[It is with a little surprise that I heard of a gentleman, Chris West, from England, having moved to China seven or eight years ago now growing and producing tea within China. I know I have already said that the English are notorious tea drinkers, but we have never been considered tea growers, or connoisseurs on the same level as China. So I wondered what made him want to come all the way to Fuzhou and start producing tea. He was kind enough to give me some of his time and answer some questions. – Amanda Sinclair, Fuzhou Expat Author]
What made you want to come to China?
I first came to China to study and improve my Kung Fu, and came with a group of people. I really enjoyed it here and had a friend who was living here in Fuzhou. I decided to come to China, not being able to speak Chinese, and study full time at the AgricultureUniversity, and work on improving my Kung Fu as well.
Were there many foreigners taking the course?
No, it was just one on one classes every day, it was pretty intense.
Do you still practice Kung Fu?
Yeah I do, I do regular competitions, and a group from England comes over three or four times a year. I kind of act like a tour guide, showing them around and organizing things, and as I can now speak Chinese, I also help with translations when they are training. So Kung Fu is still a big part of my life.
Where do you do the Kung Fu?
I do it in my home most of the time. If I go outside, doesn’t matter if I am good or bad, I generally attract a big crowd of people, so it makes me quite self conscious, so I prefer to train inside.
As an experienced Expat in Fuzhou, how do you like your expat life?
Quite well. My expat life has changed from when I first got here. I was a bit younger and in a different stage of my life, so most of my expat life was about going out and having lots of adventures into China and Chinese culture and trying to find interesting things, in a carefree way. Then it changed as I got a job and a life here. And now I have a son, so life has completely changed. So now I am concerned about the best playgroups in Fuzhou and the best parks to take a walk with my son. It is ok, especially for people with kids as it is actually really good here, there are less financial pressures than in London.
Do you still consider yourself an expat after 7 or 8 years here?
No, I am kind of half –half, which is a difficult place to be. I mean I am not here for fun and adventure, but I am not also here for my whole life, so it is not 100% my home. So, I am kind of a bit in between an expat, who is here for a few years and goes, and someone who stays here for life.
So how long do you think you will stay here for?
Depends, at least another four years. Basically until William gets to school age and we have to make a decision about where we live, go back home to London or stay here.
What made you want to go into business with Chinese tea?
I had been at the AgricultureUniversity, and they do lots of research there, scientific and culture research about tea. They have whole courses on tea sciences, and have doctoral students studying tea. Writing doctoral thesis on tea. It is very serious. The science of tea interested me more as tea is one plant, but then the processing and where it is grown make all these variation of taste, colour and type. So it was very interesting. I was around that whole tea culture, and then when I went back to London, there was this tea house there, where the staff didn’t understand anything about tea, and they couldn’t speak any Chinese, they weren’t Chinese. The prices were ridiculously high for what they were serving. I was sat there drinking tea with a friend and the idea just hit me. Hold on a second, I live in China and right next to these amazing tea growing areas are, and I am sure I can get better tea and cheaper for customers, and that is where it started. A tea house in London.
T was romantic, but the next year was exciting. I was, at that point only a casual tea drinker, but then I had to turn from a casual tea drinker to somebody who actually knows a bit more. So the next year I spent a lot of time traveling around tea farms and talking to people. Taking trips up these windy mountain roads and trekking through hills and stuff.
The original idea was just looking at the situation, where London, one of the best cities in the world, they have got one or two pretty crappy tea houses to chose from and that isn’t very good.
When you said you were going around for that year, trying to find out about the tea places, how did you manage to do that?
At that point my Chinese was a lot better. I had been studying for 3 or 4 years and my Chinese was a bit better. I mean, the way we do business in England is a lot more professional. You do a google search, you meet companies. I was a bit more Chinese in the way that I did this. Which is to say, I went through friends and family contacts, and you just start slowly piecing things together, and your knowledge of contacts through friends and one thing you learn, I that everyone in Fuzhou knows someone who runs a tea farm or a tea seller, so I went through friends and visiting farms. You tart to learn more and meet more people. A lot of tea drinking goes on at night, so going out at night and drinking tea.
Sometimes it is frustrating, as if you want to learn and have time it is great, but if you just want samples, you have to go out and drink tea. It takes a lot of time but it is fun.
So how many types of tea did you try?
I don’t know. It must be into the hundreds now, because, one of the unique things is, that from the outside, a tea shop like mine, we sell at the moment 5/20 types of tea. And they are all different types of tea. So we sell a variety of tea from five or six provinces in China, but a tea shop in Fuzhou is expected to sell one type of tea, and then perhaps 20 different grades of that tea, with tiny variations. So often what will happen, at the start, I would go to a tea shop that a friend had recommended, and they give me 5/6 different types of tea, that to me, at the start were completely indistinguishable. So then you just have to listen to people and they tell you that this is good because of that, and this is bad because of that. It is difficult at the start but it is getting better.
Are you becoming a connoisseur now?
I am getting better. You have to know how one type of tea should taste, and then you judge your teas based on that, loosely. So some teas I can taste if it is good or bad but I don’t know if that is exactly how it should taste. With Fujian teas now though, ones I have tasted a lot of, like the Tieguanyin, I now know exactly how it should be.
Would you say that Fujian Province, out of all the other provinces in China, has a bigger emphasis on tea?
It does, yeah, in terms of tea culture, Fujian is one of the biggest. There are other provinces that make more tea, in terms of raw numbers, such as Henan, but it is more generic. Fujian is definitely very proud of its high level, high quality, expensive tea. Wuyishan and Anxi are really internationally known for their tea.
