From Tealeaf to Teacup, Tea stories

A Cup Full of Stories

By Lizane  Louw

Finger Tea Story House Tea Plantation. Mingjing Township, Nantou. A woman is handpicking Oolong Tea on the plantation, 480 m above sea level in Mingjing, the tea village.
Photo Lizane Louw

I crossed Taiwan in search of tea stories. On one of my journeys, we took a road trip into the mountains of Nantou to explore a unique tea village where the smell of freshly baked Oolong Tea hangs thick in the air. We stomped barefoot in fresh mud and got lost in tiny teapots with tea masters. That night when we went to bed in the round red capsule house on the tea plantation, the moon turned into a teacup.

Impossible? But this is a true story.

This story starts with a question I often get asked, “Why do you travel?”

So, with this story, I will try and explain why I travel and why I have been travelling for over 25 years. The short answer is, that I travel to find myself. Not finding my identity, not finding out who I am, but finding myself in interesting situations. I travel to find…

I travel to find out what I like and what I don’t like. I travel to eat, taste, smell, drink tea (and coffee and wine), and travel to see and photograph. I travel to learn.

Getting older and wiser, with a lot of air miles and sea miles behind my back, I can look back and reflect on what journeys were most memorable, and what experiences I gravitate too. One thin line that is woven through all my experiences in life, is my love for tea.

I am learning to look and then to see with my journeys with tea. With tea, time stops; I am a student of the tealeaf. I am learning the Cha Dao.

My leaf adventures took me to The Finger Tea Story House in Taiwan. This story house is located on Song Bo Ling, Ming Jian Shang in Nantou County. The journey to the story house takes you on a 45 min high-speed train ride from Taoyuan to Taichung.

You have to patiently travel another hour or so on a scenic route into the mountains of Nantou. This road trip into the mountains took me past yam, pineapple and dragon fruit plantations. They also grow ginger in the region. In addition, this part of the island produces some of the best Oolong Tea in the world.

Finger Tea Story House Tea Plantation is in Mingjing Township, Nantou, central Taiwan. The HRS, High-Speed Rail, jets down to Taichung from Taoyuan in 45 min. You can travel to Mingjing with the Scenic JiJi train or drive from Changhua. Source: Rome to Rio.

Finger Tea Story House Tea Plantation. Mingjing Township, Nantou. A woman is handpicking Oolong Tea on the plantation. Handpicked tea is much more expensive than machine-harvested tea. Photo Lizane Louw

“Two Fingers” and tea stories

Mingjing is where the history of tea starts in Taiwan; these plantations are the origin of Taiwan’s tea.

The Finger Tea Story House is 480 m above sea level. Mingjang has over 2000 hectares of tea plantations, and it is also the area with the most significant output of tea production in central Taiwan. The region produces four types of tea. Four Season Tea, Golden Daylily Tea, Green Jade Tea and Oolong Tea. For the Oolong tea, I travelled 200 km to the heart of the tea valley.

In the Finger Tea Story  House, I discovered another legend of teas. “Shen Nong Shi (The Emperor of Five Grains) sampled one hundred kinds of grass and was poisoned by 72 of them daily. He had a pair of ox-like horns and a transparent, crystal clear, ox-like belly. One day whilst sampling one hundred kinds of grass, some poisonous grass poisoned him. His crystal belly turned black, and he became ill. He randomly picked a leaf from a surrounding plant and ate it. The tealeaf was moving up and down in his turbid, black belly, and his belly turned transparent, crystal clear once more. Shen Nong was curious about this leaf that did the magic to his belly. He discovered that it was the “tea leaf”.

Since that discovery, it was believed that the tealeaf had a detoxification effect; this belief passed from generation to generation.

Yang Kuo-Chen started the Finger Tea Story House in 2013. But the tea tradition of this family runs over a hundred years. “The history of the family is about four generations. The second generation had their teashop under the Japanese occupation, “explains Yating Yang as she walked us through the Tea Museum.

“When he was eight years old, the owner, Yang Kuo-Chen, was making tea with his granddad, and by accident, he lost two fingers; two fingers got cut off by a rolling machine. So our story house here we named “Two-finger Tea” because of the story were lost his two fingers.”

