Club meeting — Chinese Tea

On August 25, our Club conducted our regular meeting on Zoom, due to tropical storm Ma-On. The Zoom meeting was well attended. Our speaker of the day was Miss Tsai-yueh Chen (陳采⽉⼩姐), who was introduced to us by Rotarian Fei.

Originally from Taiwan, Miss Chen is engaged in cultural arts education, focusing on promotion of tea culture and lifestyle. She lectured in many higher education institutions in Hong Kong and established a non-profit organization, 《茶味⼩集》, using tea as a central theme to offer lifestyle programs, lectures, cultural exchange, and an education platform
for those who want to learn how to appreciate tea. You can find more information about《茶味⼩集》here. Miss Chen began by asking club members a few questions. Do you appreciate tea drinking? Do you demand certain qualities in your tea selections? How often do you encounter tea in your daily lives? Do you invest in teas? By asking simple questions, Miss Chen demonstrated the large scope of tea as a speaking topic. In this talk, Miss Chen focused on the origins of tea in Hong Kong 《香江茶「道」》. The tea trade is driven by the market economy, labor needs and is historically tied to colonialism. Hong Kong’s position as a key tea trading hub can be traced through its history. China appeared on the world stage in 1793. Great Britain and other European nations, desiring silk, tea and porcelain, wanted to trade with Imperial China. Wanting nothing in exchange, the Qianlong Court nevertheless permitted trade of these goods through 13 foreign ‘co-hongs’ 「公⾏」「⼗三⾏」 (or 13 Merchants Guilds ) to be established in the port of Canton. These state-designated merchants are also called compradors or 「買辦」. The tea trade flourished and a trade imbalance heavily in favor of China quickly followed. Tea stalls called 「⼀ 厘館」were established in Guangzhou around the port area and the wet markets to serve manual laborers. These are also referred to as 「⼆厘館」in reference to the price of the set meal including tea that customers can purchase like today’s “fast food”. In the Guangxu period, 「茶居」or small tea houses (like today’s Starbucks) were popular in Guangzhou which served to promote Lingnan culture and lifestyle. The better-run tea houses upgraded to「茶樓」, multi-story restaurants. These large restaurants were popular towards the late Qing/early Republican period. The first Opium War was fought as the trade imbalance reversed to favor Great Britain. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking ended the war and established four additional trade ports including Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningpo and
Shanghai. The Treaty also ceded Hong Kong to the British Crown. This was the beginning of the tea trade in Hong Kong.

Britain saw the deep sea port of Hong Kong as critical to free trade in the area. Hong Kong’s population originally relied on fishing, pearl farming and salt production for income, but the coastal area eventually became an important free port involved in trade with the British Empire. After the 1911 Chinese Revolution, Hong Kong became a political refuge for many Chinese exiles. Immigration powered the economic rise of Hong Kong. In this time, Hakka immigrants brought tea farming to Hong Kong. The first teahouse in Hong Kong was established in the end of the 19th century. Tea drinking and Lingnan culture also transferred from Canton to Hong Kong. Miss Chen characterized the 20th century tea trade in Hong Kong as big business or「⼤茶飯」. Despite political instability in China, it was still the largest tea exporter in the world and Hong Kong was positioned as the agent of all the trading activity. The 2nd World War drove even more Chinese exiles to Hong Kong which supported its industries. By 1997, when Hong Kong was due to handover back to China, a wave of immigration impacted the tea trade. Many Hong Kong tea merchants, wanting to move abroad, divested large volumes of tea stock. According to Miss Chen, this was when Taiwan (one of the 4 Asian Tigers at the time) became a major player in the tea trade. A large volume of stock, especially Pu’er, went to Taiwan buyers. In the years that followed, Taiwan promoted tea arts and culture that heavily influence today’s tea drinking culture (especially the Gongfu tea ceremony). Taiwan also developed the vintage tea market which gave rise to today’s tea investment market. In particular
Mr. Deng Shihai 鄧時海 from Taiwan became an important figure in the trade and is considered the King of Pu’er. Miss Chen’s 40-minutes talk was too brief for the topic. To learn more, Miss Chen recommended a book to our club members: Tea War A History of Capitalism in China and India.

Immediate Past President Sam contributed to the reporting above.