Text by James Norwood Pratt • Photograph courtesy of JT & Tea
We did not like each other when we first met,” said Josephine Pan of Thomas Shu, her fellow Taiwanese immigrant to Los Angeles. There are not a great many Taiwanese in L.A., and even fewer who, like Josephine, belong to the island’s Hakka minority; yet here were two of them serving on the same committee—a businesslike Josephine and warm-as-a-teddy-bear Thomas, exuding as much good nature as energy. She’s still amazed that today they form a partnership that is a merger as well as a marriage: Josephine, Thomas, and Tea or, legally speaking, JT & Tea. The company is the couple’s love child and life’s work, and nobody has more fun in their working life together. They are, beyond doubt, the main reason more and more Americans are enjoying oolong today.
Oolong, of course, is that family or type of tea in-between green and black. Black tea is completely oxidized leaf, while oolong leaf is incompletely oxidized, often greenish—what Thomas has taught us to call “Jade” oolong. With Josephine’s genius for outreach, he has initiated many thousands into the pleasures of this most flamboyantly aromatic and deeply flavorful of all types of tea. Let me say no more just now in its praise, omitting a great deal, except that the complex and time-consuming method of producing oolong was discovered in China but brought to perfection in Taiwan. Taiwan is to oolong tea what Bordeaux is to French red wine.
For more than 70 years, Thomas’s family have been honing their tea-making skills, knowledge, and trading expertise and, over the generations, have become the First Family of Taiwan tea. The various oolongs his family and their associates carefully grow and expertly process range from the world’s most delicately perfumed, barely oxidized, oolong called Bao Zhong, to Jade oolong, Classic Tung Ting, and then to the dark-roasted Amber, Oriental Beauty, Taitung, and the newly developed, aromatic, and almost hearty Formosa Bonita oolongs. After Thomas immigrated to the United States in 1982, it was almost inevitable that the Taiwan Tea Manufacturer’s Association should name him the official Ambassador of Taiwan Tea.
Settling in Los Angeles, Thomas established a branch of his family’s business to import and promote all the oolongs of Taiwan and did well enough—and then Josephine came along. Working side by side on volunteer projects, Josephine slowly began to get to know Thomas. On a visit to his offices, the rich oolong aromas brought back happy memories of growing up in Taiwan and made her happy all over again. “Suddenly I looked at him with new eyes,” she says. “It was tea that brought us together.”
The tea life the two have shared since joining their lives, fortunes, and sacred troth has by now touched thousands. Every year, they conduct perhaps the most enjoyable and instructive of all tea tours, Taiwan Oolongs Study Tour (TOST), to give those involved in the tea trade an in-depth understanding of Taiwan’s extraordinary oolongs. This outreach extends from professionals to the public at large, but with a concentration on the young. They make tea for groups large and small, often schoolchildren, and teach them songs. Thomas sings, and Josephine performs public relations miracles with the aid of oolong from Taiwan. “Tea is fun,” Thomas likes to say, smiling broadly, “and children especially love having fun with tea.” They have no doubt created more preteen tea lovers than anybody else alive, and their business continually grows as their students grow up. Thomas’s repertoire of tea songs also grows, as he makes up new lyrics to go with traditional melodies he remembers. Except for being Taiwanese and often singing in Hakka dialect, he might be called an exceptionally gifted Irish tenor, and whenever tea people gather, they beg Josephine to make Thomas sing. Those little leaves his songs describe make everybody happy, and nobody more than Josephine and Thomas.
TeaTime Contributing Editor James Norwood Pratt is also known as America’s Tea Sage. In upcoming issues, he will continue telling the love stories of committed couples for whom tea has been a bonding agent, you might say, and who have made a life together within the tea trade. For more about him, go to jamesnorwoodpratt.com.