Yang lost half his ring finger and middle finger in that accident. However, his accident did not keep him from loving tea; it inspired more challenging work and an expansion of their brands into “The Finger Tea Story House”.

“There is a statue of his hand; you will have good luck if you rub it or touch it. “


Zhù hǎo yùn” explained Yating, our story guide. She is very professional and carefully chooses her English words. Now and then, she uses Google translate to help with her English. I stopped, rubbed the statue with two missing fingers, and wished to have more luck.

The story house started as a tiny business. Today is 100 years old. First, Chang Sung Tea expanded into other labels and the bubble tea business. Then, two very famous Taiwanese brands, Tea Top and Tea Struck. Tea Top is a household bubble tea brand, not only in Taiwan, where they have 120 shops but also in the US, where they have ten shops.

As we walked through the museum, I got lessons on the tea plant and tea leaves and various teas. Finally, we stopped at Pu’er Tea. Pu’er tea is a fermented black tea from a village named Pu’er in China. I am the proud owner of a brick of aged 13-year-old Pu’er from Yunnan, China. The young tea master was very impressed with my knowledge.

This story house and farm have old tea distinguished from Pu’er Tea, and they have 40-year-old tea for sale. These teas are costly collectors’ items.

The Finger Tea Story House brands have won many competitions. Nantou has the best tea in Taiwan, and the brand wins 20 categories in the biggest tea competitions in Nantou every year. Their winter and spring tea won first place in tea competitions 25 times. They are seen as the tea champions. All the teas planted and harvested by Finger Tea are organic.

Finger Tea Story House Tea Plantation. Mingjing Township, Nantou. A woman is handpicking Oolong Tea on the plantation. Photo Lizane Louw

The Healing Leaf

“Tea is good for your health and good for your teeth. Tea has fluoride, which is why it is good for your teeth. The tea plants absorb the fluoride from the soil, so tea has a high percentage of fluoride. But it can make your teeth yellow,” Yating explains.

“Grandpa used to say that you don’t have to brush your teeth; you can just drink tea. You can just swizzle the tea in your mouth. Then, you rinse your mouth with tea brewing water.

Tea also contains anti-oxidant actives such as polyphenols and catechin, which inhibit the growth of bacteria and viruses. Therefore, it can prevent you from being unwell,” with those words, I realized that I was speaking to a family member; she smiled as I asked if Mr Yang Kuo-Chen was her grandfather. With that smile, she became more relaxed in her family history presentation.

My thoughts on tea continued as we walked; I thought of the health benefits and what I had read. Nutrients in tea transform into a large quantity of Gallic Acid that can stimulate dopamine secretion. Dopamine can stabilize emotion.

Oolong Tea Plantation. Mingjing Township, Nantou. Photo Lizane Louw

Yating’s grandfather performed fortune-telling with tea. He believed that a magnetic field every man. When that magnetic field turns weak, drinking tea can supplement it and turn it back to its fullness. According to the stories retold to children in this family, you can also change your fortune from bad to good.

You have to drink tea according to your age. An extensive chart on the wall shows what tea you drink at what age. For example, I am 40, so I need to drink High Mountain Oolong tea. “When you are in your 20’s and 30’s, you can’t drink high mountain oolong tea. You must wait till you are older, and then when you are in your 40’s, and you drink High Mountain Oolong tea, and then you come back to lower-level teas, it does not taste good,” says Yating, who I now have figured out is the owner’s daughter. She shares tea stories as we walk through the museum.

Tea Chai Cha

I have travelled the world for tea. I had Masala Chai in India; it is a black tea with milk, sugar and spices. I had Darjeeling tea in India, this tea is grown in West Bengal, and you also drink it without milk.

 I learned to drink Chamomile tea in early evening teas in Paris, France, Chamomile, herbal tea infusion. (Even though I am still not sure if Chamomile originally comes from France). I had 50-year-old Pu’er Chinese tea in my favourite teashop in Yinge and had 40-year-old tea in a tiny village called Mingjing, the tea heaven of Taiwan.

