Meet Wistaria Teahouse (紫藤盧): a beloved cultural gem unassumingly tucked away on Xinsheng South Road in Taipei.
Built in the early 1920s for naval personnel, this wooden teahouse has a rich political and cultural history. It was originally constructed as a high official residence during the Japanese Colonial Era.
Post-WWII, Professor Chou Te-wei (周德偉), a Peking University graduate and renowned economist, took up residence in the teahouse, turning it into a safe haven for informal discussions about liberalism with a crowd of bright academics under a period of restrictive martial law. As a group, they published Free China (自由中國), a newspaperthat espoused liberalism in opposition of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
After Chou Te-wei moved to the U.S. in 1975, his son, the intellectual and political dissident Chou Yu (周渝), became the new custodian of the property, turning it into a welcoming environment for avant-garde artists and social activists, among others. Following the 1979 Kaoshiung Incident (a pro-democracy protest hailed as the watershed of Taiwan's democratization movement), Wistaria thrived as a watering hole for intellectuals, artists, activists, and political dissidents attempting to forge democracy in Taiwan and share new works well into the 1980s. In 1997, it was designated as a city historic site by Taipei's municipal government.
Currently, the teahouse is operated by the Wistaria Cultural Association of the Taipei City Cultural Bureau. It remains a charming and serene oasis in a busy city, attracting locals and tourists alike.
Fun fact: Wistaria Teahouse was one of the filming locations for Ang Lee's classic film, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994).
At the time of my visit to Wistaria, I was unaware of its vibrant political and cultural history, so I entered with no preconceptions and few expectations beyond what I had gleaned from a quick browse of a description in a Lonely Planet travel guidebook. I visited the teahouse with Tamar, a fellow ETA who also shared an interest in experiencing tea culture during our brief sojourn to Taipei.
We were seated in a tatami-mat room toward the back of the teahouse. It was around 7:30pm on a Saturday night when we arrived, and the place was relatively calm and uncrowded.
We were seated at a table in the corner beside a simple yet elegant ikebana (floral arrangement). As we settled into our seats, our server gently handed us a menu with two outstretched hands, asking whether we would like to eat or drink tea first. I was initially surprised to hear that the two are not permitted simultaneously, as I often drink my tea with meals.
As I mulled over the thought for a bit, I realized that this stipulation likely serves to enhance the experience of drinking tea, and thereby, one's appreciation for the tea ceremony and the tea leaves.
Given that Tamar and I both tend to be indecisive and suibian (隨便, or an "anything goes" attitude), we struggled to make a decision right away. But we ultimately decided to opt for tea first. Our server gave us a few moments to browse the tea menu, which, fittingly, is separate from the food menu.
My admiration for Wistaria only grew as our server returned and asked whether we would like any tea recommendations. We deferred to her suggestion and ended up selecting a type of oolong tea (unfortunately, the specific name escapes me!) The old-fashioned courtesy and politeness of the service lent the place even more charm. There was something very calming about being eased into the teahouse with a server that was neither too nosy nor too hands-off.
Perhaps it was a combination of these things - the unobtrusive service, ambient lighting, tatami-mat rooms, low wooden tables, rustic hand-made pottery, yellowed calligraphy scrolls, ikebana, soft classical music, and fragrant aroma of teas - that lent the place an enchanting feeling.
Shortly after we placed our order, the server returned with a glass kettle, an Yixing clay tea set, and a clay tea measure to display the tea leaves prior to steeping. She lit the kerosene burner, and the water began heating. After asking if we would like to see a demonstration of the traditional tea ceremony (gongfu cha), she then proceeded to prepare and serve the first round of tea for us. Throughout the process, she prompted us to smell the tea leaves to savor the aroma.
The tea ceremony performed for our oolong tea had a series of steps. These can be boiled down (pun intended) to the following (bear in mind, these steps can be added to or revised depending on the type of tea leaves that are being used):
1. Boil water in a kettle.
2. Rinse the teapot and cups with hot water from the kettle. (This cleanses the tea-ware while heating it up for maximum flavor).
3. Fill the teapot with tea leaves, approximately 1/3 of its height.
4. Rinse the tea leaves by filling the teapot with hot water; drain water immediately and empty into tea tray (or bowl).
5. Refill the teapot with more hot water. Replace the lid and pour hot water over the teapot to warm the exterior.
6. Depending on the tea leaves, allow them to steep for approximately 30-45 seconds.
7. Pour the first infusion into serving cups (lined up adjacently) in a steady, continuous motion.
8. Pour excess tea into a chahai (茶海, or decanter) to prevent over-steeping.
9. Extend the duration of subsequent diffusions by adding approximately 15 seconds each time. (Repeat about 6-7 times.)
The water, one of the most important ingredients in tea (or arguably, the most important ingredient), is collected from Wu Lai Mountain Spring, located near Taipei. In the menu, the water is described as "not only invigorating," but also "perfect for tea - embracing each cup in a smoothness and rich depth of the mountains." It was with great anticipation that I watched the water come to a boil (no, I am not being sarcastic).
A close-up view of the kerosene burner, set in a beautiful and heavy metal base.
We got about seven steeps from our oolong tea. The tea was luscious, toasted, and ever-so-slightly floral. Just the thought of it makes me yearn to go back! Once we finished our tea, we placed our orders for food. I ordered the tea and garlic steamed cod (茶香蒜泥蒸鱈魚) and Tamar ordered a Japanese sukiyaki hot pot dish (known for its sweet and salty soy sauce-based broth).
The food was so clean and fresh. The smoothness of the fish, crunch of the green onions, bite of the hot peppers, and silkiness of the tofu was heavenly. It was a perfect pairing with the tea we had just finished drinking.
Hours after we entered Wistaria Teahouse, we picked up our bags, stretched out our cramped legs, and retrieved our shoes in the wooden shoe rack outside the tatami-mat room to exit. Needless to say, I'll be back for at least one more visit. It's truly a magical place.