Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
Tea at the Jiufen Tea House.
I walked into the Jiufen Tea House and, all of a sudden, centuries seemed to peel-back and I had entered China of the Sung dynasty.
Perhaps I have been watching too many kung-fu films, but that was my reaction when we had tea at this atmospheric emporium in the 19th century rural village of Jiufen (also spelled as Jioufen in English).
No trip to Taiwan is complete without a visit to one of the old streets of historic towns and villages to shop for handicrafts and to sample local foods. The discovery of gold deposits in the late 1880s in the Jiufen area, transformed an impoverished village into a booming gold-rush mining town. Today, the quaint Jishan covered street, the main street of the tourist part of town, is lined with stalls selling souvenirs, antiques, modern copies of ancient artifacts, or making it possible for a visitor to taste local delicacies.
The tea house, near the end of the street, is definitely a site not to be missed.
The building is multistoried, with traditional, cubicled cypress-wood cabinets at the first, street entrance level, containing exquisite tea cups, both traditional and modern looking tea pots, tea storage jars, tea packages of assorted - both common and very rare - tea leaves, and a counter holding a boiling black cast-iron tea pot and white porcelain tea cups to be used for a quick tea tasting if you are just purchasing tea leaves without actually drinking tea on site. Brightly colored flower arrangements in bamboo baskets decorate many of the countertops.
Wooden steps take you down, through an open-to-the-sky narrow internal courtyard that has a Taoist multi-tiered water fountain and a pond with brocaded coi, to a lower level room with display cabinets enclosing precious antique tea cups and tea pots.
Another set of steps then takes you to where the tea drinking actually takes place, in an even lower room full of tables, benches, old traditional Chinese beds that are used as banquettes, and a row of six boiling cast-iron tea pots, bubbling away on burning charcoal. A US fire department would have a fit with this kind of open charcoal fires, but it doesn't seem to bother the thousands of visitors of the tea house or the local women working there. An exterior verandah overlooks a small red-lantern-festooned garden courtyard full of green bushes.
The Taiwanese still consider tea-drinking as serious business, and fragrant tea – sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes green - is still poured in a ceremonious manner accompanied by small pastries and savory tidbits.
It is indeed a return to earlier, slower, much more civilized times.
But unfortunately, much as one wants to, there is no escape from modern day intrusions of American culture: McDonald’s is ever-present even in the most exotic locals like Jiufen.
© September 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.