Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Hong Kong, 20 years later

When Hong Kong was under British rule from 1841 to 1997, it was THE major hub to purchase products (including tea) from China. For far too long, China didn't conduct much direct trade with the rest of the world, but let the merchants of Hong Kong play this crucial role. The city grew particularly rich when it was possible to purchase cheap goods on the poor Mainland and then sell them with a high mark-ups in international markets.
Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware
The economic rise of China in the 1980s (thanks to Deng Xiao Ping's liberalization) was an opportunity for Hong Kong at first. China became the factory of the world and Hong Kong played a vital role in the growing exchanges between China and the rest of the world. But China's economy grew so big that it slowly learned to make business directly and skip the Hong Kong middlemen. This trend was already obvious in 1997 when China regained sovereignty over the British enclave. 

Nowadays, Hong Kong's middleman model is further challenged by the fact that Mainland China is no longer a poor country. Many factories in Guangzhou (around Hong Kong) are closing because the wages are too high. (New factories are opening in Vietnam and Indonesia instead).

The same is true for tea. It has become increasingly difficult to find low price and high quality tea in Mainland. Affluent Chinese customers in Shanghai or Beijing are now willing to pay (much) more for top quality tea than Hong Kong, Taiwanese or Western consumers.

I don't have figures for tea, but imported wine is probably a good indicator for China's appetite for luxury beverages. This chart shows that wine imports have really taken off in the last decade (multiplied by 40 between 2005 and 2015)!

History helps to explain why Hong Kong's tea shops have been loosing their relevance. In the 1990s, Taiwan was a major consumer of puerh. And when Hong Kong reverted back to China in 1997, Taiwanese buyers purchased most of the inventory of old raw puerh that were stored in Hong Kong.

After 1997, when China stopped the monopoly of the CNNP on the sale of tea, Taiwanese merchants were among the first to go to Yunnan to purchase puerh directly (and skip Hong Kong).

This is how Taiwan was able to access to most of the best old and young puerh until roughly 2006, when China started to better structure its own tea market and when its consumers started to purchase top quality teas.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to Hong Kong for a 1 day trip. Last time I was there, it was 1996! The old red buses are probably what reminds me most of the past British flair of this city. Having some time to spare in the city, I met Christopher, a Hong Kong tea fan and reader of my blog. We started with a visit at the Tea Ware Museum. Unfortunately, most of the old teapot collection wasn't accessible due to renovations.
After a delicious lunch in a traditional market, Christopher took me to visit several tea shops. Here is what happened:
- one of the shops looked nice and new from the outside, but once I had closed the door I recognized the particular smell that was overwhelming: mold! It's the nasty smell you get in a closet when it's too humid and the clothes start to have mold! The whole store had this terrible smell. We left quickly!
- There was a shop where the owners were eating, petting their dog, reading their phone... not paying any attention to us. A look on the stickers on the teapots indicated that things were not cheap here. We left.
- I recognized a tea brand that I purchased over 10 years ago in Taiwan. It was a very heavily roasted (nice but fake) WuYi tea. The shop was neat, the packaging cute and traditional but there was no place to try tea and no cup of tea was offered. It also wasn't possible to purchase samples. We left.
- In another shop, we noticed that the employees were busy packaging shu puerh cakes. We started a conversation with the owner. I had brought a bag with some of my 1997 raw Menghai 7542 cake. It's the tea I was brewing in a thermos during this trip. Christopher likes this tea (even brewed in a thermos for hours!) and so we asked if the shop has something similar. He produced a red label puerh from 1997 priced above 500 USD. He didn't seem very interested in comparing it to my 7542, though. And I didn't see any place in this shop where we could have brewed these 2 teas. Since 7542 is THE reference for that era, I guess he figured his tea wouldn't be better. We left.
For our last stop, we entered this truly old and untidy tea shop. It looks more like an archeological site than a shop!
Tongs of puerh are stacked everywhere in a glorious mess! But at least it's not smelling bad. Actually, because it's winter and cold, the smell of tea isn't as intense as one would assume from such a big quantity of tea.
And this owner agreed to compare my 1997 Menghai 7542 with his own aged puerh! In the picture above, you can see how he used gaiwans for the comparison. He's an old style tea seller, very pushy, constantly talking and trying to brainwash you. His tea wasn't too bad and the storage was dry. However, side by side it lacked the thickness and smoothness of my 7542. We didn't purchase any tea, but thanked him for this brewing. We also noticed that he has stacks of new wrappers ready to wrap any cake you wish! That's another reminder of how useless wrappers are to determine the tea you're drinking...
This actual experience in Hong Kong's tea shops highlights the difficult transition of Hong Kong's traditional middleman model. Access to China isn't a sufficient selling point anymore. Top quality tea is very hard to find in a city that was used to high markups and big volumes. Luckily, I didn't loose too much time and could purchase some very good French cheeses in a nearby gourmet shop! And a little later, I spent a wonderful hour exploring the Hong Kong Maritime museum:
Tea chest with 2 pewter caddies in the Maritime Museum
Conclusion: the traditional tea businesses of Hong Kong need to adapt to new circumstances to survive. Here are some things I provide that I didn't find in these old Hong Kong tea shops:
- access to small samples of great teas that let you try a cake of puerh or an Oolong before committing to a big purchase. Going through different teas from different origins is a great way to educate your palate.
- a detailed brewing guide to learn about all details that will affect the taste of your cup of tea.
- creativity in the tea preparation process with the use of Chabu that give a mood, a meaning to each tea session.
- an Internet presence with worldwide delivery and a section with lowered prices that isn't a fast-changing commercial gimmick.


Teaperson said...

I think you provide some other useful services to the wider tea community. We have access to high quality teas in English! Your site also serves as a very useful educational resource. I feel bad for the vendors in Hong Kong as the ground has shifted underneath them. But if I had ventured into the shops above I would have been sold some pretty nasty tea for what I would have considered an "authentic" tea buying experience. This is why your knowledge and generosity is a huge asset and only keeps me coming back to maintain my chemical love affair with green leaves that have been loved by the humans that tend them.

Drinking fresh oolong that makes me feel like I am where your photos are taken from,


TeaMasters said...

Thank you for your kind comment, James.

The tea sold in Hong Kong isn't necessarily nasty! Maybe I've expressed myself too harshly. It's just that 20 years ago, there was monopoly for tea in China (the CNNP) and Hong Kong was almost the only place where one could purchase authentic Chinese tea and prices were quite low. The current situation has drastically changed. Prices there are not a bargain anymore and quality varies like everywhere else. It's indeed sad for Hong Kong, but it's good for the rest of the world and for Chinese farmers.