It’s not until A-su begins to decorate the folding table she carried halfway up the field that I realize she’s serious about having tea in the rain.
From A-su’s car we have fetched a kettle, which we now set on the ground beside her. Four stools are arranged around the table, one for her and three for us, and water begins to pool on their surfaces. A silver plate, a table runner, and several ornamental leaves materialize. “It makes it look prettier,” she quips while arranging these embellishments, even as rain drenches her hair.
As A-su fills our cups with oolong, I hear Tay comment, “It’s like she’s waited her whole life for this.”
The roads leading to A-su’s tea plantation are not
well-signed, and even with Google Maps, the way they twist abruptly make them hard to navigate. For most Taiwanese, the area’s claim to fame is Sun Moon Lake, the country’s largest body of water and a popular vacation spot, but Yuchi Township is increasingly gaining recognition as the home of one of Taiwan’s premier tea regions.
As we pull into the tea plantation, the first objects that appear are ceramic sculptures.
We are greeted by a monumental “welcome vase” made from shards of pottery that was shattered after an earthquake struck Taiwan in 1999, the second-deadliest in the country’s recorded history. Alongside them are wooden sculptures carved by A-su’s husband, Tzu-pin. None of the art is for sale; Tzu-pin makes it for others to appreciate.
The statues and the pottery are relics from A-su and Tzu-pin’s former career. In 1989, in an effort to promote ecological conservation, the Taiwanese government forbade harvesting of trees on the mountains, and Tzu-Pin, who was working in the lumber industry, found himself without a new job. Initially, the couple engaged in arts education; schools were shorthanded on staff, so A-su and her husband began to teach ceramics classes. Two years later, they opened a ceramics studio, starting with do-it-yourself tutorials and expanding over time to a full-fledged workshop.
In 2009, after almost twenty years of operating the workshop, the couple contemplated retirement, handing off oversight to their elder son. But seeking an activity to occupy her time, A-su began experimenting with tea. She and her husband reclaimed an abandoned field and, after having the soil and water tested by the National Chung Hsing University, converted it to an organic tea farm.
Pivoting to this line of work was not an altogether unusual choice. Liao Hsueh-hui, elected mayor of Yuchi Township in 2002, had initiated a campaign to revitalize the local tea industry in an effort to rejuvenate the economy after the devastation of the 1999 earthquake. By 2003 he had launched Yuchi Township Black Tea Cultural Festival; at its center was the tea cultivar the township championed: Taiwan No. 18, a hybrid of two varietals from Taiwan and Myanmar created by the Tea Research and Extension Station the year the earthquake struck.
Initially, A-su and Tzu-pin only engaged in farming tea, handing over the raw leaves to a third party to process. However, dissatisfied with the product, they bought their own machines and instructed their younger son, who had studied engineering, to learn to operate them. Three years later, A-su and her family entered their first tea competition. In that first year, A-su’s tea scored the top prize.
When harvested in March, the leaves of the Taiwan No. 18 plant produce an oolong that smells of sugarcane; in April and May, the aroma shifts to mint. By June, delicate floral notes begin to surface, and they continue to intensify throughout July. The most fragrant tea, though—the kind submitted for competitions—is harvested in August and September, when a full nose of osmanthus and cinnamon has emerged.
Late summer is the best season for tea but less so for humans, so A-su makes a point to venture outside only when the temperature is cooler. Each morning, she rises at 6 a.m. and walks through the rows of tea shrubs, plucking stray weeds. Around 9:30 a.m., she returns home to have lunch and to escape the midday sun. By 4 p.m., she has returned to the fields, where she will work until dinner.
Today A-Su is wearing a black-and-white bandana wrapped around her forehead, her hair braided to one side. The pattern is reminiscent of clothing worn by the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, and for a moment, we are unsure if A-Su is one of them herself. She isn’t, she tells us, though she understands the confusion. “A lot of people see our house, the environment around us, and think we are aboriginal.”
