In Search of that Perfect Chest

With a pop-up tea shop in full swing once a month, we decided that we might try some tea chests as tables.

Not an easy thing to do these days.

Tea no longer comes in chests. It comes in paper sacks, vacuum bags, cardboard boxes, plastic – all sorts of ways.

I had seen some chests at a vintage and collectibles store whilst picking up something else – Lady Devotea had spotted what is now our blending table on their Facebook page and I had been dispatched to collect it.

But when I returned to have another look at the chests, some film production company had bought them.

They’ll probably turn up in that feature film that is being made here right now, curiously starring Robert Pattinson . I say ‘curiously starring’ because Guy Pearce is in it, and that makes the idea that Pattinson will be even noticeable quite laughable. Of course, the media is in an R-Patz watch frenzy, and so we get reports of this young man DRINKING AT BARS and TAKING TAXIS and BUYING CHIPS and all sorts of other warped Hollywood stuff.

It was reported that he’d nearly been arrested for riding a bicycle without a helmet, but considering what happened to the last American who famously rode a bike here – a Mr Armstrong – R-Patz was less steroidal and wasn’t paid a squillion dollars to come here and do that.

God, where was I ?

Yes, Chests.


I got a call from the vintage store saying they had five more in. They sent us photos and they put three on hold, and we went and bought them.


So, here’s the first one. It’s got “Assam” on it, which is lovely.

It’s the side panel that is really historic, though. “Product of British India”

It’s not that long ago that The British Raj was hundreds of years old and going strong, as the jewel in the crown; an outpost of the Empire on which the sun would never set.

So, this is a piece of tea history and definitely an  impressive tea shop table; maybe with a coat of lacquer.
Even the map shows India as it was pre-partition, including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries that did not exist when this tea was packed.

After just a generation or two, people forget these things. And I do love a nice Assam.


Next up, one of the chests seems to have a light bulb installed in it, and a cable hanging out.

“Oh, how sweet “ I thought in my paternalistic Western way. “Some clever, dirt poor native of some benighted third world country has made some sort of lamp out of a tea chest, probably because they get paid half a cup of rice a day to work twelve hours and they managed to find this on a tip, and hooked it onto one of those dodgy wiring setups you see throughout Asia.”

Halfway through commending this stereotypical and mythical character in my head, I notice the plug.


It’s an Australian plug.

What am I to think? “Probably a funky, retro, shelf display in an arty shop”. That’s it.

But wait, isn’t that plug at least 50 years old?

Quickly turning the chest over, we find “Product of Indonesia”. The “PT” (which I think is a diminutive for ‘company’ of some sort) and ‘PERKEBUNANXIII’.

“Perkebun” means estate and the related “perkebunan” means plantation. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the XIII on the end means 13 in Roman numerals. So maybe it’s ‘Plantation 13″


Moving on for a moment, we see another Indonesian tea chest, with “SPEBO” as the biggest word (in terms of letter size) and  “PTPERKEBUNANXII” . So, it’s plantation 13. But what’s the tea?

Is the ‘SPEBO’ the tea? Maybe. It does not seem to be an Indonesian word. I’ve been told once before that it is an acronym for “Speedy Boat” to indicate fast transhipment, but that could just be someone’s guess.

Incidentally, the two chests we didn’t take were another Indian and another Indonesian.

It might surprise some readers to learn how many Indonesian tea chests are kicking around Australia. But again, go back a few generations and we get to a time when Indonesia was the fourth largest tea producer in the world.

Hard to believe now, isn’t it?

In fact, much of Australia’s tea used to come from Indonesia.

It makes sense. It’s right on our doorstep. The teas that grow there best are Camellia Assamica and Australians love a nice strong brew.

It took hundreds of years for the Dutch East Indies company to build up that industry, firstly in competition with the British but by the 1900s, in collaboration.

When Japan entered World War Two, it did so by attacking the USA – its main source of oil. As Indonesia was one of the richest sources of oil about at the time, Japan decided to annex it.

Whilst under Japanese control, Indonesian agriculture changed for ever. Atrocity after atrocity was committed. tea and coffee plantations were ripped out at gunpoint and rice planted, amongst other bright ideas. Outside of the many thousands of farmers murdered,  four million people starved to death as food output plummeted.

So, when I look at these tea chests, they hold a lot of history. Sadly, no tea anymore, but a lot of ghosts.

The history of tea is not always edifying; not always heroic, and not always fair.

But we should remember it.

Each time I have a cuppa, I try to remember a bit of what went before.

We live in a  world where a third of Western schoolchildren cannot identify the potato as the source vegetable for chips (or fries, if you speak American), and where all sort of products just appear as if by magic, on supermarket shelves; all clean and tidy and innocent looking.

Let’s make sure we all know some of this stuff. Already, it’s swamped on the Internet by stories of how green tea will help you live to 996 and grow a lush head of hair.

On your head, of course. Not on your chest.




7 thoughts on “In Search of that Perfect Chest

  1. Those are beautiful chests that you and the lady picked up. It is true that there is so much history in something so innocent and even more surprising is that bit of history took place somewhat recently as history goes. So many generations won’t even know what “British India” was. It is sad but many can’t even point out the state they live in on a map. I actually had a person argue with me and say the state of Maine isn’t a really place and that I had to have been making it up. Sad indeed.

  2. Love the chests. My first thought was, how do you know they’re really old and not recently aged in a factory in China? The light bulb seemed to be an indicator until you said it was at least 50 years old. Oh well, they’re nice either way. No idea what SPEBO means. I’ve tried to find the answer, no luck yet. Looks like you did some good detective work on the other words though.

  3. Brilliant. I think you should offer yourself to South Australian schools – a half hour presentation with a few tea chests would give them more history and geography than anything on any official curriculum. (By the way, I worked out the technical solution to reading the blog was to sign up to Tea Trade site: a clever ruse to get more subscribers, I guess – but my MacPro still won’t pick up the RSS feed from this 🙁 )

  4. @fancyacuppa – We’re delighted you registered but I don’t know what “technical solution” you’re referring to. You don’t have to be a member to comment on Robert’s blog. Although, as I said no complaints from us about your registration. Au contraire.
    PS: Am a touch concerned about your curriculum…

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