Tea Houses” Now Have Different Meanings in Asia

It came to my attention on a recent trip to China that teahouses are now becoming the new center for scandal and prostitution. In fact, teahouses have had a mix meaning in China for centuries. Dating back as far as the Tang Dynasty teahouses were places to relax, play games and take in a traditional Chinese opera show. They were also a place where the equivalent of a geisha would cater to men by accompanying them with drinks, laughter and often-touchy behavior. Although this was seen as more of a custom to enhance customer service, it also gave customers negotiating room to ask the women for other services such as sex. Brothels were very common across China during this time and teahouses happened to be an outlet where prostitutes could also be ordered.

This trend lasted for quite some time throughout the Song Dynasty into the Ming Dynasty and it wasn’t until the earlier Qing Dynasty period in the 1700s that China was aiming to clean up its act and keep specific red-light districts separated from city affairs and easily accessible locations such as restaurants or teahouses where ongoing bystanders could witness what was happening. Although these efforts were not 100% successful it did send the message that sexual affairs should be separated from everyday affairs as well as from teahouses, as these were admirable places where officials attended to make important decisions.

Tea in addition to wine have always been the common drinks of choice for Chinese to conduct business or political affairs, with tea taking on a more serious connotation since it was used for more important decisions that required clear thinking. Wine on the other hand was used for more social aspects. Because of this reason more pubs were relocated to nearby brothels to meet these social trends, which helped separate it from tea culture.

However, teahouses are now becoming the main hook in China to cheat mostly foreigners out of either buying an over-priced tea or meal. What teahouses do now are hire attractive women to lure about in places such as the subway station and seek out any single, predominantly male traveler who looks like he may be lost or traveling. After approaching the person with a flirty attitude and offering to give directions, almost indefinitely the person will be asked to meet with the girl later for tea at a specific teahouse. The person meanwhile doesn’t think much of it and assumes tea is a customary drink and a teahouse a reasonable spot for a date, hence they exchange contact info and the deal is set.

Usually the guy arrives to the place and everything is actually normal. The teahouse is in fact legit and they converse over topics only the guy is told by the woman she loves certain types of expensive tea and that ordering them would make her happy. This occurs over a course of a couple of hours until a big bill is racked up and given to the man. Usually at this point he is a bit reluctant but ends up paying the bill and the woman takes off nowhere to found. These are called tea hookers in China and are increasingly common for teahouses in addition to other service areas as well.

Another interesting trend spurring in the market is the use of “drinking tea” which means to order a prostitute. This metaphor dates back again to teahouses when they were linked with prostitution in China. To have tea in Chinese means to drink tea (喝茶) and is a code for basically advertising hookers without saying it directly. There are many websites that you can see even advertised on Facebook where these types of brothels ask people “What kind of tea do you want?” or “What is your tea budget?” as to avoid any trouble. It’s an indirect way but many people know what it means.

Nowadays, teahouses in some cases can even mean brothel but this is rare. If you are traveling in China or Taiwan there is no need to worry about accidently going to a brothel when you want to have tea but just keep these tidbits in mind.