A-su speaks Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent, her retroflex consonants less pronounced, her speech dotted with words from the Taiwanese language. She leaves little pause between her sentences, instead filling the space in between with sighs or gasps or exclamations of “wow,” depending on the context. From time to time she apologizes for conversing in a way she considers uneducated, explaining that she never finished high school.
When we explain that Belgians speak French, she demonstrates for us the one word she knows: “Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour.”
That never stops her, though, from gossiping away. Early on, Tay reveals he was born to Taiwanese parents in Belgium. “They speak Taiwanese in Belgium?” A-su exclaims. When we explain that Belgians speak French, she demonstrates for us the one word she knows: “Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour.” Later on, she shows off an English word she has recently acquired: “View, view, view.”
From her time spent in the fields, A-su has developed an eye for good vantage points from which to take pictures. Sometimes, when she notices a particularly stunning view, she will take a photo with her smartphone. She admits that she doesn’t know much else about using her phone, however. “I don’t know how to turn it on or off. If I need to look up anything, I need to ask someone to help me.”
Technically, work on the tea plantation is divided into roles: Tzu-pin oversees the farming, A-su the sales, and their son the manufacturing. But A-su is fond of getting her hands in everything, taking us from the fields to the factory. The latter sports girders painted bright lilac, and on the wall behind the tea-crushing machines is a hand-painted mural of mountains overlooking fields. It’s unusual decor for a tea factory, though perhaps not surprising given the woman who runs it.
A-su takes us out to lunch. Her original plan is to take us to a beef noodle shop that makes its own noodles, but inexplicably, it is closed today, so we drive to a different stall instead. A-Su tells us to order whatever we’d like, which turns out to be pork belly over rice and a chicken salad to share. For herself, she orders a bowl of Vietnamese pho. We plan to pay the bill ourselves, but A-Su has anticipated our intentions; even as we sit down, she’s told the vendor that she will pay for the meal.
As we eat, A-Su strikes up a conversation with the woman sitting next to her, an old acquaintance. In another of her former jobs, A-Su ran a sundries store. Absent competition from department stores or larger boutiques, it became the go-to destination for the best goods, or so A-su says.
“Whenever anyone wanted anything new, they would come to me, right?”
Her friend nods.
A-su tells us, too, that she ran a restaurant for 15 years before handing it off to someone else so she could focus on her other interests. At some point, one wonders how much of the truth she has embellished for dramatic effect, but her magnetism is undeniable.
“In the past, every farmer—no matter what you were planting—was just a farmer. With black tea, there’s a big space. There’s a stage.”
On the drive back to the pottery studio, we ask A-su what she does for entertainment. Sometimes she gathers three or four friends into the woods, bringing a kettle and a gas stove, and makes tea. “I have a cloth that everyone can sit on. You don’t need chairs—it’s nature.” In her spare time, she also surrounds herself with music. “If something that makes me very happy happens, I’ll sing a couple lines of a song.” And she demonstrates, belting out a couple bars of an aboriginal song. “Everyone thinks I’m a happy farmer,” she offers as a sort of explanation.
Of late, A-su has been taking drumming lessons from the 70-year-old instructor at the community center, and she has promised us a performance before we leave. In her living room, which is decorated with more of her husband’s art, she sits at her drum kit and spreads out the sheet music. For ten minutes, she taps out a simple beat, eighths on the cymbals, quarters on the snare and bass.
How does someone like A-su become a tea-maker? I think of a passing comment she made: “In the past, every farmer—no matter what you were planting— was a farmer. With black tea, there’s a big space. There’s a stage.” Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that at the core, A-su just wants to entertain.
As she bids us farewell, A-su leaves us a heaving pot of bamboo shoots, stewed for hours with a little salt to bring out the sweetness. By the time we’ve reached our car, she’s already moved on to the next group of visitors, bubbling over with effervescence.
While rain continues to patter down on our heads and our shoulders, we watch the tea glow vermilion in its glass pot.
A-su refills our cups when we finish. We accept the tea and pose for photos, letting her perform on her stag