a dozen Michelin-recommended restaurants in the district as well, although truth be told, I was more of a street-food type of bloke with recognizable foods on sticks more my go. After escaping the tea bloke, and finding chicken-on-a-stick and a cold beer at a nearby pop-up vendor, I sat on a stool alongside his cart, watched the world go by and pondered.

For Janet, like the vast majority of Taiwanese, English names are almost obligatory in modern Taiwan and are often used in place of their Chinese given names. Quite bizarrely, the ‘English name’ is believed to be largely a byproduct of Japanese colonialism (1895-1945), when the regime set out to replace the Chinese names of educated Taiwanese with Japanese ones. With Japan’s defeat in 1945, colonialism came to a screaming halt and many Chinese reverted to their original names. But shortly after, the nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 and the English name replaced the Japanese one. It soared in popularity; perhaps at first, it was a case of geo-politics and being seen to be aligned to the western hemisphere: distinct, independent and autonomous from their cousins on the mainland. However, with the steady post-war rise of Taiwan into an economic and trading powerhouse, the English name became so woven into the fabric of society, that it is said that today, approximately 80% of Taiwanese have an English given name. Certainly, everyone I’d met on my 5 or 6 visits there, and this one as well, had an English name. Funnily enough too, Janet told us that she was pretty sure that even some of her colleagues at the university had no recollection of her Chinese name, such was its non-use in her professional capacity. I would have been amazed at this, were it not for running across the same phenomenon in Hong Kong and Singapore. A dual or multi-identity, I guess you could call it. What an advantage, I think. Being able to flit between familial, social and professional groups within a society. Wouldn’t most of us like to forget our troubles sometimes, be able to change our names and with it our identities, every now and again?

And Janet, our partner university’s director of teacher training, told me just that, as we finally extricated ourselves from the tea merchant and wended our way to her apartment for dinner with her husband, two teenage children and her cat. She could take off her coat – “the stress of the professional day” she said – as she walked through Dadaocheng, tasted the teas, smelt the aromas, haggled with the shopkeepers and dodged the scooters. It gave her the chance to re-connect with her ‘home-self,’ before she actually walked through the door and became Shao Li.

And for me, every time I’m fortunate to go there I think modern Taiwan is just like that: adept at identity-change, adept at blending the old and the new, and adept at balancing on a knife’s edge. From its cities of Taipei, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Hsinchu and Taichung, to its native aboriginal cultures and villages on the east coast, is a melting pot of cultures, identities, religions, and a blend of low tech and high tech. Geographically positioned on the doorstep of a giant and in reach of other Asian neighbours, it has a turbulent history as a much sought after prize, never more so than at present. It is also a fascinating and beautiful country, with a proud, independent and industrious people, navigating identity and living a life while balanced on its edge. Long may it continue.