The death of a tea fair

I’ve been going to the Hong Kong International Tea Fair for maybe six years in running now, and every single year, it is getting smaller and sadder. The fair is part of the larger Hong Kong Food Expo, where mostly food vendors show up in force to sell people stuff – a lot of food producers, mostly processed food of one type or another, but also foreign firms, come here to set up stalls and sell anything from prosciutto to instant noodles. Locals, many private individuals (as opposed to businesses) flock to the expo to buy food – literally boxes of noodles, sauces, etc. It’s crowded and it’s one of the biggest fairs of the year (the other probably being the book fair and the wine fair).

The tea fair used to take up an entire floor of the food expo. This year it takes up less than half a floor. Scenes like this are quite common:

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What’s going on?

Well, first of all, from friends who do exhibits there every year, they say that the price of a stall is simply too high. Depending on the size, it could cost you a couple thousand dollars (USD) or more to buy a place, and the place you get may not necessarily be in a very good area. Obviously, to reap the benefits, you’d have to make some business contacts and maybe also sell some tea on the side. This is where it seems the problem is. For a local vendor, this is mostly a chance to showcase their stuff and to get their name out. Except, for many local stores, they already have a storefront – people who would go to the tea fair tend to be the same people who would roam the stores anyway, and since Hong Kong is not huge, most people know most of the stores. So, the tea fair ends up being a chance to simply meet your regulars. You can do that in your own shop, and save a few thousand dollars.

For people coming from overseas, there’s obviously more at stake – not only are you paying for the stall, you’re also paying hotel, airfare, etc. Some, it seems, obviously think it’s worth it to come every year. Jukro, from Korea, for example, have always been here. I always buy something from them, partly because it’s the only time I get to do so. But tellingly, I didn’t see them this year.

Others are government sponsored, so someone else is footing the bill. There are various provincial governments in China that send delegations. The Japanese government is generous in sending tea suppliers here to promote their tea, especially some organization from Kyushu tend to have a big presence here. This year was no different, and at least 4-5 manufacturers came, featuring teas from Kagoshima and Miyazaki. They also setup a nice tearoom to showcase their culture, not just the leaves

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The problem is that it’s really not clear what this tea fair is for. After all, it only runs for three days, and for two of those days, it’s open only to people in the industry – regular visitors for the food expo (which is already drawing big crowds) aren’t allowed into the tea fair. I never quite understood why – I suppose the idea is to make it conducive to people discussing business, but as far as I can see, there isn’t a lot of that going on – most of the people visiting are people like me, who get in through some vague claims of professional status – I am, after all, researching tea culture – and who are then going around essentially as someone who is a regular consumer. Only on the last day are the regular shoppers allowed in. This is the day when a lot of random business gets done by the vendors – selling the samples they brought, getting their name out to regular consumers who are not going to have heard of them before, so on, so forth (it also is the only day of the tea fair that falls on a weekend).

When you think about it though – who are these tea professionals, exactly? Who in Hong Kong is going to be prowling the tea fair looking for new suppliers? There are plenty of tea fairs in China – just in nearby Guangzhou and Shenzhen there are multiple tea fairs every year, so people in those areas really don’t need to come here. Locals – who exactly are these professionals? There are no tea shops to speak of that will look for special suppliers. Everything from China can be bought through Taobao, and is regularly done so. The ones that aren’t bought through Taobao are purchased either in person during trips, or at shops in Hong Kong. In other words, locals really don’t have a lot of demand. Then there are the misguided firms that come here for no good reason – like the first picture, if you are selling farm equipment in Hong Kong, you’re really in the wrong city.

If you run a big restaurant or hotels, chances are you already have suppliers. The suppliers, who are the importers, could of course go to the tea fair to discover new teas, but are there really enough of these in Hong Kong to make it worthwhile for these people to come here? Judging by what I saw, not really.

Nor is it really that useful as a branding/outreach sort of venue. Because it is only open to the public on one day, that day tends to be crowded. It’s also not very fun when it’s crowded, because tasting becomes difficult. This is not for want of trying – a few years ago I remember there were big stalls from Dayi, Xiaguan, a few tieguanyin producers, etc. Those are pretty much all gone – I didn’t see anything like that this year. Even the stall for the Hong Kong milk tea  company that holds a competition every year has shrunk considerably. It also doesn’t help that the location is really tucked away into a corner of the exhibition center – it’s not going to attract crowds. So, in that sense, it’s not doing a good job attracting regular customers either who might move the needle for firms to decide to exhibit here.

