Globe

China: Big country with enormous thirst for quality

February 10, 2013

By NORIKO AKIYAMA/ Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

The air of Beijing's Maliandao Street is thick with the smell of tea and the enticements of eager salespeople. This is the home of Tea City, a building that houses around 300 tea wholesalers.

Jin Jun Mei is a popular black tea grown in the Wuyi Mountains, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site located in Fujian province. Jin Jun Mei is a mix of brown and gold colors with a rich honey-like smell that leaves a delicious aftertaste.

When he first started selling Jin Jun Mei in 2006, store owner Chang Caiyun says it cost 800 to 1000 yuan (11,700 to 14,600 yen or $130 to $160) for 500 grams. By the end of 2012, the price had shot up to 6,000 yuan.

“It still sells despite the soaring cost," Chang says. "It’s a popular gift for Communist Party bigwigs. Retailers have increased the price two or three times, and there is a lot fake stuff out there, too.”

One famous chain store in central Beijing was even selling the tea for more than 4,500 yuan for a mere 200 grams.

China is No. 1 when it comes to tea production and consumption. The latter, in particular, grew more than two-and-a-half times in the past 10 years. Over half of this is green tea, with oolong and black tea next on the list. China is believed to be home to more than 1,000 different kinds of tea.

According to Wang Qing, deputy chairman of the China Tea Marketing Association, China has around 400 million tea drinkers today, up from 100 million around 30 years ago. This represents only one-third of China’s population of 1.3 billion, though, so the market still has huge potential for growth.

Tea was originally drunk only by people who lived near areas where it was produced, or by China’s rich, who prized it as a luxury good. The most popular drink among the hoi polloi used to be bai kai shui, essentially boiled water that has been cooled down. Tea culture began to spread throughout China on the back of economic growth and the development of distribution networks. The price of some high-class brands subsequently rocketed and bubble-like conditions have prevailed ever since.

Schools offering lessons on tea varieties or drinking methods are also popular.

They were helped along when the Chinese government introduced two new national licenses in 2002. People could now train to make delicious brews as a “tea master” or study how to rate varieties as a “tea appraiser.”

Xiong Zhihui, 53, used to run a teahouse. In 2002, she opened the Dongfan Guoyi in Beijing and now serves as the school’s principal. The school teaches more than 1,000 students a year in three locations across the city.

A 20 years old woman is studying at the school while working at a tea shop. She is taking a 12-day intensive course to acquire a grade 3 or 4 tea master certificate. She will receive a pay raise once she qualifies, which explains why she is paying the 2,800 yuan course fees out of her own pocket, no small matter considering her monthly salary only stretches to 3,000 yuan.

“I want to open my own teahouse one day,” she says.

Principal Xiong says she is often asked to lecture at private salons that cater to Beijing’s elite.

“As living standards rise, there is a growing demand for good quality tea,” she says.

These are good days to be a tea maker in China

One of these thriving manufacturers is Xieyuda. “Xie” is the family name of the firm’s president, Xie Yiping. The 50-year-old Xie decided to push the family name as a brand and has never looked back. Xie plans to list his company on the stock market, which would make Xieyuda the first tea manufacturer to do so in an industry dominated by state enterprises.

The company is based in Huangshan in Anhui province in eastern China.

There, tea fields stretch out over lush mountainsides, and a river winds languidly through the valley below. Rows of white-walled houses line the foothills.

The location could have come straight out of an old Chinese painting.

A misty shroud sometimes settles over the area, as if to add the final touch to this atmospheric locale that literally means "yellow mountains."

This is where famous Chinese green teas like Huangshan Maofeng are cultivated. Xie’s company has four factories and 200 stores throughout China. Last year, it achieved record-high sales of 350 million yuan (5.1 billion yen or $56 million).

According to Xie, Huangshan Maofeng has a lineage stretching back five generations and was first cultivated by the company’s founder in the latter half of the 19th century.

As the beverage’s popularity grew, the firm opened a branch in Shanghai and even began exporting abroad. Operations were abruptly shut down in 1938, though, after the onset of the Second Shanghai Incident in July 1937. The company was finally reopened by four family members in 1998, 60 years later.

The new company has been eager to emphasize its traditional roots, using the original founder’s portrait as a trademark and “100 years” as its corporate slogan.

It also promoted itself on its sophistication and technical know-how. Its stores are all decked out in elegant red and black hues, for example, with each store emphasizing the company’s six patented methods of brewing tea.

The firm opened a museum in Huangshan City in 2008, where visitors can learn about manufacturing techniques or look at farming tools and housewares from the company’s founding days.

Xie credits the firm’s success to the poor level of processing techniques and marketing skills in the rest of China’s tea sector.

“This was our chance,” he says. “Compared to clothing and household electronics, brand awareness in the tea industry was quite low. We saw this as a golden opportunity.”

TEA, FOOD AND A NICE BATH: BEIJING TEAHOUSE HAS IT ALL

Some people like nothing more than a nice cup of tea at a traditional teahouse. Others may prefer a trip to a spa for a bath or massage. Green T.House Living, about a 30-minute drive from central Beijing, combines both of these functions.

The grounds around this gorgeous-looking edifice stretch out more than 15,000 square meters, about one-third the size of Tokyo Dome. The first floor of the building is home to the teahouse, with the spa tucked away upstairs. Both are more than 700 square meters in size. The complex also contains parks and gardens where vegetables are grown for cooking.

The owner, Zhang Jiner, used to be a qin musician. In 1997, she opened a four-table tea shop in the embassy district of Beijing. She served tea with flower arrangements and also used tea in the food she served. Her style soon began to attract foreign customers and she was able to open a second branch in 2002. She opened this establishment in 2006.

“Tea is part of life itself, so I wanted to offer it alongside other services, not just food,” she says.

The building that houses Green T.House Living has a modernist feel, with bare concrete walls on the outside. White colors and subdued lighting are the keynote themes of the building’s interior.

The furnishings are also tastefully done, be it the mirror bought in Dubai or the red chandeliers from Italy. The air is filled with the trills of small, white birds housed in tall cages. Long branches are tastefully arranged in several glass vases. The location has been used for a magazine shoot, and the teahouse is also used by foreign corporations for parties costing up to 10 million yen.

A popular feature is the baths, where people can actually soak in tea. A four-person course with massage costs 8,000 yuan. A one-night stay with breakfast, meanwhile, is priced at 20,000 yuan.

By NORIKO AKIYAMA/ Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Zhang Jiner, owner of the high-class teahouse Green T.House Living (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)

Zhang Jiner, owner of the high-class teahouse Green T.House Living (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)

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  • Zhang Jiner, owner of the high-class teahouse Green T.House Living (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • Xie Yiping, president of the tea manufacturer Xieyuda (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • Xiong Zhihui, principal of the tea school Dongfang Guoyi (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • Wang Qing, deputy chairman of the of the China Tea Marketing Association (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • A bath in Green T.House Living (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • Tea in Green T.House Living (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)
  • Rice fields stretch out across the mountains of Anhui province. (Photo: Noriko Akiyama)

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