I have always wondered why they would call tea by different names, then finally, with reading up, a whole world opened. If you get your tea by sea, it is called  “tea”; if you get your tea from the land, it is called “cha”. 

So I finally figured out that my favourite teas, Masala Chai and High Mountain Oolong Cha, are both from the land, which means that these teas are grown locally and distributed by land, and I was lucky to drink some of the best-handpicked teas in the world. So, the langue then indicates where we get our tea. If you get your tea by see it is tea, thee, te or tee. If you get it by land, it is chai, chay or cha.

Tea by sea and tea by land. Source: Quarts.

Old leaves and a young leave

Most regular Oolong tea is harvested by machine, but High Mountain Oolong Tea is harvested by hand. When tea is harvested by hand, it is more expensive.

“When you harvest tea, you have to harvest them young. The very first leaves have to be harvested. The smell is so natural earthy; it is delicious, still pure, and has not been exposed to the elements and gives the best quality teas,” explained Yating.

The Story House’s “Tea Theory to Relativity” is explained via comics on the Story House Tea Museum walls. Each picture is drawn in a comic cartoon style. It is translated into English on a pamphlet I got given.

“The most interesting is distinguishing between an old leaf and a young leaf. The old leaf is likened to an old man taking a piss, but the pee dripping downwards to his shoes. A new leaf is likened to a young kid taking a pee and projecting across a stream. In Taiwanese, this means a new leaf has more strengths and is better.” I laugh out loud. Sometimes the forwardness of this culture surprises me.

We continue to the tea making process. “Oolong tea making requires several steps. First, you pluck, then outdoors; the outdoor withering takes place, then indoor withering, they stir dry the tea leaves, roll the tealeaves, grade the tea leaves, and then grade sample the tealeaves. This process was manually conducted, nowadays, the tea process is mechanized; the output is more tea and the process much faster,” Yating continued.

“Green tee, oolong tea and black tea come from the same plant. From the same plant, you can make all three kinds of tea. It is the same plant, Camellia Sinensis,” she explained.

The distinction between these different teas is not from other plants but how the leaves are treated after being harvested. “It also depends on the fermentation process.”

I was shocked to learn that all teas come from the same plant. My story went full circle back to my teacup.

Mingjing Township, Nantou. Handpicked Oolong tea is placed on tarps. After tea leaves are plucked, they start to wilt; naturally, steady withering takes place when these oolong teas are placed on tarps with black nets controlling the sun they get. Photo Lizane Louw

A teacup full of stories

The story goes that the great-grandpa told his 8-year-old son about the finger-cutting machine that rolled off his fingers. “How lucky you are, my dear grandson, that you were not using your genitals to weigh the iron chains”. We laughed and had another GongFu ceremony.

 So many stories. This is an actual story house.

I have tasted a variety of teas in the village, sat down with two teamsters and learned about tea.

Visiting the story house was a mind-altering experience. I am learning more about this leaf. I learned so much about tea, tea production, and stories about tea and the MingJing plantations. Again, I found a world of tea stories at the bottom of my teacup.

As we sat around the fire in the tea plantation in front of our round tubular room, I smelled the fresh Oolong Tea plantations. The smells were thick in the air, pineapple, peach and guava. I looked up at the sky and what I saw made me smile. The bright white moon turned into a teacup.

I am a student of the tealeaf. My journey is to learn the Cha Dao.

     From tea leaf to teacup. Source:


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Bubble Tea and The Fat Straw

Straw alternatives, metal straws

08/12/2018. Taipei, Taiwan. Quan Chang Co. in Taipei manufactures eco-friendly stainless steel straws. These straws are natural alternatives to the multicoloured plastic fat straws traditionally used to drink the trendy bubble tea drink in Taiwan.

Bboba nai cha

No tea story will be complete without writing about bubble tea.

Originally, bubble tea was an iced tea drink that contained a particular ingredient, tapioca pearls, at the bottom of the drink. Today, this drink is not always served as iced tea; it can have fruity notes and real fruit as ingredients. This tea or fruit infusion tea today has many varieties and flavours. This trendy tea drink, wildly popular in Taiwan and, in fact, all over Asia, was traditionally made with tapioca pearls and iced tea, hence the name bubble tea. This drink goes by many names, the most popular, Bboba tea, pearl tea or boba nai cha.

