Sunday, May 8, 2011

Aroma of tea and sniff of history down Wistaria’s way in the heart of Taipei

By Nancy T. Lu

Walk down Wistaria Tea House’s Memory Lane. Do it either through the 30th anniversary exhibition “Remembering the Old Friends: Beautiful Flowers Blossom Once Again” or through the entirely new documentary “The Story of Wistaria Tea House.”

The men and women who have helped fill with their experiences the pages of the Wistaria’s colorful history spanning the last three decades and possibly longer are returning and gathering to relive nostalgic moments.

But there are also those who are just beginning to discover this cultural hub in Taipei and they are fascinated with the episodic accounts of artists, writers and intellectuals, generally unreluctant to reminisce their early pursuits of their creative ideals or dreams of freedom and democracy in surroundings filled often with the soothing aroma of brewed tea.

Chow Yu, the central figure in building and maintaining with the encouragement of friends this haunt of generations of intellectuals and idealists, remains very much around, writing beautiful calligraphy about tea culture and following up such exercise with teachings on the ancient “way of tea.”

Habitues of Wistaria, in fact, associate him with the special tea house, declared and recognized since 1997 as Taipei’s heritage building. His persona is in the fine tea poured and served at the place with a comfortable ambiance. This extends to the calligraphy on the wall, on the menu, and on the souvenir items on sale.

At one point the Wistaria Tea House was nearly closed down permanently for demolition. In fact, it was boarded up overnight, throwing out into the street the protesting artists and social critics. The campaign to protect it went into high gear. The official declaration of the property as historical and worthy of preservation for posterity in 1997 saved it in the nick of time.

Repair followed. This witness of constant political drama and upheaval over time found new life. In 2003 the Wistaria Cultural Association took over the running of the tea house.

The labyrinthine Wistaria Tea House on Xinsheng South Road in Taipei was the residence assigned to Chow De-wei, the father of Chow Yu, when he served as customs chief under the Finance Ministry in the 1950s.

Chow Yu, the youngest of five children in the family, grew up surrounded by scholars of western liberalism as well as emerging intellectuals from the National Taiwan University, all lured by the older Chow to this meeting venue for stimulating discussions and debates.

After the structure was damaged by typhoon in the 1960s, it underwent repair, acquiring a western-style façade. Not long after, the Chow family bought the property. The interior gave way to changes to accommodate activities like art shows and discussions.

In the 1970s, Chow Yu’s parents joined his siblings in the United States, entrusting the management of the Wistaria Tea House to him. And so an old house with flowering vines gained in popularity as hangout of a generation of then would-be artists and writers. It also became a seedbed of activism.

Some of writer Li Ao’s letters to Chow Yu during his five years spent as political detainee are now on display at the Wistaria Tea House. Sophie Lin, Chow Yu’s wife, has painstakingly sorted out Wistaria Tea House’s memorabilia and organized the ongoing exhibition to celebrate this Taipei landmark’s 30th anniversary milestone. She also brought out works created by artists like Yu Peng before they found fame. In 2009, Chow Yu invited his artist friends like Yu Peng, Cheng Tsai-tung and Chen Lai-hsing to return and present their new works in an exhibition.

Chow named the place Wistaria Tea House in 1981 and moved then to promote the “way of tea” based on ancient Taoist philosophy and on beliefs of modern Chinese literati.

Liu Sheng, director of the Wistaria Tea House documentary lasting about 50 minutes in length, admitted during the recent premiere showing at SPOT Taipei that the task of making the introductory film over a period of just a few months was daunting. There was so much to be said. The storytelling, he was told at the outset, must stand on the three legs of liberalism, leftist thinking and traditional Chinese art of tea with its age-old principles.

Wistaria Tea House holds different meanings for the men and women who have been lured to its embrace in their youth before treading the road to success and prominence. They have mostly struck up special friendships with Chow Yu. They now return, rediscovering it as a haven for the healing of the spirit in the jungle of city life.

Some artists with long years of association with Chow Yu candidly revealed that he gave them NT$3,000 out of his pocket when they were strapped for cash. Choreographer Lin Li-chen of Legend Lin Dance Theater recalled in the documentary film how Chow volunteered in 1978 to be the producer of her first dance production, “Don’t Forget Your Umbrella.” On seeing how the then pregnant Lin had to commute by bus on days of rehearsals, he urged her to take his offer of NT$3,000 as taxi fare. Lin was deeply touched by the gesture.

The calm atmosphere at the Wistaria Tea House attracts a clientele interested in simple but tasty dining and relaxing tea drinking. Music from Chinese instruments like the erhu lends itself to the serenity of the setting.

Years ago, imported classical western music played in the premises. Nowadays the more traditional Chinese airs have taken over. The Wistaria Tea House has produced a 30th anniversary souvenir music CD in collaboration with composer Zhou Chenglong.

Wang Xin Xin regularly fills the Wistaria Tea House with her exquisite nanquan performance for the appreciation of the traditional art lovers. Her ensemble of musicians rehearses upstairs every Monday and Thursday

The fragrance of tea at the Wistaria is spreading. Tea connoisseur Chow Yu has been taking the ancient art of tea beyond the boundaries of Taipei and Taiwan to win and warm the hearts of faraway friends, enticing them to sip the ceremonial culture of the old Chinese literati.

The Wistaria Tea House is located at No. 1, Lane 16, Xinsheng South Road, Sec. 3, Taipei.

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