by Brian Awehali
I was taken on a lovely tour of the fog-wreathed high mountain tea country in Nantou County, in the central and only landlocked part of Taiwan. It’s easy to see why the Portuguese dubbed this place “formosa,” which means “beautiful island.” Butterflies and lush vegetation abound.
Among the many interesting natural sites, I also saw the “bamboo house” that Nationalist (KMT) leader Lord Chiang would retreat to in the years after he lost his struggle against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was forced to flee mainland China. I’m not sure if he went here before or after he contracted from his concubines the gonorrhea that would eventually sterilize him and leave him with only one biological son, but it was definitely before the “White Terror,” during which he imprisoned or executed upwards of 140,000 people, including a fair number of the Taiwanese intellectual and social elite, for opposing the Nationalist KMT government in Taiwan.
The issue of Taiwanese independence remains complicated today. A significant portion of Taiwanese, especially “mainlanders” of the business class who lament the economic limitations of being a small island economy with “only” 23 million people, favor re-unification with China. One of my partner’s uncles, a businessman who supplies shoes and handbags to high-end retailers, spoke bluntly of wanting unification: “Taiwan is too small,” he said. “To grow, we must unify.” He did not seem concerned, as a member of the upwardly mobile business class, of what freedoms he might lose were Taiwan to unify with China. Others, especially those of native Taiwanese descent, like the farmer I would cut bamboo with several days after photographing the bamboo house, above, feel differently: “In China,” he said, “the government owns everything and you own nothing. In Taiwan,” he enthused, “we own everything, and we have freedom: you can go to 7-11 for something any time of the day or night.”
It’s hard to know, given my own lack of command of Chinese or Taiwanese, and his far better, yet still limited English, if this was truly how he saw the issue of democratic freedom — as a consumer — or if it was simply the way he could explain it in English. It could very well also have a lot to do with the fact that there may be more 7-11′s in Taiwan than there are Taiwanese.
After my tour of the mountains, I was invited to visit a local tea aficionado to learn more about the history, process, art, and etiquette of Taiwan’s second-most-acclaimed product (the first being the creation and modern defense of a functioning democratic Chinese society and government).
We entered and began the tasting: Spring and Winter varieties of Rose Oolong, Jasmine and Black teas were in the offing, and it was surprising just how distinct the flavor of each season’s tea was. I learned that the best tea is grown at the highest altitudes, where it takes the longest to mature. Winter tea is the most prized, and most expensive, though I personally favor the spring tea for its greener, and more precisely chlorophyllic aroma and color.
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