CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 29, March 2012


Wistaria Teahouse | China Heritage Quarterly

Wistaria Teahouse 紫藤盧

Linda Jaivin

Following the founding of the People's Republic of China, teahouses went through the kind of socialist transformation that affected all other aspects of the economy. A period of relative social stability was followed by the creation of local cooperatives and eventually teahouse owners were force to comply with the collective demands of the socialist rule. As noted in the Editorial, there was a short-lived revival of old-style teahouses in Beijing during the late 1970s following the end of the Cultural Revolution. While they would flourish elsewhere, in the capital they would soon languish as a result of policies formulated in the wake of the post-1980 repression of the Democracy Wall. As this happened on the mainland, the other Chinese capital, Taipei, saw the birth of the teahouse as salon. Wistaria (sic) Teahouse was founded just as Beijing's teahouses foundered. It would be over a decade, and long after the post-1989 shockwaves had dissipated, before new-style teahouses appeared again. To this day, however, nothing quite like the unique Taiwan tea salon has been able to flourish on the other side of the Strait.—The Editor

Fig.1 The Wistaria Teahouse logo

In Taipei in the late 1970s, when people wanted to meet and talk about books, politics and philosophy, they tended to go to coffee shops. The most famous of these was Café Astoria. Founded by a Russian émigré in 1949, it had dark wood paneling and a European air. There were plush banquettes where you could sit for hours, drinking coffee and reading, writing or chatting. Its menu also included English tea with lemon or milk, iceberg salad with thousand-island dressing, borscht and a range of sweet cakes and biscuits. The author Pai Hsien-yung 白先勇 famously worked on his beautiful, melancholic stories at Astoria.

Students also flocked to such places as the restaurant, bar and music venue Idea House. Alongside local bands such as Trinity, which covered songs like America's 'Horse with No Name' and the Eagle's 'Hotel California', singer-songwriters played new and original music. My Taipei flatmate Fang was the lead singer in Trinity; I was an Idea House regular. I recall how the singer Yang Zujun, wearing what I considered a most fetching brown velvet jumpsuit (it was the late Seventies, after all), electrified the young audience when she sang Li Shuangze's 'Meili dao' 美麗島— 'beautiful island' or Formosa. Li had written the song at Yang's instigation, and it was 'Meili dao' that is credited as kicking off the 'campus folk' movement, part of a larger vogue for xiangtu wenxue 鄉土文學 or 'nativism': the cultural expression of pride in and love for the island of Taiwan, its land, customs, and people.

Some of the lyrics of 'campus folk' may have been anodyne, but in the context of Taiwan politics at the time, even the song title 'Meili dao' bordered on the subversive. The Nationalist government's mantra and holy grail was guangfu dalu 光復大陸 ('recover the mainland'). After nearly thirty years, it still treated the island like a temporary garrison. Reflexively suspicious of the eighty-five per cent of the population who had called the island home for many generations, the Nationalists did not welcome the trend of young Taiwan-born 'mainlanders' identifying with the place where they'd grown up rather than the larger Chinese homeland of their parents.

After Chiang Kai-shek died in 1976, his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo relaxed but did not lift the martial law regime his father had imposed on Taiwan in 1949. (It continued until 1987, a world record.) At places like Café Astoria and Idea House, I recall whispered conversations about democracy, human rights and even that most inflammatory of notions, Taiwan independence. But the infamous secret police of the Garrison Command were known to be everywhere and the consequences for dissent were severe. Political discussion was still best pursued behind closed doors. I remember hearing at the time about Chow Yu (Zhou Yu 周渝) and his legendary, second-generation home salon where, it was said, some of the most interesting and dangerous conversations in Taiwan over the last several decades had taken place.

Chow Yu's father, David Chow (Zhou Dewei 周德偉) was a liberal economist who ran the Nationalists' customs service from 1949 to 1975. The government had given him a residence on Hsin-sheng South Road, not far from Taiwan University. It dated back to 1920, when the Japanese built it as housing for naval officers. It was spacious and two-storeyed, with creaky floorboards and sturdy fat vines of flowering wisteria. David Chow, an admirer of the late Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培, welcomed to this home a luminous crowd of free-thinking intellectuals; among his regular guests were the young writers Li Ao 李敖 and Chen Yingzhen 陳映真.

Chow Yu thus grew up in an atmosphere of free-wheeling intellectual debate nurtured by the generous hospitality of his parents. When his father retired to the U.S. in 1975, Chow Yu inherited the place and continued the tradition. Pro-democracy dissidents and other members of the oppositionist movement at this time remember Chow Yu's home as their zui meilide baolei 最美麗的堡壘 (most beautiful fortress).

Fig.2 Wisteria in bloom

In 1981, friends suggested to Chow Yu that he try to make a living from what he so clearly enjoyed doing anyway. Wistaria Teahouse (Ziteng lu 紫藤盧) was born. I was then living in Hong Kong, but on a trip to Taiwan in either late 1981 or early 1982, friends took me to Wistaria for the first time. There was nothing like it in Taiwan (or anywhere else in the Chinese world, so far as I was aware).

Wistaria Teahouse offered a uniquely Taiwan experience. It was not a little transplanted bit of Europe or America like Astoria and to some extent Idea House. Its architectural design, tatami flooring and low wooden tables reflected the island's fifty-year colonial heritage. Its rustic decorations encompassing, if I recall correctly, hand-made pottery including old plates and bowls from village kilns and a peasant suoyi (蓑衣) raincoat of palm fronds hanging on the wall—strongly evoked the island's rural culture. And it served traditional Chinese gongfa cha 功夫茶 ('leisure tea'), Iron Goddess of Mercy or Taiwan high-altitude Oolong, in small terracotta teapots with thimble cups along with a selection of delicate Chinese-style snacks, savoury treats alongside sweets made with sesame and red-bean paste and small powdery pressed cakes. The self-conscious, old-fashioned courtesy of the service, which included detailed instructions on how to steep and pour and when to refresh the leaves, was charming.

For some years, even as other teahouses sprang up in imitation of Wistaria around the city, Wistaria remained the meeting place of choice for many of Taiwan's cultural figures. I remember going there with the singer-songwriter Hou Dejian 侯德健 and our mutual friend the essayist Shu Guozhi 舒國治, among others.

Chow Yu had come to the idea of Wistaria through running a salon. Tea was not originally his main interest. But over the years, as he turned too from a fascination with Western to Daoist philosophy, he became an expert, first in Oolong, including its production, and later Pu'er. Among the first importers of Pu'er from the mainland to Taiwan, he now sells Taiwan Pu'er to China. According to a report on the internet site Taiwan Culture Portal, he has acquired such great knowledge about tea in all its variety that all he needs to do is taste a leaf and not only can he can identify the type, but where it was grown and even when it was picked.

When a dispute with the Finance Ministry threatened Wistaria with closure in the late Nineties, Taiwan's culturati banded together in protest and support and forced the government to back down. In 1997, Taipei's municipal government declared Wistaria an historical site. Lin Huifeng, Chow Yu's wife and partner, has observed: Zhelide meige jiaoluo douyou gushi 這裡的每個角落都有故事 ('Every corner of this place has a story').