Article:Ye Yufei Photos:Chen Mingcong
In a prime real estate district of Taizhong, one city dweller has created a personal, soulful space. Recalling the Jiangnan style in its freshness and refinement, a simple, unadorned spirit emanates from the thatched building of the Wuwei Caofang. The inscription above the door reads: "Good Tea is a Good Friend." The proprietor of this establishment, Tu Yingmin has not been seduced by lucrative offers for his land? and for the last ten years has steadfastly guarded the Wuwei Caofang, whole-heartedly offering fine teas and a fine space to visitors.
A love for tea and nostalgia, an oasis in the city.
"From the start, it has been hysterical," I would not have thought that this would have been Tu Yingmin's comment to himself as he started the teahouse.
Looking back to 1994 and the inception of the Wuwei Caotang, no great changes have been wrought upon the interior of the tea room. Mr Tu says, "As a child, I watched my grandfather growing tea in the central mountain range; I also developed a deep connection with tea, enjoying imbibing the simplicity of Taiwanese high mountain teas. My inspiration to set up a tea house in Taizhong stemmed from there." The simplicity behind the tea house is reflected in the tea tasting area and in the persistent quality of teas offered; from the opening day, Wuwei Caotang has not wavered, simply offering a space within the hustle and bustle of the city where visitors and their guests can feel at ease and enjoy conversation in a relaxed teahouse setting.
Smiling, he says that when he first moved from the Jiayi countryside to Taizhong and times were hard, he'd often long for the good tea and old style sweets served in his hometown; this grew to be an inspiration for establishing the tea house in the city. At that time, much of the land around Taizhong was still agricultural fields, Tu Yingmin used his work bicycle to explore the environs and made enquiries with local farmers about land for sale. He never imagined that he would have the luck to chance upon a plot on the corner of Gongyi and Dongxing roads, but it was here that he established the Wuwei Caofang. In the blink of an eye, seventeen years have passed.
Only selling good things
The teas and sweets sold in the Wuwei Caoang are all selected by the owner, with careful attention paid to their origins and manufacture. So, the outstanding Shan Linxi and Ali Shan teas were selected after Mr Tu had personally gone up the respective mountains and tested different teas, establishing relationships of mutual trust and understanding with tea growers in order to guarantee the quality of the teas.
This style of supply has been going on for over ten years. Although recent years have seen intense competition between all sorts of tea houses, with many resorting to selling imported Vietnamese and Mainland Chinese teas in order to economise, from the start, Tu Yingmin has insisted on solely selling Taiwanese teas, specifically High Mountain teas,"Before going to sleep, I drink the Shan Linxi tea we sell in the shop," Mr Tu says, never considering changing tea varieties, believing that good quality persists into the future.
Another notable feature of the teahouse is the Gongfu brewing and twin cup tasting. Excepting Wuwei Caofang, many Taiwanese teahouse gave up on these traditional brewing styles opting for simpler brewing methods, or even pushing cold tea drinks as the mainstay of their income. As Tu Yingmin says: "I haven't changed at all!" From die start, Yixing teapot brewing has been standard in the teahouse, and continues to be the method used today. Mr Tu says: "When I was a kid in the countryside and guests would come, the old folks would have us brew tea for them; in the past in the countryside we'd also brew feng tea to welcome guests. I really like the feel of this type of tea brewing, and I wanted to retain this tea culture."
Taking the Caotang further.
Faced with the changes wrought by prosperity and the changing tastes of youth, the owner of the Caotang has made a small compromise, selling three varieties of iced drinks in the summer: honey and lemon tea, kumquat tea and luoshen tea. The ingredients of these teas are sourced from Zhongpu, Jiayi, the fruits are grown by his relatives, and the honey is supplied by Laozi Hao on Wufeng Road, Jiayi, ensuring the local flavour of these drinks, "I feel that these drinks are really good, in a different class." Mr Tu says. Through this small diversification, Tu Yingmin has developed a new strength, providing further opportunities for more people to try these fine drinks.
Insisting on only selling Taiwanese teas, while retaining the Jiangnan garden style, now seldom seen upon this island have helped to maintain the renown of Wuwei Caofang; indeed, it has become an ambassador of Taiwanese tea culture for foreign visitors. Japanese backpackers can often be seen making a special crip to Taizhong in order to find the Wuwei Caocang, spending an afternoon there soaking up refined Taiwanese tea culture, while Hong Kong tour groups specially arrange trips to the teahouse, enjoying the ambience of literati style gatherings combining tea recitals and poetry reminiscent of those that they have read about in the books of antiquity.
Echoes of flowing water, birdsong and music
Sitting inside the Wuwei Caofang, sounds of running water, birdsong, fish jumping and music subtly fail upon our senses. Within this space of tranquillity, it is as if one has been transported to a haven of peace-little would you think that outside the door lies the racket of Taizhong's business district. Coming here to brew tea using cast iron tea set, guests can stay from noon until sunset, then from the setting of the sun until the rising of the moon; Mr Tu is truly a fine host, never pestering his guests, "Some old customers enter as I first open the doors, reading for a whole day, leaving as I close for the night." Tu Yingmin warmly says, "Because guests like the ambiance here, they stay for such a long time; as a tea lover myself, I can fully understand their feelings, using the teahouse as a transient haven for the soul!"
Occasionally, the Caofang is host to uninvited guests: the large tree by the pond provides shade for many people, but it grew, wholly fortuitously from a seed dropped by a bird. As small flowers find their form, all is governed by nothingness. The Caofang is home to many pieces of antique furniture, paintings and calligraphy, the couplet above the doorway was made from a rubbing of Zheng Banqiao's calligraphy, while discerning eyes will pick out century old tables. These treasures were collected as they came, several being gifts from famous people. Guests with real discernment will be able to pick out works by Taiwanese master painter Chen Laixing, and the rural imagery and tones of this work, imparting a rich Taiwanese cultural flavour to the space, "The gallery has grown organically, an unintentional creation." Tu Yingmin, continually smiling, patiently explains.
"At any time, a bowl of tea may clear the mind, reconnecting us with the earth." Perhaps this couplet above the door of the Wuwei Caotang had a profound effect on me as I enjoyed the owner's fine tea and old style dried longyan: brushed by a gentle breeze in the company of Autumn, my mind was truly emptied of worries and desires!