For Brazilians in the 19th century, oriental aesthetics – dragon-emblazoned clothing, porcelain, sun parasols – were signs of refinement and high social standing. Beverage choice, too, was important: before coffee, Brazil had a taste for tea. In 1812, a few hundred Chinese peasants became the first immigrants from their country when they were sent from Macau. Tasked by advisors close to King Dom João VI, their mission was to cultivate tea in Rio de Janeiro’s botanic gardens, with rulers hoping to begin exports to Europe.
The initiative flopped. It was “all but extinguished by the abolition of slavery,” the tea and coffee trade specialist William H. Ukers said in 1935. It was too expensive for European importers, who had ready access to cheap tea from Asia. Instead, it was coffee that kept Brazil’s export-heavy economy afloat, forming important U.S.-Brazil relations. As centuries passed, coffee served to bring the U.S. and Brazil ever closer, with Brazil’s northern cousin exerting increasing influence over the country’s foreign policy.