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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of tea in Hong Kong

By Gabrielle Caselis 3 August 2021

Hong Kong—a city where its day-to-day sustenance is built on overseas exports. Having 40 percent of land filled with undisturbed nature, one might wonder, ”Why don’t we have more locally grown produce?” Before it was cheaper to import food, goods, and service from our neighbours, believe it or not, Hong Kong produced its own salt and tea!

When we’re prompted to think about Hong Kong’s tea culture, our minds immediately go to a Chinese teahouse (茶樓; cha4 lau4) with senior citizens seated at a round table reading the papers, rather than investigating whether there’s even a tiny possibility that our tiny area of land grew its own tea leaves. Well, in fact, we did—here’s how and when traditional tea growing became deeply woven into the fabric of society, and unfortunately, how it all fizzled out.

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Photo: Lotus Brand Tea (via Pinterest)

How tea was introduced to Hong Kong

Tea famously has a long and illustrious history in China—so much so that the two major names for tea, chá and te, are both derived from Chinese dialects. How it is said in different countries is dependent on two factors: which region their tea was historically imported from, and the route it took. Chá (茶; pronounced in Mandarin and Cantonese) takes its journey on land through the Silk Road to Central Asia, while te (茶; pronounced in Min Chinese dialects) heads out to sea towards Europe. This is how the semantics of tea around the world is formed—from chay (چای) in Persian, shay in Arabic, thé in French, to Tee in German.

As a Cantonese-speaking port with strong ties to Canton (Guangzhou), it’s no surprise that Hong Kong calls its tea “chá.” Chá has been in Hong Kong since the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century. In 1896, decades after the end of the Qing dynasty, small-scale tea harvesting and selling began in Hong Kong.

For a few years, the humble trade mostly happened between villagers, until Hong Kong tea production developed further after 1898. When China leased the remaining parts of Hong Kong to Britain, our city became a desirable place to settle—this started the wave of immigration, most of which were Hakka people. Hakka folks brought their ways of living to Hong Kong and contributed to building the complexity and production of tea.

Did we grow our own tea leaves?

Yes. Hong Kong tea farmers have optimised harvesting to secure the best quality and quantity of picked tea leaves. According to the Lunar calendar, the best time for plucking lies in the third Lunar month, as harvesting in other months yields older and coarser tea leaves.

Lawyer and politician Brook Bernacchi (1922–1996) became a tea farmer when he transformed part of his 81-hectare family home in Ngong Ping, next to the Po Lin Monastery, into a tea plantation. At the peak of production during the 1960s, a total of 30 employees farmed black, jasmine, and—Lantau’s treasure—mountain begonia tea leaves under the brand Lotus. Although Bernacchi had a large tea plantation that gave local villagers jobs, commercial tea growing on Lantau Peak was nothing new. During an interview held with a very old village woman (aged 92 years old at the time) in 1971, she shared how she worked at plantations plucking tea leaves even before the lease of the New Territories to Britain.

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Hong Kong’s four great teas

Some might be familiar with the five basic styles of tea—green, red, oolong, black, and white—but did you know that our dot-sized city also has a tea history of its own? It’s built on the “Four Great Famous Teas” (四大名茶; sei3 daai6 ming4 cha4)—Phoenix tea (鳳凰茶; fung6 wong4 cha4), Meng Shan tea (蒙山茶; mung4 saan1 cha4), Tam Kon tea (擔竿茶; daam1 gon1 cha4), and Ching Ming tea (清明茶; ching1 ming4 cha4).

Phoenix tea (鳳凰茶) is a distinctive oolong tea that originates from the Phoenix Mountain (鳳凰; fung6 wong4 saan1) in Guangdong. Its name stems from the tea leaves’ resemblance to a dragon. It made its way to Hong Kong and made its mark on our highest peak: Tai Mo Shan. Its health benefits include aiding digestion and reducing fever.

Meng Shan tea (蒙山茶) has a strong astringent taste that usually appeals to older people and those who grew up with it. Meng Shan was the old name of Castle Peak. Although the tea has notable sweet notes, the overpowering bitterness may deter beginner tea drinkers at first. To many, this is the only indigenous tea drink they’ve consumed.