So what we see is the slow but obvious death of the Hong Kong tea fair – which is sad, because it’s nice to see some interesting vendors selling weird stuff. I remember fondly when a couple of years ago an Okinawa producer came here with some really nice black tea. I bought a little bit for fun, but they have never been seen since. Maybe if the trade council, which runs the fair, moves it to a dedicated day, with lower rates for exhibitors, we can revive this – after all, Hong Kong is quite convenient for people from other places to visit, but it’s also an expensive city, so it has to be worthwhile for them to do so. The current format for the tea fair simply isn’t good enough, and with competition from mainland, if they don’t do something soon, I predict that in a couple years we’re going to see this fair fold altogether. That will be too bad.

I was tagged

So Michael J. Coffey tagged me to answer these “confessions of a tea blogger.” Here goes

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I don’t think anyone is actually “introduced” to tea. You just drink it as a matter of course, because it’s everywhere, whether it’s the diluted tea water you get at local crap restaurants or the stuff you get when you go out for dim sum, you encounter tea every single day, in all shapes and sizes. So tea, as it were, was always a part of my life. My grandfather was never far from his tea – in fact, he almost never drinks plain water. So some of my earliest memories are people just sipping their cups when they come to visit, etc.

As for falling in love with it, I suppose it took place during college, when I bought a little bit of mingqian Longjing, wondering why this particular Longjing cost 5x the regular stuff. Well, turns out it was indeed a lot better than the regular stuff, and it’s been a one way street since.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

This is when you know the questions were written by someone who drinks mostly Western style tea, if we can call it that. Blends? I don’t know, probably some Lipton tea they use in restaurants here in Hong Kong. What else? I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the answer for pretty much everyone out there.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

January 28, 2006. That makes this blog almost 8 years old. It started out as, really, just a journal for myself to record what I drank and what I thought about the tea, on that most horrible (and now dead) of platforms, Xanga. Back then I think there were only three blogs on tea that I know of – Teamasters, which is still in the same business; Chadao, which has been dormant for a long time, and The Mandarin’s Tea, which has morphed a bit. There was also the Livejournal Puerh community, which has died a long time ago (and LJ is not far behind). Things were a lot simpler back then.

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

Rewarding: meeting people, sometimes in real life, who I otherwise wouldn’t have met, because I write this blog and they read it and we get in touch somehow. Discouraging: when obvious misinformation is spread and sometimes, despite my feeble attempts, it persists. The tea world is a much better place without all the myths and sales pitches.

5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

Darker oolongs or puerhs, depending on the day.

6) Favourite tea latte to indulge in?

Huh? No thanks.

7) Favourite treat to pair with your tea?

Usually nothing.

8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?

I haven’t been to India yet, and would love to go see some tea plantations there. It’s a totally different mode of operation.

9) Any tea time rituals you have that you’d like to share?

Don’t complicate things when they are not necessary.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Afternoon, usually. People act surprised when I tell them I only have one tea a day normally. I try not to overdose.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

More people caring about it and less marketing-speak, but there’s no chance of the latter, I’m afraid.

– Whom do you tag?

I think Dr. Hobbes is untagged until now.

Emails sent

Last posting about the curated samples #1 in a while – I just sent out emails to everyone. You should’ve gotten an email either for 1) getting a sample, 2) not getting a sample, or 3) being on the wait list. If you didn’t hear from me at all and the email didn’t get spammed, then I probably mistyped your email address and you should contact me at mail@marshaln.com

I’ll probably post my own notes about the teas in a few weeks, but I don’t want my voice to colour what others might think of them, so I’ll wait until at least most people have gotten a chance to try them. In the meantime, the blog will be back to the regularly scheduled programming starting tomorrow.

Packing and shipping

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One of the most painful things about moving is packing up everything.  What you see here, alas, is only a fraction of what I have.  Teaware, as we all know, are fragile, breakable things.  Pots, cups, dishes, kettles, everything is breakable, and everything needs a lot of wrapping.  I find that a lot of it is really difficult to do right, and sometimes people who pack and then ship these things don’t do it properly, resulting in breakage.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to pack a teapot with the lid on the pot itself and just wrap the whole thing with bubble wrap.  That’s dangerous.  The lid, while it sits on the pot, can easily be rattled in shipment and comes loose or, worse, get damaged, as happened to one of my pots.  One of the pots I bought recently was shipped to me with only a little tape holding the lid onto the body.  Of course, when I opened the box, the lid was loose.  I was really lucky it wasn’t in pieces.

There’s also the issue of cushioning.  Ideally, you want space between all pieces of stuff — some sort of buffer in between each and every piece, so they never touch during shipment and will never come into contact with hard surface.  They also need to be cushioned against impacts along the walls of the box, so there needs to be space there too.  Boxes that are too small are disasters waiting to happen.