The name bubble tea comes from the tapioca bubbles or pearls at the bottom of the drink and the way this delicious milk tea beverage is prepared. The vigorous shaking of the milk in the preparation process also leaves bubbles and foam at the top of the tea drink. Hence the name, bubble tea.

There are many disputed origins of this trendy Taiwanese beverage. The most famous story is that Bboba nai cha originated in Taichung. However, the story goes that Liu Han Chie of the very renowned Chun Shui Tang Teahouse claims that he invented this drink back in the 80s.  Whilst travelling in Japan, Chie was inspired by Japanese iced beverages. So, when he arrived back home, he experimented with cold milk tea by adding various fruit, sweeteners and tapioca pearls.

The rest, they say, is history. This trendy ice drink’s popularity spread worldwide, and you can find this delicious, refreshing ice tea or iced fruit drink with tapioca pearls in coffee shops and juice bars in most countries.

Apart from this tea drink traditionally served in a transparent plastic “glass” so that the consumer can see the tapioca pearls, it is served with a noticeably thicker and fatter, more colourful straw. This is so that you can slurp up the tapioca pearls and chew these as your drink your sweet iced tea. These pearls are chewy and soft jelly balls. They glide up the straw as you drink your tea.

These fat straws are also causing a big stir in Taiwan; this is reported in the media; the whole bubble tea tradition is being challenged by the Taiwan Government’s crackdown on plastic.

I searched for the best bubble tea in Taiwan and landed at Chun Shui Tang, the teashop famous for inventing bubble tea. I visited their most highly recommended teashop in Xinyi District, Taipei City. This famous shopping district is also home to Taipei 101. A landmark building with 101 floors that was once the world’s tallest skyscraper.

When I visited the shop in Taipei, I had to wait for about 25 minutes to have a seat. When I looked at the English Chinese Menu that patrons get, the first line and item on the menu read, “The Creator of Pearl Milk Tea”. There was a tiny bubble tea symbol, two different sizes and “iced” or “hot drink” next to this menu item. Even though I wasn’t in the original shop in Taichung, a city more south, I realized that I was about to taste one of the most famous tea drinks on our tiny blue planet, made the way it was traditionally made in the 80s.

The rest of the menu looked appetizing, too; apart from the variety of tea drinks, like Sesame Milk Tea, Jasmine Milk Tea, and Pearl Jasmine Tea, something else caught this wannabe tea connoisseur’s eyes. Oolong Beancurd with Bonito Flakes. In short, Tofu and tea. My two favourite tastes combined. Heaven.

08/12/2018. The world-famous “The Creator of the Pearl Milk Tea” as this tea is named on the menu of Chun Shui Tang. Pearl Milk Tea and a very fat straw. Photo Lizane Louw

The Fat Straw

I had many varieties of bubble tea in my four years living in Taiwan. Back in 2002, when I visited for the first time and also now, I also enjoyed the more modern, trendy versions of this milky tea beverage. On visits to the street stalls and night markets, I noticed how much plastic gets used for packaging food.

When I go to a regular bubble tea shop, I will get the tea in a plastic “glass”, usually thin and see-through, and there would be a plastic top lid with the now infamous but much-beloved fat straw.

I became very aware of the waste I produce every day after a documentary I shot on plastic pollution with TEIA (Taiwan Environmental Information Association). I am, as a result, consciously reducing my plastic consumption, limiting the harm I cause to the environment.

The government of Taiwan also acknowledged the calls from so many environmental campaigns regarding plastic pollution and marine debris. Consequently, the government is taking a very firm stance on plastic.

In June last year, the EPA’s restrictions on plastic straws were introduced. A notice was posted on the EPA’s website, an excerpt from the Environmental Policy Monthly, dated June 2016.

According to the notice, due to the growing urgency to address marine plastic pollution, the EPA has drafted the restrictions on single-use plastic straws. The draft stipulates that the following four businesses will be prohibited from providing single-use straws for customers dining in-store: public sector entities, public and private schools, department stores, and shopping malls. This ban will affect 8,000 businesses.

