Taiwan Tea: Ongoing Struggles over Food Nationalism

Taiwan Tea: Ongoing Struggles over Food Nationalism

The cross-regional tea trade has been the window to look into the changing relationship between food localism and food nationalism.

Written by Po-Yi Hung and Yu-Hsiu Lien
Published on 15/03/2020
This piece was previously published on Geography Directions, January 30, 2020 at https://blog.geographydirections.com/?s=tea

Fig. 1 A tea plantation run by Taiwanese in Lam Dong, Vietnam. Photo by authors.

Local tea in Taiwan – whether traditional high mountain oolong, or modern bubble tea – has been an icon representing Taiwan’s food culture for centuries. When people talk about “local”, usually the localness conveys ideas of organic,[1] environmentally-friendliness,[2] and community-led empowerment;[3] yet in the Taiwanese context of food production and consumption, it also has strong associations with nationalism, especially around tea.

Indeed, the undetermined status of Taiwan as an internationally recognized sovereignty of an independent country, has meant that both the government and the civil society, have tried to create a distinct symbolic border to define the localness of Taiwan tea. This means that only tea made inside Taiwan can claim itself to be local Taiwanese tea.

Fig. 2 Female Vietnamese tea workers plucking tea on the tea farm run by Taiwanese. Photo by authors.
Fig. 3  Solar withering of the fresh tea leaves. Photo by authors.

The distinct symbolic border that defines the localness of Taiwan tea, alongside broader forms of food nationalism, has also provided a marketing strategy for the expansion of Taiwan tea businesses outside Taiwan. However, the mixture of localness and food nationalism of Taiwan tea has made those running businesses outside Taiwan confront challenges.

As the Guardian has recently reported, some of the leading Taiwanese bubble tea brands have become entangled in the conflict between Hong Kong and China. Yifang Fruit Tea, for instance, which originated from Taiwan and now famous for using local tea and fruit material, has run up against consumers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Fig. 4  A male Vietnamese tea worker taking care for the tea waving machines. Photo by authors.
Fig. 5  Putting tea leaves into the pan-firing machine. Photo by authors.
Fig. 6  Male tea workers of Vietnamese working in a tea factory operated by Taiwanese. Photo by authors.

According to the Guardian, the entire storm “began when Yifang Fruit Tea closed one of its Hong Kong shops for a day and put up a sign that said in Chinese: ‘Stand together with Hong Kongers.’” The post angered Chinese netizens and consumers, resulting in a widespread boycott. Yifang’s follow-up statement, supporting the Chinese policy did not calm the boycott in China; rather, many Taiwanese are now stirred up too as they believed that Yifang betrayed Taiwanese local symbol and food nationalism.

Fig. 7  A Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea shop in Pu’er, China. Photo by Ming-Tung Huang.

This story echoes the findings of our recent paper in the Geographical Journal which suggests that the superficial binary opposition with contestations over food nationalism of Taiwan tea has been complicated with border-crossing mobility of tea.[4]

In the paper, we use the example of the tea trade between Taiwan and Vietnam to demonstrate the complicated scenario. The origins of the tea trade between Vietnam and Taiwan lie in the “Southward Policy” (nanxiang zhengce) launched in the 1990s by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui to divert Taiwanese outward investment from China to Southeast Asia. In this policy context, Taiwanese entrepreneurs and tea merchants established tea plantations and factories in Vietnam, primarily in the province of Lam Dong. But, crucially, instead of using local Vietnamese tea trees these Taiwanese entrepreneurs and tea merchants introduced new tea tree varieties developed in Taiwan, as well as the full package of processing techniques from Taiwan, including machines, processing know-how, plantation management practices, and so on. In other words, even if they were located in Vietnam, these enterprises aimed to produce what they believed to be legitimate ‘Taiwan’ tea.

The cross-border tea trade and technology transfer between Taiwan and Vietnam therefore further challenges the seemingly stringent border of localness for Taiwan tea. This is even further complexified by local tea competitions. For Taiwanese oolong tea enterprises, local tea competition awards have long been one of the highest honors and the most convincing quality standard for tea farmers, merchants, and consumers. However, in 2017 a Taiwanese tea farmer was accused of using “fake” Taiwanese tea—specifically a Taiwanese style oolong produced in Vietnam— to win a tea competition. The event revealed the tension about where to draw the border for defining the local Taiwan tea. The use of the term “fake” indicates an impenetrable and binary symbolic border concerning the localness and the ensuing formation of food nationalism. Nevertheless, the cross-bordering mobility of tea from Taiwan to Vietnam has pushed us to reconsider the meaning for pursuing a spatially fixed localness and food nationalism. As such, some of the bigger questions we have proposed, about Taiwan tea are: have people been seeking a symbolically distinct but spatially porous food icon under the entanglement between local and national Taiwan and where exactly does the border of so-called Taiwan tea lie? Beyond this, we ask how and why people draw borders around local food within the complex struggles over food nationalism? We have no answers here, but it is certainly something worth considering further!


  1. Stagl, S. (2002). Local organic food markets: potentials and limitations for contributing to sustainable development. Empirica, 29(2), 145-162.
  2. DuPuis, E. M., & Goodman, D. (2005). Should we go “home” to eat?: toward a reflexive politics of localism. Journal of rural studies, 21(3), 359-371.
  3. Lacy, W. B. (2000). Empowering communities through public work, science, and local food systems: Revisiting democracy and globalization. Rural sociology, 65(1), 3-26.
  4. Po-Yi Hung and Yu-Hsui Lien. “Anxiety of Food Nationalism: Dilemmas of Bordering in the Vietnam-Taiwan Tea Trade,” The Geographical Journal 186 no. 2 (2020): 186-197.