For years, Portland restaurant industry vet Eric Arthur thought he hated tea. It took the nudging of a server at the Lan Su Chinese Garden teahouse to change his mind. “I would go to Lan Su all the time and just drink juice,” Arthur says. “One day, the server encouraged me to try a tea called Eight Treasure, a tisane made with three flowers, three fruits, a few herbs, and rock sugar. I loved it and drank that for a year, religiously.”
It was during one of those Lan Su visits that the Kauai native met Pearl Zhang, co-owner of the longstanding Red Robe Tea House. For ten years, Red Robe Tea House served prized teas like Da Hong Pao oolong — the “big red robe” tea for which the shop was named — and offered full gongfu tea service, a skilled procession of pours to hydrate the leaves, warm the cup and pot, and bring the tea to its fullest form. Zhang invited him to try a red robe tea at her shop, and he never turned back. He’d visit Red Robe three times a week, followed by a tai chi session at Lan Su. Zhang became like family, recommending teas to support his focus or treat any ailment that arose. The tea shop provided him — and many Old Town Chinatown locals — a peaceful refuge.
By the end of 2021, however, Red Robe owners Zhang and Raymond Liu, exhausted by operating a tea shop during the pandemic, decided to retire. When Arthur heard that no friends or family were interested in taking it on, he refused to accept it. So when Zhang offered him the space, he decided to keep the legacy alive in his own way, opening Taiji Teahouse in its place. With Taiji, Arthur hopes to add something new to the Old Town Chinatown community, from weekly tai chi to Argentine tango lessons.
Taiji — which comes from the Mandarin spelling of the Americanized term, “tai chi”— opened in mid-August with pots of oolong, pints of cold pu-erh, and a “more relaxed” version of a gongfu tea service, in his words. Arthur sources his teas from Kevin Von Buren of Fly Awake Tea House in North Portland, who inspired Arthur to arrange his offerings by how they’ll make you feel rather than tasting notes. The Wizard’s Eyebrow, for example, is a red robe-style oolong Arthur recommends for focus. To relax, there’s a “golden needle-styled oolong” that goes by Strong Six, and for balance after an emotional or stressful day, he suggests the aromatic and floral Drunken Concubine. If nothing resonates with how you’re feeling or how you’d like to feel, Arthur will pull something special, not unlike the way Zhang would recommend particular brews to Arthur.
For food, Taiji serves small snacks like miso cucumber salad and edamame, but the dish closest to Arthur’s heart comes from the cookbook of his Filipina-Cantonese grandmother — her take on the Hawaiian favorite, cold ginger chicken: poached and chilled shredded chicken breast over plain rice and raw veggies, topped with a finely chopped mix of cilantro, garlic, and a lot of ginger.
When Zhang first offered Arthur the tea house, it opened his mind to what his next chapter might look like — similar to his first sip of red robe tea. One problem: Arthur couldn’t afford to meet the window she had to buy the whole business. That’s when the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, which owns the building, got involved.
“When we learned Pearl was going to retire, the Foundation was committed to finding a business owner to continue a teahouse in this space,” says Sarah Leong Chung, Vice President on the Board of Directors at the Portland Chinatown History Foundation. “The former Red Robe Teahouse was a very important shop and oasis-like space for the neighborhood, so we were open to working with Eric to make it work.”
They agreed to a mutually beneficial rental lease agreement, and, through a Union Pacific Grant for Community Ties and Spaces, purchased much of Zhang’s equipment for him to continue the gongfu tea service at Taiji. A little under two years later, and this serene sanctuary is back in the form of Taiji.
In one light, Red Robe isn’t really gone. Zhang maintains a presence at Portland’s annual Tea Festival, and you can still buy Red Robe’s teas online. There are remnants of Red Robe everywhere at Taiji, from the interior decor and the teapots to an old Red Robe sign that he has no intention of removing.
“It pays homage to the space she built, and to our relationship,” says Arthur. “I want people who came to Red Robe in the past to come through that door and still feel at home.”
Outside of the walls of Lan Su Gardens, this neighborhood has not been considered a peaceful destination for many years. Through neglect from city leaders and the consequences of their approach (or lack thereof) to resolving homelessness, Old Town Chinatown has dealt with a lion’s share of cleanliness and safety issues. This year has brought positive change, though, and the OTCT community is eager to build on that momentum.
“The neighborhood’s future and revitalization will be dependent upon young entrepreneurs and businesses like Taiji, Goodies, Flow in the City yoga studio, etc. to bring new activity to old spaces,” says Chung. “Along with the museums and cultural organizations anchoring in this neighborhood, this invites the foot traffic, happy visitors and residents, and positive vibes that make a vibrant neighborhood possible.”
Taiji is now open at 310 NW Davis Street.