Tam Kon tea (擔竿茶) grew in Tam Kon Shan, which was developed in the 1990s to become Tsing Yi as we know it today. Before the hill was flattened for residential development, the tea grew on inclined tea farms where leaves could be moistened naturally. Although this tea drink is an extremely hard find today, it still is recognised as one of the few tea leaves that grew in Hong Kong.

Ching Ming tea (清明茶)—unique to Fujian—made its way to Hong Kong. These leaves thrived in Hong Kong’s mountainous landscape, where green tea leaves were picked and distributed during the Ching Ming Festival. After families visit their ancestral tombs, they would enjoy these perfectly timed picks. It was around this time of the year when the green tea leaves were in their best condition.

Traditional tea growing in Bernacchi’s tea plantation circa 1974. Photo: Lotus Brand Tea (via Pinterest)

The process of traditional tea growing

In contrast to ready-to-drink teas shelved in supermarkets today, traditional practices capture the complete taste of tea leaves. Mau Tso Ngam in Sha Tin district was one of the few remaining villages that practised traditional tea-growing practices—and this is how they did it.

Harvesting: When leaves are young and tender—usually in the third Lunar month—villagers harvest the tea leaves from either wild bushes or planted tea trees. 

Steaming: The “tea“ taste that we all know and love actually comes from the substance of the leaf itself. Freshly picked tea leaves need to be steamed for about 10 to 15 minutes, over a very low fire in a dry wok. Doing so will rid the leaves of their moisture and achieve the desired taste and fragrance.

Dehydrating: Leaves are laid out on a woven tray, where they are squeezed and rolled for half an hour. Then, they are transferred back into the wok to be hand-stirred for two hours on an extremely low and steady fire.

Storage: When dry and brittle, leaves are ready to be stored in rattan baskets in dry places.

Consumption: Tea is served in tea bowls in ritual contexts—spiritual offerings or wedding ceremonies—or to important visitors. Traditionally, the villagers would drink tea out of their rice bowls after finishing their food.

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Industry change

Although the Four Great Famous Teas of Hong Kong ceased to exist when the Qing dynasty ended, the Hakka people continued the local production of tea. Apart from tea farming, they also introduced salt and fish farming. The Hakka salt pans’ production peaked around the 1940s with fields that stretched six acres. Although these practices brought job opportunities and ways to source food locally, it wasn’t long until the price of imported produce grew competitive. An added stress that caused the decline of local food production was the Japanese occupation.

Another wave of immigration from Shanghai meant that skills and capital were brought to the city. Eventually, overseas firms planted offices here and Hongkongers turned to industrial and manufacturing factories for work. As a result, local food production took a hit. The rest is history.

Do we still have locally produced tea?

Yes, though it is sparsely produced. Right now, Kadoorie Farm & Botanical Garden is the last remaining producer of tea in Hong Kong, sustained by the leisure and educational experiences it provides the public. You can taste their green tea, which is grown on the slopes of its sprawling Ma On Shan grounds, at their outdoor restaurant.

Towards the end of his life in the mid-1990s, Brook Bernacchi handed over the Lotus tea plantation to one of his contractors, Chan Woon-chi. Chan renamed the plantation “Ngong Ping Tea Garden” and operated a small teahouse and outdoor restaurant catering to tourists. After years of struggle, the site was abandoned in 2014.

How to sustain modern-day interest in tea

With tea commodified and readily available on supermarket shelves, it’s easy to lose sight of where and how it is made. Wherever you may be on the spectrum from casual tea drinker to tea connoisseur, one thing to note is the significant impact that knowledgeable tea farmers and good soil have on the flavour of tea. Tea production in mainland China and other parts of the world is mostly industrialised and processed mechanically rather than using time- and labour-intensive manual methods. With this replacement, keeping tradition becomes less of a priority. 

To drink tea is not merely to quench your thirst, but rather to experience the present moment in history where tea is, as weather, craftmanship, and soil continue to develop and change. Some teahouses we recommend for an in-depth tea experience are MingCha, Lockcha, and Chas Yeh Yeh—they provide an immersive experience to customers as they dive into the cultural and historical elements of tea drinking.

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Strumming a few tunes on the guitar or trying to connect her Spotify playlist to the sound system is what you’ll find Gabrielle doing in most social situations. She is a homebody and the way to her heart is good food and good company. Apart from music, she spends her time watching and reading up on all there is to know about pop culture.