Taiwan’s beloved sweet milky tapioca pearl drinks will be affected by this ban. Since this notice, the internet has ignited protests, and the debate is continuing. The main question is, “how will we drink bubble tea without a straw?”

Since the announcement of the EPA’s preannounced restriction on plastic straws, the milk tea industry and all lovers of the famous Bboba nai cha, or bubble tea, are discussing it. The conversation on the ban reached all street corners of Taiwan and all the tiny street alleys of all villages and cities.

In the press over the past couple of months, various stories have reported on this bubble tea frenzy online.  According to many reports, the Taiwanese can’t imagine not having their favourite drink without a straw.

Plastic straws are single-use plastic items that are not recycled. As a result, these plastic utensils are one of the most harmful trash pieces in our oceans.

“After plastic straws are used, they are discarded in the environment where they break down into small plastic pieces or are ingested by animals. According to the EPA website, the ingested plastic can absorb toxins in the environment and then accumulate and be consumed by animals higher up in the food chain.”

“However, the EPA urges businesses to take early action by not providing plastic straws unless customers request them. The public is also encouraged to prepare their reusable straws to reduce plastic pollution and waste of resources.”

Marine Waste Cleanup Statistics

Taiwan Environmental Information Organization (TEIA) released its 2017 Marine Waste Clean-up (International Coastal Cleanup) statistics earlier. The data presented reflected those straws were among the top three marine debris found by various organizations doing marine waste monitoring operations. The total number of straws found in monitored areas where 23,113. These monitoring operations are done in small square blocks on beaches and do not span the entire monitored coast. This proves again that there is a growing problem with plastic, specifically straws ending up as marine debris on the beaches of Taiwan.

Marine waste monitoring operations collected data from September 2017 – to October 2017. Source: TEIA.

According to the data collected in the 2017 Marine Waste Clean-up, the Top 5 marine debris:

  1. Plastic bottles – 49,305 pieces
  2. Plastic caps – 32,347 pieces
  3. Straws – 23,113 pieces
  4. Glass bottles – 17,321 pieces
  5. Plastic bags – 16,436 pieces

Alternatives to Plastic Straws

Quan Chang Co. in Taipei is an environmentally conscious company that has offered an alternative to plastic straws. Instead, the company manufactures eco-friendly stainless steel straws.

08/12/2018. Taipei, Taiwan. On display at the Quan Chang shop, there are a variety of eco-friendly stainless steel straws. Apart from the stainless steel straws, glass straws are also on display. Photo Lizane Louw

I visited the shop in Taipei to learn more about these eco-products and buy some of their products that came highly recommended as alternatives to the straws that would be banned in June/ July 2019.

“I made a bunch of straws. They are going back to America, “says Ocean Chang, owner of Quan Chang.

As it is known, QC is a Taiwanese brand that cares for the environment and cares for our health, a handout of the products proclaim. “In fact, for the health of the people, for the health of the environment,” answers Chang to the question of the company’s vision.

On this handout, neatly illustrated and explained are examples of 19 straws. Then, in extensive, bold letters, “ARE YOU STILL USING TOXIC STRAWS?”

“It is a straightforward idea. It is to be good to oneself, be good to others and the environment, and do a kind thing at the same time,” he said.

The whole shop is “green”. I scan the shop again as we speak. I look at the tiny GongFu tea set neatly arranged in the middle of the heavy wooden table. I am seated on a big wooden stump, balancing myself in the middle of the rings of the chopped tree. Everything smells like earth. There is soft Buddhist chanting playing in the background. We drink honey water out of see-through recycled glasses with yellow rims, and I had my first experience with a glass straw. We eat fruit out of wooden bowls with stainless steel utensils, and we drink more tea as we exchange ideas, him not speaking any English and me with my 200 words Chinese vocabulary. We communicate with the assistance of a translation device.

“Some people will change and buy these alternatives, but the others will probably still use the public straw, says Ocean’s wife, Nancy Chen.

