Turning over a new leaf

From Beijing to Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Taipei, fast-paced modern life means that tea is losing its appeal for Asian youth.

by: Ralph Jennings | 15 Oct 2007

"I don't have any time or relevant tea culture," said Becca Liu, a 25-year-old college graduate in Taipei. "I'm more curious to know how to make coffee," she added.

Determined to restore tea to its exalted status in Asia, tea lovers are trying to repackage tea as a funky new-age brew to a young generation more inclined to slurp down a can of artificially-flavoured tea than to sip the real thing.

Taiwan tea expert Yang Hai-chuan sells sachets of mixed oolong and green tea leaves at teahouses across Taipei, marketing them as hip flavoured beverages rather than the traditional teas that have been drunk for centuries.

"Consumption of traditional tea is declining because it's not being passed down," said Yang, who teaches tea brewing classes to a handful of students such as Liu, who sign up mostly because of the coffee-making section in the course.

Yang's concoction is just one around North Asia that's sustaining tea, despite pressure from coffee and other beverages, by catering to younger people's fixations on their health and a thirst for novelty.

In Japan, a new tea line is winning fans among young Japanese with its claims to reduce body fat, while a South Korean brand called "17 Tea" is popular for its claims to blend teas that cure a host of ills.

Turning over a new leaf
According to a Chinese myth, tea was discovered about 5,000 years ago by Shennong, a legendary emperor of China who was sipping a bowl of hot water when a sudden gust of wind blew some tea tree twigs into the water.

It became a pillar of cultural and culinary life in Asia ever since, spreading to Europe in the 17th century. The elaborate tea making ceremonies of past centuries are largely defunct across North Asia, although traditional drinkers avoid Western tea bags and devoutly adhere to tea-making customs by pouring hot water from clay pots over tea leaves.

Tea is so embedded in Taiwan culture, at least for the older generation, that tea lovers can argue for hours about the merits of tea grades and water temperatures for preparation of the brew. But Taiwan youngsters won't have a bar of it.

"Our children don't want to carry on the traditions, so in the future it will be forgotten," complained Wang Cheng-long, a life-long bulk leaf seller in Taiwan's historic tea-growing region of Pinglin.

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