Shipping metal is no less difficult.  While tetsubins are pretty hardy and can take a lot of abuse, things like tin, pewter, copper, or silver are much more fragile and will dent or scratch easily.  With these, you have to be extra sure that the cushioning is enough to support all kinds of blows to the box — especially since some of these are heavy and if they are allowed to shift in the box, the momentum will create a greater force to dent what’s next to it.  I’d suggest shipping them singly, if possible, or if one must ship them together with something else, do so in a way that minimizes the chances of breakage with the way you place different items, etc.

Teas are easier to deal with, especially if they’re of the oolong variety and come in bags.  That’s almost a no brainer, so long as the box itself is relatively air tight and (hopefully) won’t be exposed to high temperature or sunlight.  Puerh cakes are a bit of a pain, but generally speaking when I ship these things I almost expect damage — it’s just part of the cost of shipping them.  Broken edges, roughed up wrappers, and missing teadust are par for the course.  If they’re not flooded I’m happy.

What’s really difficult is deciding to get rid of some pieces.  I have a lot of teaware that I think I should probably cull from my collection, either because I no longer use them at all, or in many cases, never really used them in the first place.  In this picture alone I see three pieces that I never use and I should probably get rid of, but I have a hard time bringing myself to do it.  On one level, I’m a hoarder at heart, so I want to hold onto them.  I also feel, somehow, that selling these things is not quite right.  I sometimes gift items away, but you can only gift so many things, and not a lot of people take tea related gifts, in any case.  Sometimes they’re also pieces that I don’t deem gift-worthy — if I’m not going to use it, why should I inflict it on someone else?  Then there are the tuition pieces.  At some point I’m going to take pictures of all of them and then show them here, so that others can learn from my tuition mistakes, but those pieces I’m sort of stuck with forever, and all I really need to the resolve to throw them in the trash.  All in all, the problem of too much teaware is really a dilemma that has no good resolution.

A tea meeting in New England?

I know there are plenty of tea drinkers in New England, more specifically in the greater Boston/Massachusetts region.  Is there any interest, anywhere, for a meeting of some sort?  I have been thinking that perhaps that would be a useful and interesting thing to do, if we can find the time and, more importantly, space for such a meeting.  Is there any interest?

Learning old lessons

This is, according to my new blog dashboard, the 1000th post on this blog.  I’m slowly going through the process of re-titling all my posts and retagging everything, because when I exported all the information from Xanga, those two things were lost in the process.  Xanga’s tagging system was particularly idiotic, so it is a nice change to have a much more sophisticated way of dealing with old posts.  I’m only back to early 2008, when I was living in the metropolis of Gambier, Ohio, and in the process of reading through old posts, I am relearning old lessons.  For example, I actually did a video on how to wrap a puerh cake, which some of you may find useful.  There were old experiments I ran with different kinds of water, which echoes a recent post on the relatively new blog Listening to Leaves.  I am also reminded of how my young puerh pot used to look like, and old lessons playing with toys that I don’t own.  Most importantly, memories of meetings I’ve had with friends, and teas on important occasions.

I am hoping that I’ll get this whole re-tagging business done before long, so it’ll be easier to refer to older things, which are probably not too useful for anyone else, but reading them again reminds me of things I learned over time.  Keeping a blog has helped me with organizing my own thoughts about tea, and of course, preserving a record of it.  Some people (Hobbes, for example) keep a physical record of it too.  Either way, I think it is probably the best tea-related decision I’ve ever taken.  If you don’t keep a record of your tea drinking, you should.  It will make you a better tea drinker.

Welcome

Welcome, all, to my blog’s new home.  Please say hi, and I hope you find this a more pleasant experience to deal with than the old site.  I think everything transferred here without too much of a hitch.  Some things, such as titles for posts, will need to be fixed, and so will categories/tags as well as other sundry minor issues that shouldn’t interfere with your reading experience in any significant way.

There has been one change though — my feed will no longer give you the full post, but only a snippet.  This is mostly to deter feed thieves who, in the past, have stolen my posts wholesale and published them elsewhere.

If you have any suggestions for how the site looks (or, for that matter, any problems with it, technical or otherwise), do let me know.

Growing culture

I didn’t realize that it’s possible to grow mold in heavily chlorinated water, which is what I get from the tap.  I added some water to two glasses and put them in my storage closet for my puerh.  I left them there for a few weeks, figuring there’s no reason to bother them since they had not evaporated.  I went back a few days ago to check on my tea, and I saw a thin film of white and black mold on the water.  Yum.

The tea, however, is fine — no evidence of mold outbreak.  Not sure what to make of it, really, but this is a first.