On an old street in Yixing, China, where purple clay originated

Last year, 26-year-old Zi Zhao Guai decided to join his family’s business, Nam Wan Tea Co. Pte Ltd in Singapore. In 1906, Zi Zhao’s great great grandfather, Jing Zhe Guai, a tea master from Anxi, Fujian province, came to Singapore for a better life and set up this tea export company in Singapore. Zi Zhao shares his experience on learning the ropes of the tea business.

What was it like growing up in a tea family?

As a child, I was very exposed to the trade and was expected to help out during school holidays. I’d fold boxes and pack tea. As I became older, I’d follow the delivery guy on his rounds, dropping off tea at neighborhood provision stores, supermarkets, and coffeeshops*. Later, when my family set up a retail shop (called Tea Pal), I was posted there to introduce customers to our tea.
 
Why did you join Nam Wan, your family’s tea business?

I really want to do something about the present state of tea culture. Having grown up with tea, perhaps I’m a little biased toward the value of this beverage. It’s not just a luxury product; it is an art form, which most of society fails to appreciate. Premium-quality tea has a beautiful finesse to it in terms of fragrance, sweetness, and depth. However, because such tea is inaccessible or expensive, what a lot of tea brands do is to mix lower-grade tea with fragrance or fruits / herbs and pass them off as unique blends. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the prevalence of such flavored teas dilutes the general awareness of traditional tea culture. In fact, traditional tea is often perceived as old-fashioned and passed over as an antiquated product. I’d really love to introduce more people to the beauty of this beverage in its purest essence.

How has work at Nam Wan been so far?

Currently, as a business development executive, I am handling the HR, sales, and marketing components. At this point, I’m still very much learning the ropes and training takes a large part of my time. Everyday, I go through a lot of tea-tasting sessions!

I’ve been very humbled by the experience so far. There is so much to learn and so many opportunities for growth. I realize that even though I have been exposed to tea from a very young age, I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to tea knowledge. I’ve been going to Chinese tea plantations and learning firsthand the secrets of this industry. This sometimes means I have to venture into rather undeveloped regions and stay there for some time. But no matter how arduous the journeys, they are incredibly rewarding experiences.  

It also helps that I am working with my close-knit, immediate and extended family. They’re always there for me whenever I need help and share the same passion and ideals as I do.

Zi Zhao at Dongting Mountain in China, where the famous green tea, Bi Luo Chun, originated

What are some things you’ve learned about running a tea business so far?

Long-term trust is extremely important, especially for my family’s business. It has taken us years to build up a reliable reputation with our customers, suppliers, and the industry at large.

At the same time, it’s important to keep an open mind towards people’s tea preferences. As mentioned earlier, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coming up with creative flavored tea blends. However, from this, I need to explore how such an appreciation can extend to tea’s rich cultural heritage.  

What would you like to bring to your family’s business in the future?

My family is still deeply connected to our ancestral hometown, Song Lin Tou in Fujian province. This is where Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong tea) originated. We’ve brought in schools, paved roads, and hydro-generated electricity to this village and are currently working on producing clean, organic Tieguanyin there, given the issues on tea safety and hygiene that have been cropping up of late. With such a product, my goal is to help the company expand and build our brand globally, while still holding onto my family’s tea traditions and beliefs.

For more information on Zi Zhao’s family tea business, please visit the company website.

* The coffeeshop is a small to medium-sized outdoor foodcourt for no-frills food and drink. There are over 700 of them in Singapore.