Clouds of steam wafted into the air. Dodd & Co., a tea trading house with operations in Tamsui, presented its latest procurement from the Far East. Her Majesty the Queen observed as her ladies-in-waiting made the preparations. A small island called Formosa had a booming tea industry and Queen Victoria was about to sample her very first cup of Formosa tea.

Victoria was enchanted. She hadn’t even drunk the tea yet. The tea leaves had been rolled up into small pellets, quite unlike the loose black tea she was used to. When they came into contact with boiling water, the pellets bloomed and opened up to reveal the natural whole-leaf shape. The Formosa tea leaves swirled in the water as they brewed; as if dancing—like beauties—in the water.

“Oriental beauties,” murmured Her Majesty softly, as she took in the sight and aroma before her.

At last, the Queen sipped her new Formosa tea. It deeply impressed her. The Formosa oolong thereafter known as Taiwan’s Oriental Beauty tea—thanks, according to legend, to Queen Victoria—would go on to find a willing consumer base among 19th-century Britain’s tea-crazed public.

Photo: Porcelain tea set

Origins of Formosa Tea

19th-century Taiwan, under the rule of the Manchu-Chinese Qing Empire, developed a highly lucrative tea industry. At the centre of this burgeoning industry was the Formosa oolong. Producers create the oolong using semi-oxidized tea leaves—halfway between green (not oxidized at all) and black (fully oxidized) teas. The Chinese prized this type of tea; and, since the 1600s, they’ve brought that passion with them to Taiwan.

Among the most prized characteristics of Taiwanese oolong is a subtle, naturally-occurring honey flavour. It is unique to the Taiwanese variety and has delighted tea connoisseurs for centuries. International traders of the 1800s sold Taiwan’s oolong under the brand “Formosa tea” or “Formosa oolong.”

Both East and West associate tea with refinement and culture. Taiwan’s 19th-century tea producers successfully tapped into the demand for tea. Along the way, Taiwan’s tea merchants not only enriched themselves, but the industry also drove incredible social changes: From the development of a unique class of Taiwanese banking houses to women’s employment and improved workers’ rights.

Photo: Traditional Taiwanese teaset

Money Tree

Tea was a serious business in the 1800s. It generated tremendous wealth and spurred innovation. British traders were active in the northern Taiwanese district of Tamsui, desperate to secure a reliable source of tea to satisfy demand back home.

The long-distance tea trade also led to advances in shipbuilding. The old galleons were replaced with a new type of oceangoing vessel, the tea clippers. These large ships, with as many as 20 to 30 sails, greatly decreased the amount of time it took to sail from Britain to the Far East and back.

The second richest man in Taiwan in this period was an immigrant originally from Fujian. Li Chunsheng was a devout Presbyterian who embodied the Protestant work ethic. Originally working for foreign merchants in Taiwan, he ultimately struck out on his own and made a fortune in the Formosa tea trade.

Li’s wealth generated from his tea business enabled him to fund public works in Taipei and he donated generously to Taiwan’s Presbyterian Church. All of this highlighted, like the British experience, that Taiwanese tea generated serious profits. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” the saying goes. But in Taiwan, it does grow on tea shrubs.

Photo: Former British Merchant Warehouse, Tamsui, Taipei, Taiwan
The former British merchant warehouse in Tamsui, Taiwan, used to store tea for export (李秉樺, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Formosa Tea Merchant Bankers

Ma-chín houses (媽振館), as they are called in the Taiwanese language, or māzhèn in Mandarin, were a unique class of financial institutions in 19th-century Taiwan. Although technically not banks, these firms issued loans to tea producers who pledged tea as security against their debts. Ma-chín houses also took in deposits and processed transactions, much like actual modern banks do.

At their height in the late 1800s, around 20 such institutions operated in northern Taiwan, where tea production for foreign markets was concentrated. These financial companies provided a vital service to Taiwan’s lucrative tea industry. In much the same way as modern merchant banks, they made financial capital available to tea producers, enabling them to invest in their operations, create jobs, increase production and meet the global demand for tea.

Here’s a fun fact! What’s in a name? That is, what does ma-chín actually mean? It turns out, British traders like Dodd & Co. did more than help Taiwan find a market for its tea. They also gave the Taiwanese language a new word. Ma-chín was a Taiwanese transliteration of the English word merchant! So a “ma-chín house” was literally a “merchant house.”

Photo: Worker in tea plantation

Shaping Taiwanese Society: Formosa Tea and Social Changes

The Working Women

Matriarchal societies led by women have long existed in pre-modern Taiwan. These were mainly in Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian communities. But since the 1600s, when Chinese immigration to Taiwan began, Confucian norms and values spread across the island. Among the teachings of Confucius is an outlook that saw women’s place as primarily domestic. Men ventured out of the home to work. Women stayed home and looked after the household. The Formosa tea industry changed that.

Tea cultivation and processing are highly labour-intensive work. In the 1800s, as Taiwan became fully integrated into the global tea supply chain, strong labour demand encouraged Taiwanese women to enter the formal workforce. This is one of the earliest documented instances of formal paid work for women in Taiwan!

Improving Working Environments

A nice perk of working in the Formosa tea industry was the frequency of pay. Tea producers paid their workers in real-time. At the end of each workday, employers assessed and paid their workers on the spot. Employees thus experienced no delay in accessing the money they had already earned. To today’s North American workers accustomed to two-week-arrear pay cycles, this 19th-century Taiwanese setup is definitely remarkable.

Towards the latter decades of the 1800s, the Qing government became involved in Taiwanese tea production. It set regulatory standards to ensure the quality of the products and introduced tea taxes. You might think the taxes were burdensome to the industry, but what was done with the revenue was truly fascinating.

Chinese immigration from Fujian to Taiwan continued throughout this period. Frequently the immigrants were young men who came alone. Without their families and support networks, these new immigrants were incredibly vulnerable. The government taxed the tea industry, where many of these newcomers worked, and used the revenue to set up health benefits, insurance and trade associations for the workers. That’s right, in 1800s Taiwan, tea workers enjoyed benefits many would still envy in the 21st century!

Photo: Presidential Office Building, Taipei
Presidential Office Building, Taipei—formerly the office of the Japanese governor-general of Taiwan. Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas.

1895: End of an Era

So how did this movie end? In a way, it never did. Taiwanese oolong is still highly prized. Tea in general is still in high demand in Taiwan and abroad. If you go to a typical North American convenience store, the fridges are stocked full of soft drinks. In Taiwan, they’re full of bottled teas of all varieties.

But in 1895, a busy year for Taiwan, many of the developments above did come to an end. That year, the Qing Empire ceded Taiwan to the Empire of Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan then declared independence in opposition to Japanese rule. That situation lasted for about five months until the Japanese army landed. Taiwan remained a Japanese colony until 1945.

Japan was a major producer of green tea, and to avoid competition between Formosan oolong and Japanese green, the colonial government encouraged Taiwanese tea producers to pivot to producing black teas, which were more distinct from green teas. The unique Taiwanese ma-chín banking institutions disappeared and Taiwan started exporting tea through Japanese channels, rather than through its own storied global networks.

Despite these changes, Taiwan’s tea industry remains important. Culturally, too, it holds an important place as Taiwan is still a significant consumer and producer of tea. Teahouses, tea culture and tea products continue to thrive very much in Taiwan today.

Posted by:Island Folklore

An online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, history, legends, myths and traditions.