How long has the business been up and running for?
We started in 2011, so two and half years.
It is called Min River Tea Farm, but it isn’t really a farm is it?
No, we have changed the name now, to stop any confusion. It was mainly because we are directly sourcing from farms, not from wholesalers or traders, that was why we had farm. It was a romantic name.
You source from five provinces, what are the main teas?
We normally look for unique and special teas We do have to make sure we have teas that some people know, especially international customers. There are some people that will judge you with the tea you have, so we have tea from Hangzhou, a tea called dragon well or Long Jing, which is really famous. What we are looking for a tea with a unique and special taste. Generally what the Chinese are looking for, are very pure, and light, sometimes we look for something on the side of that, with a stronger flavour that introduces more flavours, which is what the western customers tend to like.
What is the most popular tea at the moment?
The iron Buddha tea is doing really well, and Jasmine tea. Green teas are really popular, not many westerners prefer red tea, as most people have the perception that green tea is healthier for you than the red or black tea. Sometimes though red or black tea suits our tastes better, as it is stronger and richer.
Which country do you sell the most too?
At the moment it is the UK. In order it is the UK, Continental Europe then USA. The USA has a lot more competitors, and it takes longer to ship to the US, so our progress there is a lot slower. We are an online business, so we try to keep an active presence on online media, and social media, so it can be really hard to advertise. Our main focus though is on the whole customer experience, so we concentrate on asking sure the customers we have are really happy with everything, from the online purchase process, shipping the tea, and the after sale service is the best, then they will be more likely to recommend us to friends and family. A lot of our business is through recommendations.
How big is your customer base at the moment?
We are in our thousands, not tens of thousands, but we tend to have lots of customers that are fanatic about tea. So instead of ordering one bag of tea, they will buy ten bags of tea.
You mention as Jasmine Tea tour on your website, so how often do you run the tour, and what does it include?
We have done one tour, as a tester, and I ran it with a local Chinese girl called Grace, who runs a travel company. The Jasmine tea tour is the first one that we run, we try to do it when there is actual tea harvesting because if you go to a tea farm out of season there is nothing happening. It is just tea plants growing. There might be some background maintenance of the farm going on. So the next tours that we are running are starting in April next year through to mid May. I thought it would be a bit better if there were one or two days in Anxi or in Hangzhou as well, as we want to give people an opportunity and help them to understand tea.. As an expat you know that this tea culture is there, but you have no way into it, and with all due respect, a lot of Chinese people struggle to explain their own culture in a simple way, but rather lecture about the fine qualities of tea. Some people did not know that Jasmine tea is actually tea mixed with Jasmine. So we just want to introduce the tea culture, let people see how the tea is actually made. My main inspiration for it was that I get to do this as a job, but sometimes when I am in the tea mountains, they are just incredible. In beautiful locations you just wake up with the smell and the sounds, and the sight of people making tea, and this is something that is a once in a lifetime experience, and such a big part of Chinese culture. A great thing for expats to experience.
What language would the tours be conducted in?
The tours will be done in both Chinese and English. The main language will be English, but we have local tea farmers and guides that only speak Chinese, so the main guides with translate from Chinese to English for the group
How big are the tours going to be?
The largest group that we are thinking of is 15 to 20 people, as we want it to be a little bit personal. The price is going to be somewhere between 1800 to 3000RMB for the two days all inclusive, depending on the place. This I taking into account that Anxi isn’t really a main tourist destination, so we wouldn’t be looking at staying in a fancy hotel, it is going to be more of an adventure, whereas in Wuyishan, it is more of a tourist destination, with more venues and hotels available, so we can stay in a nice hotel. It will be more of a romantic weekend away. The tours will be child friendly as well, as they wont be dangerous, we will normally drive to the tea farm, and mot places are generally safe.
It is fun and exciting, as it will be such a good experience, to help show people around, and showing people what happens in tea production and learning about the different types of tea.
What is your main goal with the business?
There are two goals. The first is that I wanted to be able to work and support myself and my family in China. Most westerners are either here studying, teaching, or have been posted here from their company. I was a student, I have taught English, but don’t really enjoy teaching it, so this is something I can do, and enjoy doing.
Longer term, the goal is to keep china a part of my life. My wife is Chinese, my son is half Chinese, I have been living in China, and now my business is here, I can always come back here and keep China in my life. Plus if we do move from china, it is also a source of income, independent of what I my do. It is an internet company, so I can pretty much run it from anywhere.
Do you find that, as an expat, you get any unwanted, negative attention?
Yeah sometimes. Nothing really bad though, just generally small misunderstandings. An example is where they see foreigners coming in and they think that it is a big business opportunity, and they read more into you than what you actually are, thinking you are wanting a big order, but we are just a small company, and don’t want the amount that they are expecting, or assuming us to buy.
Generally China has a love hate relationship with relationships, but they just need to take a more realistic approach to foreigners, we aren’t all big companies, and nor are we these devils coming in to try to steal businesses. There is nothing really negative, everyone is happy to talk to you.
Lastly, would you consider offering Fuzhouexpat users a discount?
Yes, of course. If anyone is interested in purchasing any of our teas, send me an email through our website and I will be able to give you a quote.
Thank you Chris for taking time out of your day, and talk to us about your business, life and tea.
If anyone is interested in tea, or purchasing some of Chris’s tea, the website to go to is: www.minrivertea.com