|Named after the famous Japanese animation film 天空の城ラピュタ(Laputa: Castle in the Sky), the Sky Castle Teahouse since 1997 offers more than just tea. Located on the zigzag Cingbian road in Jioufen Town, New Taipei City, the teahouse’s specialties of Taiwanese Kung Fu tea and Italian coffee sets it apart from others, an outcome of owner Hung Chih-sheng’s creative thinking.
Sky Castle Teahouse is Hung’s forth venture after he pioneered the teahouse culture in the area when he opened Jioufen’s first teahouse in 1991. New Taipei City Government awarded the Sky Castle Teahouse the Model Architecture Award because it is a remodeled old building. It is now a popular spot for students of architecture.
Most of the tea leaves sold in the shop were grown on various mountains in Taiwan, and some of them imported from China. Hung purchases tea leaves twice a year directly from tea farmers. He has built a long-term relationship with them so that he gets good quality tea leaves every year.
“Oriental beauty tea and mildly-fermented oolong tea are my best sellers,” he said. “The weather in Taiwan produces an extraordinary flavor for our oolong tea that you can hardly find elsewhere.”
Sky Castle Teahouse offers more than just tea. As early as March 1997, when he started, Hung added some variety to the menu and offered fresh coffee made from an antique Italian coffee machine. He also started serving latte, cappuccino, and home-made cheese cakes in ceramic cups and plates made by Hung, his wife, and his artist friends, creating a coffee culture that is different from what customers get in most coffee chain shops.
The story behind the business
Hung was an art student who used to go Jioufen to sketch and paint. He started the teahouse business to support his life-long pursuit of art. His painting collection and ceramic works are exhibited and sold in his chain business, namely Jioufen Teahouse, Jioufen Gallery, Ceramic Art Workshop, and Sky Castle Teahouse.
Before Jioufen Teahouse got its name in 1991, the building was Hung’ s residence and art studio, he had friends visiting all the time and he had to find a proper way to entertain them, so he came up with the idea of a teahouse. He did a survey of 400 visitors to Jioufen and asked them if they liked the teahouse idea. With positive answers, Hung opened his first teahouse in Jioufen.
In 1996, when the owner of the land next to Jioufen Teahouse started to build a teahouse that would totally block its view and basically bring it out of business, Hung decided to build Sky Castle Teahouse. He was on his way to travel around the world, but having to build Sky Castle Teahouse prevented him from doing so.
“After we decided to build Sky Castle Teahouse, typhoon Herb devastated Jioufen. We had to re-build the house’s structural foundation and I had to use the money I had saved to travel the world,” he said.
The construction work on Sky Castle Teahouse finished 3 months ahead of its competitor who blocked Jioufen Teahouse’s view.
Coffee and tea
Jioufen Teahouse only served tea. But with Sky Castle Teahouse, Hung, a coffee drinker, decided to offer coffee. Consumers can choose among Kung Fu tea, Italian coffee and juices along with cheese cakes and tea cakes in different flavors.
“I like to aim high and try my best to achieve my goals. We sampled different coffee machines and decided to get the best one,” said Hung who spent more than NT$300,000 on an antique Elektra Italian coffee machine, making Sky Castle gain fame as a teahouse that sells fresh coffee.
Since Sky Castle Teahouse offers both tea and coffee, Hung developed more than one way to serve Kung Fu tea.
“We decided to offer tea served in a cup or in a pot like the way English tea is served. This happens when a group of customers come in, and some of them would like to have tea while others prefer coffee,” he said. “Since Kung Fu tea is to be shared with other people around the same table, we created this way to serve tea and make every customer happy.”
Hung bought his first house in Jioufen in 1988. As the first and most senior teahouse owner, Hung spent a longer time observing the region and the visitors than other teahouse owners.
“Artists, writers and people who drove cars were the only ones who would stop by my teahouse when we opened in 1991. Transportation wasn’t very convenient. They would hang around for long hours thinking, working or just spacing out,” he said.
“Then came the white collar workers when Jioufen’s Old Street flourished in 1994, followed by groups of students and lovers---Jioufen became popular among people in love.”
The average age of Sky Castle Teahouse customers is younger than those of Jioufen Teahouse. Foreigners prefer Jioufen Teahouse for its quaint ambience while Taiwanese customers prefer Sky Castle Teahouse because of the view.
“More than half of my revenue in Jioufen Teahouse come from foreign tourists; while Taiwanese customers bring in the money for Sky Castle Teahouse.”
Innovation is the key
Hung is a business-minded artist. He runs teahouses to support his art life and he is successful in both. He designed a ceramic Miner’s Tea Set based on an acetylene lamp and won the Best Creative and Aesthetic Design from the Yingge Ceramic Museum in 2008.
During the early gold-mining years in Jioufen, miners would take an acetylene lamp with them to work in order to detect oxygen gases that could pose a danger to safety. In his design, Hung used the features of the lamp such as the shovel and the handle.
“I think that’s what the cultural and creative industries are all about,” he said. “You have to include the local traits into your design so that your creations resonate with your audience.”
The shape of the tea set would remind people of the historical era of Jioufen, and the handle has been cleverly designed to prevent the lid from falling when pouring tea into the cup.
The Japanese animation film 天空の城ラピュタ is about a young miner whose dream is to find a castle in the sky named Laputa which his father saw before his death. Hung named his teahouse after it because the cloud waves in the film and the mining background reminded him so much of Jioufen.
For him, Laputa represents a fantasy and the persistent efforts to pursue one’s dreams---just like building Sky Castle Teahouse is like a narration of Hung’s life and the history of Jioufen.
Written by Eva Tang / culture.tw
Photos by Rick Yi / culture.tw
A view of Sky Castle Teahouse
The owner of Sky Castle Teahouse Hung Chih-sheng
Italian coffee is served in ceramic cups made by Hung.
Hung’s ceramic works are exhibited and sold in the shop.
The award-winning Miner’s Lamp Tea Set (left) and its prototype, the acetylene lamp on the right
Coffee is brewed fresh from an Elektra brand Italian coffee machine.
A view from the 2nd floor