You would expect a tea sifu (master) to be old and greying, probably stroking his long beard as he imparts precious nuggets of wisdom. Hang on, that comes from watching one too many Chinese kungfu movies. Anthony Lee looks nothing like an elderly Chinese scholar.
He sports a modern boyish haircut while his twinkling eyes hint that he may have been a mischievous child. Broached on the subject of tea though, Lee can read tea leaves better than most fortune-tellers.
At the age of 42, he is recognised as a “tea master”.
To be accorded respect as a sifu at so young an age is rare but that’s because Lee is a third generation scion of a tea merchant family.
His grandfather, Lee Thong Kay, incorporated Hua Hong Import & Export Co in 1946, its core business being the manufacturing and trading of Chinese tea and tea related products. The brand “Tork Shou Heong” (TSH – translated, it means “solitary fragrant tree”) in particular, is a registered trademark started by Lee senior and is synonymous with high quality Chinese tea in Malaysia.
Most tea drinkers would be familiar with the TSH brand and perhaps assume it to be from China. However, TSH is a homegrown brand that was started by Lee senior, who sourced for the tea leaves from China, and then processed and perfected the tea recipe himself in Malaysia.
A first generation migrant from Xiamen in China’s Fujien province, Lee senior crossed over to then Malaya in the early 1930s. He recognised the prospects of starting a tea business outside China and started Hua Hong from a small cottage industry. The business expanded by leaps and bounds, and today, TSH is a household name among the Chinese community in Malaysia.
Lee’s first memories of drinking tea goes back to when he was eight years old.
He remembers his grandfather used to take him and his three siblings for dim sum breakfast where they would bring along their own packet of TSH tea.
“I remember I found the taste acceptable. Before I learnt how to drink tea? I drank milk, I guess,” he says with a laugh.
Lee senior also taught him to test the taste of TSH after every batch was processed in the morning at the factory.
“Each harvest yields very slight differences as sometimes the rainy weather (in Fujien) might produce more moisture or perhaps, the spring season might affect the texture of the tea. Generally, TSH is an oolong tea that’s mild in texture, light brown in hue with a lingering aroma.”
By the time he was 15, Lee had learnt the old ways of weighing tea and packing the leaves by hand.
“Packing by hand was a laborious task. First-timers may be able to pack 300 boxes per day but experienced hands can complete close to 6,000 packs of tea in the same time,” he adds.
It takes years to cultivate the art of drinking tea and be a good tea master. Despite Lee’s 18 years of experience, he admits that he is still regarded “a child” in the eyes of older experts.
“My grandfather taught me to always have my own recipe,” says the Kuala Lumpur-born Lee. “Just like how each family may have a particular family dish, each brand of tea has its own unique way of blending and processing tea. Malaysians generally prefer fermented tea, and go for stronger aroma and aftertaste.”
After he returned with a degree in business management from New York, Lee took over the helm of the business in 1989. He oversees the factory in Batang Kali and has since modernised operations such as product packaging and image, stepped up production capacity and introduced the usage of computer systems to the traditional family set up.
Lee also came up with the idea of variety in TSH and now there are different grades available in the market. Apart from the commercial version, there’s also zhi zun, cha wong, nobletea, sui sin and jasmine tea bags, and flavoured teas. In February last year, Lee set up Hua Hong Tea House in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, to give a “face” to the company.
Thanks to Lee, Hua Hong has gone one full circle. Last year, the company returned to its roots and now there’s a hi-tech tea factory in Xiamen.
Currently, TSH holds more than 50% share of the Malaysian market and is being exported to countries like the United States, Japan, Thailand and Brunei as well.
“Japan is probably one of the most important foreign markets receptive to Chinese tea. For us, it’s a matter of getting the right distributor there. Once the doors are open, there should be a huge potential for growth,” opines Lee.
Naturally, Lee is partial to the house brand but he says if he’s not drinking TSH, he enjoys a good cup of Kuan Yin tea, but only the purest top grade one.
“It has a natural flowery flavour, light golden brown. There’s really no hard and fast rule as far as drinking tea is concerned as it’s up to individual tastes. It all depends on what kind of tea you’re looking for. Every batch is different and each harvest has its own character.
“Generally though, good quality tea should have a good aroma and flavour, and the tea brand is very important as it reveals the credibility of the tea manufacturer.
“To fully appreciate good quality tea, you should sip and not gulp down the drink. And it is only with experience that one learns how good tea doesn’t constrict the throat and make you choke but instead encourages the mouth to secrete saliva long after the drink is finished, wets the tongue and opens up the senses,” he concludes.
To learn more about the art of drinking tea, call 012-2886613.