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For All the Tea in China

Simon Wong 

Simon Wong of Kampery Group is keeping tradition alive

 
That Simon Wong is a bit of a traditionalist at heart is revealed when you first enter the boardroom at his Kampery Group's trading headquarters in Kowloon.

The walls that surround the main meeting table are adorned with antiques and memorabilia, from the ancient camera in one corner, to the series of framed, sepia-tinged shots of yesteryear stacked in another.

And it's a fitting setting as Mr Wong wastes no time in explaining that the business he's here to talk about – the tea business – owes a lot to its traditions in Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.

Mr Wong addressed the inaugural HKTDC Hong Kong International Tea Fair, 13-15 August, in his role as Chairman of the Association of Coffee and Tea of Hong Kong, a group he started a year ago after a lifetime in the tea trade.

"I started when I was born,'' he explains. "My family started in the tea trade 80 years ago. But up until last year, there was no organisation that was representative of this industry – so I decided to start one. I wanted to tell people we need our traditions but we need to look forward, too.

"In many ways, China has opened the door for expanding the tea business in Hong Kong. And while the tea market in Hong Kong is very stable, the opportunity for growth on the mainland is very large. This is something we all have to look at.''

Bottomless Cups

 MingCha Tea House holds regular tastings in Quarry Bay
 MingCha Tea House holds regular tastings in its Quarry Bay shop (photo: MingCha Limited)
Over the past 12 months, Mr Wong has been charting the flow of tea both in and out of Hong Kong – from the markets of China, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, Indonesia – and says it now amounts to some 8,300 metric tonnes per year. About 2,500 tonnes of that tea travels through the city, he says.

"That, for me, says that the quantity left here – around 5,800 tonnes – amounts to about 900 million cups of milk tea. That's how much we love our tea,'' he laughs.

Mr Wong says he supports the notion that Hong Kong can be a hub in the international tea trade.

"This idea is a strong one,'' he says. "Because of our position in Asia and in regards to China, we can distribute the tea not only into the mainland, but into Japan, Korea – all these countries.

"We are also in a position here to educate, to explore such avenues as tea tourism. Everyone who comes here wants to taste a cup of tea, Hong Kong style, and even international fast-food outlets have started serving them in this way – milky, strong, aromatic.''

Mr Wong believes the fact that this "Hong Kong-style'' tea has made inroads into the mainland shows that a little innovative thinking can reinvigorate a traditional market.  "People are open to new ideas,'' he says. "Sometimes you just have to take a chance.''

Tea with a Twist

Vivian Mak 
MingCha founder Vivian
Mak's artistic training
gives tea-drinking a sophisticated edge
(photo: MingCha Limited)
 
Taking traditional methods and giving them a modern twist is what has made a success of Vivian Mak's MingCha brand.  Ms Mak fell into the tea trade almost by accident, but within two years of setting up shop in 2000, bags of MingCha were being handed out as part of gift packs given to guests at the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood.

Ms Mak originally studied to be an artist but after building a business consultancy firm with her then-husband, one of their first clients by chance was a young man who wanted some advice on how to market tea sets.

"We started researching, and the more we evaluated the history of tea, we actually found that we liked our Chinese culture very much,'' she explains in her shop in Hong Kong's Quarry Bay area.

"We were drawn to exploring different aspects, and tea just seemed to be something we kept getting drawn back to. It is something we all drink every day. But we found no one really cared, or that it had become such a daily thing, that the history was forgotten. So we looked at taking another angle.''

Ms Mak looked specifically at Chinese tea – and how to make the ancient product somehow appear "different.''

"Usually tea merchants come from generations and generations, which is great, but we were nothing like that,'' she says. "We came in from a different approach – looking at how to do things differently. But like them, we have a passion for tea, for its history and its place in our culture.

 


Tea by the Numbers

 
 

Tea traders love to tell you that more than three billion cups of the stuff – in all its various guises – are consumed globally each day.  And Hong Kong plays a major role in making sure the world's collective thirst is quenched. 

Last year, the city imported HK$381 million worth of tea and tea products – a rise over 12 months of 10 per cent – while HK$116 million worth of tea and tea products left the city in 2008, an increase of 31 per cent. 

Hong Kong also boasts the highest per-capita tea consumption in Asia and ranks ninth in the world on the same scale. 

Globally, about 50 per cent of the tea we drink is produced in either China or India. 

Despite the global economic downturn, the Chinese tea industry has been bullish this year, with exports rising 4.5 per cent year-on-year in the first four months. Steady growth is predicted over the next 12 months. 

According to mainland state-run media, China exported 297,000 tonnes of tea valued at US$682 million last year, accounting for a fifth of the total international tea trade. India, meanwhile, chimed in with 196,000 tonnes. 

The mainland's tea trade employs about 80 million people, and the country's exports reach more than 120 countries – among them Pakistan, which, with an intake of around 170 million kilogrammes of tea per year, is the world's largest tea consumer.

 

 
"Everything in the beginning was hard, but we had studied the market. I don't want to be boastful, but we had done our homework. We had looked at price, the types of tea available and the packaging and presentation. We gave something that looked very different, very modern.''

Multimillion Dollar Turnover

While keeping her business manageable – "very much in the family,'' she says – Ms Mak is now able to turn over around HK$5 million per year. Not a massive fortune, but almost exactly what she initially aimed for.

She says the secret is an attention to detail, again made manageable because she remains very much "hands-on'' in her approach.

"Traveling through China, we found the farmers there were very traditional when it came to making tea. And they are very proud of what they grow,'' says Ms Mak. "This was good for us because we knew when we started we didn't just want to build a brand, we wanted to build a community of people who appreciate tea.

"If the people don't work very hard to keep the quality – from the soil, to the environment, to the production to the packaging – our business could never be sustained. We are not a major player, but we are doing something we believe in.''

MingCha now produces tea under six varieties – Teguanyin, Phoenix, White Teas, Gungfu Red, Wuyi Teas and Puers – and holds regular tastings and tea education sessions in the Quarry Bay shop.

"Today, the market is very sophisticated,'' she says. "People ask me why do we stick to Chinese tea and I tell them, ‘well, this is the origin. This is where tea comes from.'

"In some markets, people seem scared of Chinese tea because of the ceremonies they attach to it. So I say to them, ‘if you eat rice, do you need to be an expert? No, you just enjoy it.' And sometimes we need to tell people it's the same thing when it comes to Chinese tea – just enjoy it.''

Related links
Kampery Group
MingCha

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