When I heard the news that Wistaria Tea House had opened a shop in Paris, I was both surprised and impressed.
But when I saw that the shop was renovated during COVID lockdowns in France, I was intrigued: How did the celebrated 40-year-old tea house from Taipei start a new life in Paris? And what has been the reaction from Parisians?
I interviewed Wistaria owner Sophie Lin (林慧峯) by email in January 2022. Below is our exchange, edited for clarity and translated by Min Chao.
All photos for this story were taken in March 2022 by Joann Pai, a Taiwanese-Canadian food and travel photographer based in Paris.
Hi Sophie. So how and when did you decide to open Wistaria Paris?
In August 2018, I was having lunch with Paris-based Taiwanese designer Sophie Hong (洪麗芬) at Wistaria Taipei when the idea came to her: “Well, aren’t you the ideal candidate? Why haven’t I thought of this earlier?”
It turns out that a historic storefront in Paris was about to shutter after two decades as a restaurant and tea shop. One of its business operators, Mrs. Lu, is originally from Hong Kong and had family affairs to attend to, so she was looking for a successor.
Sophie introduced us and I flew to Hong Kong to meet with her. We had a delightful conversation. She was very supportive of my plans to introduce Taiwan’s tea culture overseas. But Mrs. Lu was already deep in negotiations with two other interested parties, and one was close to signing a contract.
How did you make the decision to go to Paris?
A Parisian opportunity came knocking, do I answer the door? I viewed it as one of life’s grand adventures beckoning me to explore the unknown. That’s all.
It was the craziest decision of my life. I don’t speak French. I didn’t have time to physically scout out the venue and the neighborhood. And I was only given four days to consider. There wasn’t any careful planning or business analysis. It was almost like serendipity.
Paris feels strangely intimate and familiar to me. During my first visit in 1989, the French capital felt like home.
Paris is a global metropolis and an international hub of the arts. Wistaria Paris was founded with the hope of elevating tea as a medium for fostering exchange between Eastern and Western cultures. We’re aiming for more than just financial profit.
When did you officially open for business?
Doors officially opened at Wistaria Paris on September 16, 2021. For the first three days, I offered free tea sampling events and tea ceremonies to small groups of visitors. There was also a soft-launch period from August 14, 2021, when we were visited by the Taiwanese ambassador to France and his wife, Louvre museum officials, Japanese tea shop employees, and artists from different countries.
How is Wistaria Paris similar or different to the original Taipei tea house?
The core values are the same. That is, we hope to use tea as an entryway to interdisciplinary discussions on art, nature and people. And they share the same aesthetics and ambiance, by providing a familiar and simple space where guests can feel at ease and at home. A peaceful haven secluded from city bustle.
Nonetheless, Paris and Taipei are different. Wistaria Paris is housed in an 18th-century building with one stone facade left exposed (it once was a monastery wall). After renovations, the simple interior is accentuated by an eclectic collection of furniture and artwork. Those who’ve been to the Taipei shop say that it shares a certain je ne sais quoi with the Paris shop, despite their immediate differences.
I think that’s what I set out to do. Not a meaningless replica, but a distinct entity that shares the same ethos.
What were the biggest challenges opening Wistaria last year?
The pandemic made things very challenging. I’m not a French citizen and I don’t speak French. When Paris was subject to lockdown restrictions for more than a year, I was barred from entry. Renovations came to a standstill. It was very frustrating.
There were cultural differences as well. I was very upset by the relative inefficiency embedded in the working culture. Almost all of my family and friends told me to give up. But I felt the need to complete my vision, even if it appeared to be a mad and unrealistic dream.
Tell us about where Wistaria Paris is located.
It really is a great spot on the west banks of the Seine. It’s a cultural hub with many renowned art galleries and historic sites nearby. Pont Neuf and Notre Dame are both minutes away by foot.
The Wistaria Paris shop has a lovely shop design and logo. How was the process of designing the space and the brand?
The logo is designed by my old friend, Huang Ma-li (黃瑪琍). She studied in France and became an excellent visual communications designer. We’ve worked together for a long time. Much of the promotional materials for Wistaria’s exhibitions and publications were created by her.
