A Journey into the Heartland of Taiwan’s Royal Tea

Photo: Courtesy of Gu Cheng-gan

Said to have once been the drink of choice for royalty, Dongfang Meiren has become one of Taiwan’s most sought-after teas. The fruity oolong’s origins can be traced to the Hakka township of Beipu, Hsinchu County.

There is a faint sputter as Gin Lan pours a stream of boiling water onto the dry tea leaves lying in a clay pot in front of her. Seconds later, she transfers the honey-colored liquid into a glass jug to cool. A cloud of steam evaporating from the soaked leaves effuses a fruity note, sweet with a hint of sour. This is the signature scent of one of Taiwan’s most famous teas, Dongfang Meiren (東方美人茶), also known as “Oriental Beauty.”

Gin Lan from Liu Yu Tea House shows off her favorite Dongfang Meiren. Photo: Courtesy of Gin Lan, Liu Yu Tea House.

“It’s very easy to drink,” says Lan. “You don’t feel like you’re drinking tea. It’s sweet – it’s light, it isn’t bitter. The color is golden, and when you take your first sip, you wonder: Is that really tea?’” Lan runs Liu Yu Teahouse (柳隅茶舍), located on the underground shopping street by Longshan Temple in Taipei’s Wanhua district. There the Taiwanese Canadian caters to foreigners looking to dive into Taiwan’s tea culture.

White hairs on the tea leaves are an indication of high quality. Photo: Courtesy of Gin Lan, Liu Yu Tea House.

Dongfang Meiren tea is Lan’s first recommendation to those new to tea drinking. This unique oolong variety originated in Taiwan’s northwestern plains and was first developed over a century ago by Hakka tea farmers in the townships of Beipu and Emei. Or, as Lan puts it, it was “more like it was discovered.” Making Dongfang Meiren requires one crucial component: the bite of the green leafhopper, or tea jassid, a small insect that can be found on tea farms around Taiwan. The green leafhopper is especially prevalent in the low mountainous regions of Hsinchu and Miaoli due to their unique climate and elevation. When the insect chews on the budding tea leaves, its saliva imparts a fruit-like flavor to the tea.

“The more the tea gets bitten, the better it tastes,” says Lan. The tea carries the nickname Baihao Oolong, or “white-haired” oolong tea, derived from the white, furry line at the edge of the dry leaves indicating that the acidic saliva has worked its way into the tea. The more “white hairs” in a batch of Dongfang Meiren, the higher its quality.

The first batch of Dongfang Meiren is said to have been produced by accident after a particularly prolific year for the bug. Instead of tossing out the leaves destroyed by the pest, a few frugal farmers decided to process them, creating a tea that proved exceedingly popular among merchants at the annual Taipei tea fair. Legend has it that by the late 19th century, it had become the favored tea of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Since then, farmers in rural Hsinchu and Miaoli have perfected the process of making the highly oxidized, unroasted oolong variety. These days, it is nearly impossible to find a single tea shop in the region that does not offer the esteemed Dongfang Meiren.

Gu Cheng-gan’s son spreads the plantation’s tea harvest on the ground to oxidize as part of the process for making Dongfang Meiren. Photo: Courtesy of Gu Cheng-gan
Compared to the neat, orderly rows of high-mountain oolong tea plantations, Dongfang Meiren farms are left to grow naturally to allow the green leafhopper to thrive. Photo: Courtesy of Gu Cheng-gan

Despite being the homesteads of a widely cherished tea, places like Beipu and Emei lack the kind of tea farm tourism found in Alishan or the Maokong hills. This is not without reason, says Lan. For the insect to thrive, plantations need to be kept as natural as possible. Tea bushes and trees producing Dongfang Meiren are left to grow unrestrained for most of the year, in contrast to the neat and orderly rows found at many other tea farms, and the harvesting is carried out by hand. Although less aesthetically pleasing, this guarantees the ideal breeding ground for the green leafhopper.

The tiny insect is a fraction of a tip of a human nail in size, says Lan, who has encountered it many times. “When you go to a plantation, you can feel them jumping all over the place. The more natural and balanced the ecosystem, the more hoppers will exist on a tea farm. This is what we need.”

Regional treasure

After an initial tasting at Lan’s tea shop, it is time to delve deeper into the origins of Dongfang Meiren tea. And what better place to visit than the small town of Beipu in Hsinchu County, the heartland of Dongfang Meiren cultivation? Beipu is a charming rural township, perched on an elevated plateau and surrounded by gentle green hills and valleys. It is ideal for exploring by car or bike, with a large number of walking and hiking trails. A mere half-hour drive from downtown Hsinchu, or a 15-minute cab ride from the nearest train station in Zhudong, Beipu’s rustic charm and well-preserved historic center are magnets for visitors.

Still, the town has retained an authentic flair, with streets lined with stalls selling spicy pastes and hand-pickled vegetables. They are staples of the down-to-earth Hakka cuisine on offer at every corner. Typical Hakka dishes include sweet mochi, a dish of thick white noodles called bantiao (粄條), and leicha (擂茶), a sweet soup made from ground nuts. At least one of these specialties is available at any Beipu eatery.

Beipu’s specialty is leicha, a sweet soup that is sometimes called thunder tea in English. Photo: Carina Rother

In addition, the town offers “the most historic sites in close proximity in all of Taiwan,” according to Beipu local Gu Hao-yu. A 10-minute stroll leads visitors past the gorgeous Citian Temple, the Western-style historic mansion Jiang A-Hsin, and the gates of the Jin Guang Fu Mansion, a vast courtyard-style compound built in 1835. Not to mention the countless traditional shops selling Dongfang Meiren tea and handmade tea paraphernalia.

