We will report on the many tea events, expos, and meetings throughout the world. We hope to capture them in way that makes you feel as if the trip wasn't needed.
The second annual Malaysian Puerh Trade Fair began with Chinese lions swerving to the thunderous drumming, marching and streamers popping colored paper all around. The organizers and various politicians signed special Puerh cakes and spoke enthusiastically about what a joyous occasion it was. This jovial and celebratory ambience would saturate the entire affair. Even though many different shops, companies and factories were represented at the event, after closing time people left to enjoy dinner together as if they were colleagues. The first two days ended with large dinner that everyone attended. There were speeches, Chinese singers and dancers and a charity auction to support Malaysian education. Even during the day it was common to see the owners of one booth sitting as guests at another. It seemed that everyone was working towards the common goal of generating interest in Puerh tea and tea culture in general. Several of the invited speakers also gave the impression that it was a celebration of Puerh rather than an opportunity to sell tea. Of course, generating interest in tea helps the market grow and prosper, but it still felt like all those present loved their work and were enjoying the chance to meet in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, to share a week of Puerh with fellow enthusiasts. There was a definite patience and generosity amongst host and guest alike that seemed in the spirit of tea.
When the tea shop owners gathered together at dinner after closing or during a quieter afternoon, the conversation invariably turned to in-depth and heated discussions about the Puerh market, its problems and the various solutions that each of the experts find relevant. There were long talks about the rising cost of mao cha, the inflated price index of factory productions and the crazy amounts of money that vintage Puerhs are now fetching. Most of the speeches that appeared periodically throughout the ten-day fair were serious presentations of market strategies and analysis.
Renowned author Chen Zhi Tong stressed that the larger factories are now beginning to eliminate the middle man and approach the retail market directly, and this will in the end force every vendor to change their strategy. He said that long ago the CNNP and other government agencies made it difficult for the factories to generate profit and many folded; others, like Meng Hai, were sold to private firms. Teacher Chen feels that the market needs to start taking the smaller producers into account. "Often the larger factories have a lower quality product than the small producers because they need to source raw materials in extremely large amounts and the best quality leaves aren't available in that quantity. This is not to say that factories are producing poor products. Sometimes they too run limited edition productions that are great. They also will often mix these high-grade leaves with lower quality plantation materials. I'm just saying that some, not all, small producers have access to the best quality-leaves. However, the large factories still dominate the market by reputation. Consumers need to make up their mind and decide what they want so that the market can stabilize." He went on to discuss the virtues of the best teas from Yiwu. Teacher Chen feels that Yiwu tea is the best available on the market, but warned that there are many regions within Yiwu - different areas and methods that need to be taken into account. He also stated that there are many teas labeled "Yiwu" that contain little to no Yiwu tea.
There was also a very large public attendance at the expo that was divided into tea lovers that knew why they were there, and the general public that were carious about tea or just passing through to the larger book expo that was being held next door. The large book fair added some confusion to the venue, sometimes disrupting speeches with announcements and traffic. However, sharing the venue with the book fair turned out to be an insightful idea on the part of the organizers: many of the young people on their way to or from the book fair, as well as the employees selling books and stationary there, ended up spending some time at the Puerh fair, too. On the weekends, a tremendous current of people moved through the two fairs. I saw many newcomers buying tea or tea books for the first time in their lives, asking questions or just sitting to enjoy a cup of tea. It seemed as if many seeds were planted. Though there were many booths and displays, I didn't get the feeling that they were in competition for the steady stream of people moving through the convention. When asked about sales so far one merchant said, "There's no way to evaluate. I didn't come here with any expectations at all. I just wanted to see some old friends, share some tea and maybe promote awareness of tea culture."
The expo wasn't a vast space, j About thirty or forty booths offered everything from Malaysian brands of new tea to vintage Puerh which I enjoyed sampling. It was incredibly interesting to see and taste the differences between the vintages stored in Malaysia and those kept in Hong Kong and/or Taiwan. The Malaysian cakes seemed more lustrous and oily on the outside. I even compared two late 90 s Kunming Cha Chang Hong Yin cakes, one from Taiwan and one from Malaysia, side by side in the same session. The variation was far more extreme than what one would think could be possible after so short a time. The Malaysian version was slightly oily in appearance and seemed to have been fermented much more than the Taiwanese version. Although it looked wetter, it actually tasted quite dry. The Taiwanese version looked as if it had been stored for less time, lighter in color with more browns, but it tasted wetter than the Malaysian one. I also had the good fortune to drink early 70's Huang Yin (Yellow Mark) once and 50's Hong Yin (Red Mark) twice. These teas both spent some time in Taiwan and Malaysia but still had slight differences from the ones that I had previously tried in Taiwan. It's difficult to compare or rank different versions of these great vintage teas, other than to say that they didn't taste the same. Each occasion one drinks these teas is an excellent experience for any Puerh tea lover, and the diversity from place to place, cake to cake is amazing. A vendor who shared one of the Hong Yin teas said that "even within a single cake there are slight differences of flavor from the edge to the middle, outside to the inside, etc. It's really amazing."