The logo concept draws from imagery evoked by the phrase “Rouge Wood, Emerald Hills” (丹木青丘). It’s a line taken from the iconic Chinese text “Classic of Mountains and Seas”. The typographic form is from ancient bone inscriptions. I chose this Chinese name for the Wistaria Paris shop because it bridges cultures.
[Translator’s Note: The original shop in Taipei is officially named “Wistaria Abode” or 紫藤廬 in Chinese.]
The storefront is crafted by French designer Nassima Bouzid, whom I communicated with closely. Because I have many items in my collection, a simpler background actually enhances the displays. I’m most pleased with the wrought-iron folding gates, the store sign, and the soft teal-grey color palette of the interiors.
What are your goals for the Paris tea house?
Patrons tell me they see this place as a microcosm of Taiwanese culture, which warms my heart.
I hope to introduce the tea culture of the eastern sphere to people in Paris and Europe. The art of tea is a good avenue for exchanges from Europe to Asia. The Western world has much to learn about the East, especially China and Taiwan. Their impressions of the East are dictated by Japan, and their impressions of Taiwan are largely limited to bubble tea and beef noodles.
Cha Dao, or the art of tea, has been enjoying a revival because it is steeped in culture. The people of Europe respect culture, as long as it’s sincere and presented with depth.
How have Parisians responded to the new Wistaria Paris?
Local guests have responded well to our professionalism, aesthetics and atmosphere. Five stars on Google reviews so far.
Our immersive tea events have been well-received. I found out by chance that many visitors have been dedicated tea drinkers for over a decade or two, so they’ve got quite professional opinions. I’ve been told that our tea sets are unique, especially those crafted by artists or antique collections that are rarely seen elsewhere.
We also have a community of regular customers who frequent the shop often. There’s this French curator with an affinity for Taiwan. She now uses Wistaria Paris as a drawing room to entertain guests, staying for the full day here as artists and friends drop by to find her.
Do you think Taiwanese tea can be seen as unique from Chinese tea by people in France?
To French tea enthusiasts, the tea of Taiwan represents quality, often at a higher cost. Guests here enjoy Taiwan’s High Mountain Tea, Baozhong Tea, Oriental Beauty, and Tieguanyin. Our Vintage Dongding Mountain Tea is pretty popular too.
The French have a great gourmet culture and a well-trained palate. I think informative events with tea sampling are a good way to promote Taiwanese teas. I try to keep an open and easygoing attitude, and encourage guests to explore and find the flavors that suit them.
The people of France disdain authoritarianism and domineering systems, so I let the quality of Taiwanese tea products and wares speak for themselves.
What is the most popular selling tea? Have you made any adjustments to the menu for French tea drinkers?
Oriental Beauty, Green Tea, Vintage Dongding Mountain Tea, and Vintage Pu’er are all quite popular. We’ve just sold out of this year’s spring teas like Baozhong, Li Mountain Tea and Oriental Beauty. Now we are preparing to sell winter leaves.
Our French customers like to drink green tea. Wistaria in Taipei doesn’t carry many green teas, but the Parisian shop is stocked with Taiwanese Biluochun and several Chinese green teas, including Yacca Tea from Sichuan, Maojian Tea from Guizhou and Anji White Tea from Zhejiang.
For our Paris guests, the tea menu includes detailed information on different cultivars, and we also added brewing recommendations, introduction to the six main categories of tea, and a primer on the fermentation process.
What have been your biggest surprises so far from undertaking this project?
After our grand opening, many customers were captivated by the store’s décor. They wanted to purchase furniture from us. That was unexpected. Most of the antique pieces are from my personal collection, which I shipped to Paris from Taiwan. I still receive many inquiries regarding furniture sales.
I am also grateful for the many connections and friends that I’ve made here, such as my consultant. He’s a French citizen and a Taiwanese tea devotee who joined the project from the onset. His words of encouragement have provided much-needed emotional support.
He told me that the French value authenticity. He reminded me to not lose sight of my values in starting this endeavor, that the French are observant. French people can tell whether you’re being true or false, even if they don’t say it. Maintaining humility and a low-profile are key.
The process of starting this business was a lot of hard work, but it afforded me the opportunity to meet many new friends from Taiwan and France. Their support for my vision, and finding a community that shares the same values, have made it all worthwhile.