“When you come to Beipu, you should drink a cup of Dongfang Meiren, have a bowl of leicha, and enjoy the historic buildings,” says Gu, who runs Shui Jing Cha Tang (水井茶堂) with his parents. This exclusive teahouse, which is located inside the northern corridor of the historic Jin Guang Fu courtyard, specializes in different iterations of the sweet signature soup leicha, as well as many variations of local teas. Shui Jing Cha Tang’s whitewashed walls and turquoise wooden door frames are relics of the Japanese colonial era. The building itself was constructed in traditional Chinese style by a rich merchant.

Today, Jin Guang Fu Mansion is a designated national historic site maintained by six tenants, of which the Gu family is one. The family has converted rooms adjacent to the teahouse into a museum of local history. Before the pandemic, visitors could purchase a three-in-one ticket to several exhibitions in the courtyard-style house and nearby Jiang A-Hsin Mansion. Although all historic sites are currently open only to pre-booked tours, Gu Hao-yu hopes to open the exhibition to the public again soon.

In the meantime, the 2021 Netflix mini-series Gold Leaf (茶金) offers a glimpse behind the closed doors of Beipu’s historic monuments. Produced by PTS and the Hakka Affairs Council, the Hakka-language period drama depicts Taiwan’s tea trade in the 1950s, with Beipu’s historic mansions serving as a backdrop. The traditional architecture in Beipu allows for a glimpse of old Taiwan, where red-brick courtyard-style houses dominated the streets. But maintaining that scenery is a constant challenge, according to Gu.

“If anything in the old house is broken, we are responsible for repairing it,” he says. “But the craftsmen who knew how to fix it are old now, and the young ones don’t know how to repair a house made from brick and wood.”

Unrivaled flavors

Apart from house restoration, another skill specific to the Beipu area has become more coveted than ever: cultivation of Dongfang Meiren. And few tea farmers have made as much of a name for themselves as Gu Cheng-gan. Over a piping hot cup of his Winter Harvest Special No.1, the weather-hardened farmer tells of his dedication to all things Dongfang Meiren. He is the proprietor of renowned Beipu tea shop Baoji Chapu (北浦寶記茶鋪) and grows and produces all his teas by hand. “Founded in 1927,” proclaims a plaque at the entrance. Gu is the fourth-generation owner of Baoji Chapu, and his two adult sons are already honing their tea-making skills. According to the master, it takes 15 years of experience to be able to create a truly flavorful tea. The key, he says, lies in knowing every detail that can affect the three-day-long oxidation process.

Tea farmer Gu Cheng-gan in his shop Baoji Chapu. Photo: Courtesy of Gu Cheng-gan

“You need to be able to judge the leaves by looking at them and touching them,” says Gu. “The weather is also important. A northern wind will dry the leaves out too quickly. Humid weather and southern winds are ideal. Most producers don’t pay attention to these sorts of things.” So unrivaled is his tea that Gu has stopped competing in the prestigious annual Dongfang Meiren competition hosted by the Beipu and Emei township farm associations. “If we were still taking part in the competition, our style would be influenced by the judges’ preferences,” he says. “We have our own independent flavor.”

A neighbor on a motorbike stops by the shop. The two men exchange a few words in Hakka, spoken by everyone in town, before the man departs with his monthly supply of tea. Drinking Dongfang Meiren tea is an indispensable part of life in Beipu. When brewing his tea, Gu maintains a simple process. A seasoned farmer on the outside but a true tea craftsman at heart, he pours 195°F (90°C) hot water directly into a rustic white cup. After 10 seconds of steeping the leaves, he pours the tea through a small hole in the cup’s lid into a second cup in front of him, and his tea is ready.

A down-to-earth tea brewing set at Baoji Chapu. Photo: Courtesy of Gu Cheng-gan

Taipei tea-seller Lan also recommends simplicity over perfectionism when preparing tea. For special occasions, Lan says a drop of cognac added to one cup of Dongfang Meiren is guaranteed to impress connoisseurs as well as newcomers. But drinking Dongfang Meiren requires a bit of indulgence, as the elaborate production process adds to its price. One hundred grams of Dongfang Meiren ranges from NT$1,500 to NT$6,000 at Lan’s shop, while Baoji Chapu offers 75- or 150-gram tins that cost anywhere from NT$450 up to NT$18,000.

Despite the interconnectivity between the tea and the area, Gu Cheng-gan notes that Dongfang Meiren might not have originated in Beipu. “Every place around here says they invented Dongfang Meiren,” he says. “No one knows where it really came from. Fact is, it was the tea of the Japanese Emperor.”

Regardless, tea farming has transformed the previously impoverished rural community into a prosperous farming region. When Hakka settlers first arrived in the Hsinchu area 200 years ago, their lives were marked by adversity. After Han settlers claimed the coastal territory, all that remained were barren, mountainous lands suitable only for tea plantations, explains Gu. But after colonial Japan designated Taiwan as its oolong production site, the tea trade flourished and prices gradually rose.

Dongfang Meiren remains a valuable commodity due to the challenging manufacturing process. For most Oolong teas, the harvest is done with knives or machines. But to ensure the mild aroma of Dongfang Meiren tea, only the tip is harvested from each twig. Tedious handpicking is required for a yield much smaller than for most conventional teas. According to Gu, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find workers willing to endure long hours in the scorching weather for a month at a time. Young people prefer to sit in the air-conditioned offices of nearby TSMC, he says and laughs. Then, he furrows his eyebrows.

“When I was young, from here to Emei township all you could see was nothing but tea farms,” he says. “But now, no one does tea farming anymore. The work is too hard.” But for producers who persevere, like the Gu family, this means their precious product will only increase in value.