One of the most remarkable events of the entire fair, a lasting memory for so many of the visitors, wasn't any of the many speeches given by experts from all over Asia, the presentations, vendors or any other part of the actual venue itself. It started quite simply, with a visit by one of the owners of a stationary booth in the neighboring book fair, Alex Lee. He arrived early one morning when the expo was still quiet, carrying a plastic shopping bag under his arm with some tea samples inside. It turns out that when Alex's father came over to Malaysia from southern China in the 1930's he brought his collection of Puerh tea with him. Later, when Alex inherited his father's estate, he found a large collection of old tea. At first he thought of it as nothing more than a part of his father's daily medicinal regimen. "I just thought it was Chinese medicine for his health. I had planned to throw it away, but a friend of the family said it was actually worth some money." At that time vintage Puerh wasn't worth the exorbitant price it is today, and the market wasn't saturated with consumers, so Alex decided to keep the tea and try drinking it. He came to love his collection, developing gratitude for his father and his own great fortune. He has been busy drinking the tea everyday since that time. He said that he wouldn't sell any of it even at the high prices it' s worth these days. "I appreciate my tea each morning. I understand now that my father drank it for health and enjoyment both." Alex said that many of his friends and family don't share his appreciation of tea. He was therefore excited when he heard about the Puerh expo next door. He modestly remarked, "I knew the people here would appreciate my tea with me." Over the course of the expo Alex selflessly shared his teas with a large number of tea lovers at a few of the booths in the expo. He shared about a half a cake of Song Ping, which is actually worth about 10,000$ US if the cake has a clean appearance. Alex's father left him a few tongs of Song Ping (20 or so cakes). He also shared a few varieties of 30's loose leaf, Liu An and Liu Bao teas. It was the highlight of the fair for many of the vendors, and as word of Alex's generosity spread, he was the talk of our little Puerh town - during lunch, dinner and all the sessions in between everyone talked about Alex and his old tea. His kindness had a unique effect on one nice young woman who was passing through on her way home from the book fair and happened upon a Song Ping session: her first experience of Puerh tea was a cup of 1930's Song Ping Hao! I'm sure she was converted for life.
Malaysian tea drinking often revolves around the use of antique teaware. There seemed to be a tremendous amount of Chinese antiques in Malaysia. Of course China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are also flooded with antiques, but way too many are fakes. Malaysians, however, are fortunate to have the help of specialists like tea master Ling Ping Xang, who has been studying tea and teaware for more than 30 years. Because of this expertise there are actually a large number of authentic cups, gaiwans and Yixing pots around Malaysia. It was nice to try some teas in Qing or Ming Dynasty cups or Yixing pots and to notice the differences this teaware creates. Master Ling says that today's teaware finds its greatest expression through use, so why would it be different for the teaware of ages past? "While it's nice to have pieces in museums for educational purposes, these old cups and pots still shine the brightest when they are steaming with tea. "Using the antique pots and cups did in fact seem to affect the Qi of the teas I tasted at the expo. Each booth seemed to have at least one or two of these relics.
The differences in cups, pots, brewing methods and philosophy from region to region, teacher to teacher have always intrigued me. Traveling in tea brings new insights and experiences, even if the teas are the same. In Malaysia, for example, few people use a cha hai (pitcher) or strainer. They instead pour directly from the teapot into the cups. Not using a cha hai means that all the guests have to put their cups back onto the tea sink each round. The host then pours the tea and redistributes the cups to the coasters. Not using a strainer means that occasional bits and pieces wind up at the bottom of one's cup. We asked Master Ling and he said, "You can' t have it all. Yes, there are sometimes leaves in the cups but we prefer pouring directly to the cup to decrease resistance. No resistance or temperature loss is worth the occasional leaf in the cup."
Wu Shing Publications entered a new era at the Malaysian Puerh trade fair with the release of the first Chinese tea magazine in English, as well as the first ever book on Puerh tea in English. The First Step to Chinese Puerh Tea, written by author and expert Cham Kam Pong was a great success in Malaysia. Many Malaysian Chinese were educated in British schools; even though Chinese is their first language, they often are only literate in English. For that reason, they greatly anticipated our English publications. Chan Kam Pong gave an informative speech in English on how to store Puerh tea at home. It was great to listen and learn in my mother tongue. He signed books and generously gave everyone a bingcha from his personal collection.
The trade fair's bingchas (one sheng and one shou), designed and blended by Chen Zhi Tong and Huang Chang Fang respectively, were even more of a success than the previous ones in 2005. This added interest only increased the feeling that the fair had succeeded in generating awareness in Puerh tea throughout Malaysia. It was a great joy to see people buying their first ever tea book, sitting and drinking Puerh tea for the first time, asking questions and getting that first glimmer in their eye.
One day when the crowds were large and the expo packed, Master Ling came over with that powerful smile of his and beckoned me to follow. We went over to a small table at the corner of one of his student's booths. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small Qing pumpkin teapot and two Ming Dynasty cups. He then grinned and handed me a tin of the best Da Hong Pao I'd ever seen. proceeded to have a nice quiet session in that little corner, neither saying a word as the tea bursted across our palates, blossoming like large white peonies of elegance. For those few minutes we were a small island of peace in a sea of activity; the fair and all its bustle were miles away. Master Ling perhaps hoped to remind me why we were all really there, and I couldn't help but thank the stars for tea, for Malaysia and for the chance to share such excellent tea with a true master.