For fans of British musical pantomime (a possibly niche group among readers of H-Soz-Kult), Widow Twankey, otherwise known as Aladdin’s mother, is a cult character. Witty and down to earth, her role, usually performed by a male actor, is played for laughs. But I have always wondered where her name came from—and in Robert Hellyer’s wonderfully readable new book, I found a clue. Among the various classifications which British and US merchants gave to different forms of tea in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, twankey was the lowest grade of green tea, its leaves picked later in the season, its preparation handled with less care. Sure enough, the Victoria and Albert Museum website confirms that Widow Twankey was first named in an 1860s version of the pantomime after twankey tea—the character of both suggested to be “less than premium”.1
Twankey makes no further appearance in Hellyer’s story, but green tea more generally is at its heart—and Hellyer’s achievement is to have crafted a narrative that wears its deep knowledge with a light elegance reminiscent of the descriptions provoked by finer grades of tea.
At one level, „Green Tea with Milk & Sugar” is an excellent social history of tea production in Japan and tea consumption in the United States. Adapting the “chain” methodology often found in commodity histories to write of “teaways”, Hellyer introduces us, through wide-ranging archival work, to green tea farmers, harvesters, factory refiners (and their songs), packers, shippers, label designers, importers, advertising agents, wholesalers and finally drinkers—three times a day for many American families, according to a “Chicago Daily Tribune” reporter in 1873. The same reporter complained about the “depraved” tastes of Americans who favoured their green leaves artificially coloured with Prussian blue. Colouring, indeed, is a sub-theme which threads its way through Hellyer’s account, from the 1860s to the US ban on coloured teas in 1911. Colouring constitutes one of the ways Japanese producers altered their product according to the (visual) tastes of the US market—and thus one example of how Hellyer’s book is, at a second level, an “entwined” (p. 7) history of US-Japanese relations from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.
Perhaps with a lay readership in mind, Hellyer skips any theorization of entwinement, or indeed the more technical terms “entanglement” or “global”, as a methodology: the first of a very small number of references to “the global history of tea” only appears on page 35. Instead, Hellyer is content with the formulation that his book will demonstrate “how national history is inherently international” (p. 7). To my mind, this is somewhat of a lost opportunity to articulate for his more specialist readers the rich histories that can emerge at the interface of global and social histories—a trend which Hellyer’s previous work partly addressed.2
Thus, the “fresh insights” that Hellyer offers on Japanese industrialization or on the unfolding of cultural and social trends in Japan and the US are more empirical than conceptual. But that should not detract from their value or especially their usability in the university classroom. The problem of colour, for example, makes a more invidious appearance through discourses of race. Hellyer shows how first Chinese and then Japanese tea in America was increasingly tarred by racist discourses of the “half-naked coolie” (p. 126) in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Such tropes, visual as well as textual, were partly connected to aggressive advertising campaigns promoting Ceylon and Indian tea, and partly to anti-Asian immigration campaigns. While Hellyer is careful to point out that such racist advertising had not negatively affected the US—and particularly the white Midwest—predilection for green tea by the end of the Russo-Japanese war (1905), nevertheless there was a general shift in America away from green tea and towards black tea which began in the “seminal decades” of the 1920s and 1930s (p. 172), and which was solidified by the Second World War. (Sources concerning tea-drinking among African American communities are limited, he explains in a footnote.) As argued in the last and longest of the book’s six chapters, one consequence of this transformation in the US market was that Japanese tea producers more aggressively promoted sencha consumption in their colonial and especially their metropolitan markets. In this way, the Japanese imbibing of sencha, which any visitor to the archipelago will today assume to be timelessly traditional, is in fact the product of exactly the entwining of US and Japanese histories which Hellyer addresses.
Complementing the social and “international” aspects of the book, “Green Tea with Milk & Sugar” works at a third narrative level: it is a family history of the Hellyers and of their contribution to Japanese tea production for the global market from the 1860s onwards. Originally from Britain, Frederick Hellyer—the author’s great-great-grandfather—and his brother Thomas worked first for the merchant William Alt, a compatriot, before establishing their own Hellyer and Company in 1881—an enterprise that ran until being taken over by the Tanimoto family in the 1970s. As with some of the Japanese actors who appear and reappear throughout the book, such as Tokugawa-vassal-turned-international-tea-expert Tada Motokichi, the Hellyers are a steady presence in the text, adding personal depth and narrative colour to the story. Hellyer is careful not to indulge in this family history, nor to position it centre stage: no Twankey-esque attention-seeking for him. But I would actually have loved to read more about the Hellyers—about what Robert takes to be the long-term impact of their profession on his perspectives as a historian. What were the family stories of tea, and of Japan, which brewed in Hellyer’s cup as a teenager and young man? I understand why Hellyer did not write more about these aspects in his learned, wide-ranging history of an understudied chapter in Japan-US relations—but perhaps this can one day be the topic for another essay or book.
1 The Story of Pantomime, in: Victoria and Albert Museum, https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-story-of-pantomime (15.07.2023).
2 See, for example, Robert Hellyer, The West, the East, and the insular middle: trading systems, demand, and labour in the integration of the Pacific, 1750-1875, in: Journal of Global History 8,3 (2013), pp. 391–413; and his co-edited volume, with Harald Fuess, The Meiji Restoration. Japan as a Global Nation, Cambridge 2020.