No fortune or future for Rio tea

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Rather than an early morning cup of coffee and another little cup after lunch, a cup of tea. Perhaps this would be a Carioca habit had Dom João’s ambitious project succeeded. In the 1810s, between 200 and 500 Chinese from Macau disembarked in Rio to work (in semi-slavery conditions) farming tea, until then only produced in China. It was a real Chinese business, since the product was a very profitable trade in Europe.

The plans included bringing up to one million Chinese to the country and supplying not only the domestic market but also the European market. Contrary to what was planned, the plantations – at Rio’s Botanical Garden, Ilha do Governador and the Fazenda Imperial de Santa Cruz – did not go forward. But the arrival of immigrants became a part of history as the first Chinese contact with Brazil. The circumstances of this trip and its consequences are now recounted in the book “China made in Brasil” (Babilônia Cultura Editorial), by journalists Cristiane Costa and Cibele Reschke de Borba.

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The book doesn’t end in the nineteenth century: it deals with the cultural and commercial exchange between the two countries to the present day. China is the country that most invests now in Brazil. The sum is around R$30 billion [in 2015]. And Rio served as the first port for these exchanges.

“Tea was an important spice at the time. And it was the moment for the globalization of food”, says Cristiane, noting that of the Chinese who arrived in the early nineteenth century, only the names of four are known (Liang Chou, Ming Huang, Chian Chou and Tsai Huang). “These were not ordinary workers. They stayed at the Conde da Barca’s house on an official mission. One hypothesis is that they organized the coming of workers or the importation of seedlings.

Different Palates

As to why tea farming didn’t work, there are some theories. Shu Chang-Sheng, a Chinese man who lives in Rio and holds a doctorate in history from UFF, says that one of them is about the difference between palates: since the Chinese usually drink green tea, the product produced here would not have pleased the Portuguese, accustomed to sweetened black tea. German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, who traveled through Brazil in the following decade and came to portray the work of Chinese in the Botanical Garden (see main image above), wrote that the tea had the “acrid taste of earth.”

Immigrants might also not have been exactly specialists in this type of agriculture, according to the historian. The labor regime imposed on them – which reminds us of the Chinese currently treated like slaves in Rio’s pastry shops – is another possibility:

“The Chinese had an aversion to closed systems. They may have resisted the concentration camp at Fazenda Real.”

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After the plantations were over, the Chinese spread out. Some turned into peddlers, some went to coffee farms. There are also those that gave rise to the first opium houses downtown, next to Beco dos Ferreiros. Those who worked in the Botanical Garden built homes in Tijuca Forest, in ​​the Vista Chinesa area (above) – hence the explanation for the name of the viewpoint, which was also called Vista dos Chins and Rancho dos Chins. In the Pereira Passos government, a Chinese pagoda was erected at the Vista, in reference to this memory. The project, from 1903, is by architect Luiz Rey.

The country would only see a significant number of Chinese arriving here starting in WWII. Journalists estimate the number of immigrants and descendants living in Brazil is 250,000. Chang-Sheng estimates that in Rio there are about 20,000. Although there is no Chinatown in Rio, one of the strongholds is Saara, where, behind the counter, many children of the first immigrants are seen there, from the end of the 1980s.

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Chang-Sheng says that immigrants come to Rio today with different motivations, working in branches that go beyond commerce and the kitchens of restaurants and pastry shops:

“Most work within the retail and wholesale network. But a kind of transnational Chinese immigrant has arisen, who are executives of Chinese companies moving from China to Brazil, from Brazil to the United States or from here to Latin America.” – Source (PT)


This post was in honor of the Botanical Garden’s 209th anniversary yesterday. To know about tea in Brazil these days, here’s part of an abstract from a 2009 paper on the subject:

“In Brazil, the culture of tea is concentrated in the Ribeira Valley – SP, and almost all the production is exported. Despite the Brazilian product is not of high quality, it has achieved good prices in the international market. The Brazilian production, the production area and the number of tea industries are decreasing in recent years, clearly indicating the need for investments.”

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