Snow White, orange peel, pu’er tea

Snow White, orange peel, pu’er tea
July 11, 2016 Leo Kwan
In Perspectives

Life of a fairy tale

To decode stories produced or endorsed by official Chinese bodies, one needs to compare them with what is happening in real life, amongst other interpretation tools. Otherwise, Snow White would appear mundane against their fantasy data and storylines.

Tea is no exception.

I maintain as much as possible a friendly relationship with tea merchants in China so I can understand the market from different perspectives.

Q Feng has been the sole distributor for a major pu’er brand for all of Guangdong for quite a few years. Since the province is the largest market for the tea category, Q has been quite well off. Considering his education and efforts in the job, his present life is in itself a fairy tale.

Mandarin orange peel

Today after dinner, he was trumpeting about his newly acquired knowledge of mandarin orange peel, a staple herb in cooking and medicine. The plump young man whose teeth evenly and deeply varnished with tobacco was intending to develop his own brand of pu’er wrapped in the citrus skin. A production factory was offering a “break” in commission for him.

Pu’er tea stuffed mandarin orange peels being laid under the sun to wither and dry. Xinhui, Guangdong.

The product is a very traditional one. It has received new attention since the overall stalemate of the market for the Pu’er tea category. Many are thinking of new gimmicks for moving the goods. Earlier today, Q’s father, whom I have been a friend with long before I know the son, expressed concerns about the young man’s plan. The old-timer tea merchant was telling me in private the bad arithmetic Q was doing for the plan.

Workers sunning pu'er stuffed mandarin oranges

Workers laying mandarin oranges that are stuffed with pu’er tea under the sun to dry, in the production of chenpi pu’er. Xinhui, Guangdong, China

Business sense, the lack of it

Q said he planned to sell the product at a price over three times the average product, and bragged about how he could access the peels that are of very prestigious locality within Xinhui. Chenpi ( the proper name for the peel as an ingredient ) from Xinhui has been a well-sought after product, rather like Longjing that is from Hangzhou. Like all agricultural products, the final quality really is dependent on the horticulture and processing skills after that. A genuine top quality peel in the herbal shop can hardly fetch two time over the average product. As to how Q can make it three times when most weight of the final product is actually the less expensive puer tea, it is beyond logic for me.

“My chenpi will be from this part of the mandarine orange area, not the other part,” defended Q, “it is the prestige of origin that qualifies my product for the top price.” While I agreed with the basic concept, there were many elements in his argument that needs qualification. Intending to help Q’s father to alert the enthusiastic young man of the danger ahead, I tried to use the origin of black tea as an analogy. “Although black tea was first made in Fujian…” I could not even finish my sentence when he said, “Black tea was first made in Yunnan.”

Shortcomings of easy success

At that point, I know there really was little thing I could do. This young man has so little common sense of even the origin where he has been working from for almost his entire career. While Yunnan is a major producer of pu’er varieties, black tea has been produced there only since 1939 ( see related story ). Ignorance combined with stubbornness and the arrogance from early career success is a recipe for big theories, grand campaigns, and loud voices. I know to stay away from such precursors of tsunami. All I will do is to better support the father socially and commercially.

It is obvious to me that Q had been presented with some figures that showed only the glorious side of the prospect.

In a country where half ( or more ) of the government functions and directions are influenced by officials or seniors whose qualifications are bought, forced or false, making a loud voice and coming up with great stories and datas is a widely practiced means of staying afloat for personal gains. It is no wonder some of its people follow that kind of “culture”. While it is public fund or well-being of the country that the officials abuse, to a private business, it is the father’s hard-earned status that may go down the drain.

Luckily there are still people who do real work, albeit quietly.

Olivia at the hotel window

This story is dedicated to Olivia, who volunteered to come with us to endure the contradictions, confusion, loud voices, cigarette smokes and bad traffic in this tea trip. She appears here in the top photo at the hotel room window contemplating the encounter with Q Feng the night before.