“People are upset because they don’t want to make this change; it is seen as an “inconvenience.”

“It is difficult to change people’s habits,” Ocean adds, “But this is a product of environmental protection that can change people’s habits. Then we need more people to be green to spread the word and educate people,” he said with passion.

Ocean is sitting across from me, speaking Chinese into this small translation device. I have never seen anything like this, and I am rather impressed at how we manage to communicate, me speaking into this tiny little machine in English and my words immediately translated into Chinese. Ocean listens with attention to my questions and answers again in Chinese.

“Plastic straws are toxic. So people need to buy alternative options like stainless steel. Habits that are focused on environmental protection are needed.”

“But how do you get people to choose green straws,” he asked. “We must continue to create these kinds of green products, products that are good for the environment.”

Three people enter through the door. Our conversation is cut short. They are welcomed like family.

The lady close to me starts a conversation in perfect English.

“We came here, especially for the straws. I work in the environmental administration department with this idea or policy to ban plastic straws. It is challenging, as the Taiwanese love bubble tea. The problem is that the policy did not introduce a replacement for the straws. Instead, one official saying we can eat with spoons, “said Jeanne Wei, Environmental Protection Administration System Analyst, Department of Environmental Monitoring and Information Management.

Department of Waste Management specialist Lee Yi-Hua said, as reported by the media in Taiwan, “people could use a spoon instead of a straw” these words have caused a massive outlash by netizens and the public alike. This is also now the topic in the shop.

Wei was visiting QC with family members, and all of them were making investments for the environment. Her brother Charlie bought a couple of straws to take back to the US.

“In Taiwan, drinking bubble tea is a cultural tradition. So people are not happy about the straws ban,” affirmed Wei.

From the ongoing debates, it is clear that public opinion is against the ban on straws.

There is a lot of waste on the beaches, and as the data of environmental efforts have shown, many straws are found as marine debris. So the problem is shown in the data and on the beaches and in the trash bags collected.

“The proposal was disapproved by many people”, according to Wei, “it is a difficult situation to implement this ban.”

Taiwan is currently nr 3 in the world in recycling; a country is a well-oiled machine for reducing, reusing and recycling. “The global ban for using plastic bags, Taiwan was very early to implement that. We did pretty well. When I went to New York, I realized that our plastic bags are thicker than those used in the west. I know that people in the west use a lot of plastic bags, with no restraints, but in Taiwan, we have to pay to use them; this helps people be more conscious about using plastic bags; I think this is a good thing “Wei said.

On banning plastic straws, she said it depends on education too. “If we can teach children, it can help.  We have to start from the young; this year, I also heard stories about how young people influenced their parents to vote in the referendums.” According to Wei, banning straws is a new idea. “We need to educate children on the uses of plastic and other options to take care of the environment. This is a very new thing; people need to be educated.”

Jeanne and her family left after discussing plastic pollution, environmental protection and tea. Ocean cut more fruit, and we drink more tea.

“Every country has environmental groups. We must be united to be strong. This “green” straw is very durable and of good quality. You will save a lot of money relative to buying and paying for plastic straws. In the end, this will also help the environment. This is much better for your health too.

But the quality has to be good for it to have this value. So if the quality is not good, then it is not a good product and utensil, “he continues.

According to Chang, there are many people out there who are willing to invest in good quality utensils that are eco products; these straws are good quality and good for the environment.

“Environmental education and education about these Eco eating utensils are critical if we want to protect our environment for the next generation,” says Chang. He looks over at his daughter sitting in his wife’s lap.

I noticed a tear running down his cheek, and he sniffed and wiped his nose. At that moment, I realize that I am speaking to a very passionate man about his work with the environment and that he is speaking into this small translating device with his whole heart.

I saw his heart, and I felt his concern in his expression and words.

“Plastic cause a lot of environmental problems”, he said with a heavy heart.

08/12/2018. Taoyuan. I invested in a whole set of environmentally friendly eco products, wooden chopsticks, spoons, and two groups of stainless steel straws. One special straw from their collections was a gift. This small gift, Ocean said, was a thank you for what I also contributed to protecting our environment. Photo Lizane Louw

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