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EnchanTea Podcast – E01 Roy Fong

Be Like Tea. -- Roy Fong
EnchanTea Podcast-E01-Roy Fong
EnchanTea Podcast-E01-Roy Fong
Be Like Tea. -- Roy Fong

EnchanTea Podcast E01

Tea Master Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court

 

Welcome to the EnchanTea Podcast! Watch below and subscribe on your favorite podcast platforms including Amazon Podcast, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Deezer, and more.

Story Highlights

3:18 – Coming to America
6:04 – Discovering Tea
8:20 – Opening Imperial Tea Court
18:35 – My Favorite Tea
30:48 – Producing Tea
47:58 – Working With Tea
57:50 – Be Like Tea

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to EnchanTea, a podcast dedicated to tea lovers. A cup of humanity, tea comes from a mystical realm, boundless and bottomless. The EnchanTea podcast celebrates the divine spirit of the tea and the miraculous ways Camellia sinensis connects all of us.

In each episode, you’ll hear stories about tea and the meaningful connections she brings, from tea culture to her art and history. You’ll be immersed in the boundless joy of the tea spirit. This podcast is presented by 9 Dragons Tea, an epic documentary unearthing the long berry secrets in mysteries of the world’s most popular drink after water. Sit down and let’s enjoy this enchanting cup together.

Christy Hui:
I want to first welcome our listeners to the show, and I have the pleasure and the privilege to speak with Roy Fong, a tea master and owner of the Imperial Tea Garden in San Francisco. And I wanted to share a cup of tea with Roy and hear some amazing tea stories. Roy and I share two common characteristics, one of which is that we both celebrate Chinese New Year, which is coming up, the Year of the Dragon. And so, there’s 1.5 billion of us Chinese living around the world, so we’re not so unique. But this is a fantastic holiday, and you and I can talk more about that because tea also started as a southern drink in China, and we are both Cantonese. right?

Roy Fong:
Correct.

Christy Hui:
So I had the pleasure when I first met you to speak… <Cantonese>, pardon me.

Roy Fong:
See, that’s what you get for not having a sip first.

Christy Hui:
Exactly, always take your time. It was such an amazing experience speaking with you in Cantonese that it put me back to the roots. So thank you, Roy, for coming onto the show. So first, I’d like to have you do me the honor of introducing yourself to the audience.

Roy Fong:
Oh, thank you so much. So first of all, it’s Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco.

Christy Hui:
Oh thank you, so that is the cue for you to repeat your name, Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco.

Roy Fong:
I’m glad I’m not the only one who has senior moments.

Christy Hui:
Thank you, I am drinking Pu-erh tea. So you talk about that.

Roy Fong:
So I’m Roy Fong from Imperial Tea Court. I have had the privilege of being in the tea business for a little while now. I have been importing tea from China since the mid-1980s. I know some of you listening are probably not that old, not as old as a tea that I imported. And I opened the first Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco in 1993. And so, we are approaching 30 years in the retail business. What got us going into the retail high-end tea business was that when I first started importing tea, I was the Westco distributor for the Yunnan Tea Import/Export Corporation.

So I started close, my route being Hong Kong; someone who was born in Hong Kong, where Pu-erh tea, us Cantonese call Bolay. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, or destitute; Pu-erh tea is like a lifeblood. It’s almost like the air you breathe.

No matter who you are with, Pu-erh tea is served. So, back when I was a kid, even poor people had access to good, somewhat aged Pu-erh. We all know Pu-erh tea was expensive even when I was a kid, but you could drink that even back then. Now, I haven’t been a kid for a long time, so.

So, when I immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13, I didn’t speak any English. I was 4’11” and 90 pounds. I didn’t grow too much more than 4’11, but I did grow a lot sideways now. I’m significantly over 90 pounds. And having to learn English and trying to dive into the American culture, I tried to sort of be as American as possible sort of without anybody telling me that.

And everything at home is far away from my thoughts. But when I turned 21, something flipped a switch in my head, and I decided to go back to Hong Kong for the first time. Of course, I had to be 21 at that time before I could afford to go back to Hong Kong. So, long story short, I spent almost a month in Hong Kong and spent all my lifetime savings in that short time. And I discovered tea on that visit in Hong Kong. I was walking in a district where old tea shops and antique and old seafood places like that.

If you’re from there, you know what I mean. Hong Kong people cherish that kind of thing. So I was wandering the streets and all of a sudden, my nose caught this indescribable fragrance. I literally followed my nose into a tea shop, where I found the owner of the tea shop doing the final roasting of his Tieguanyin oolong. I made friends with him. I spent the rest of my vacation going there every day, practically becoming part of the shop.

Upon returning to the U.S., I threw all my clothes away and filled up a suitcase with tea bags, of teas, not tea bags, sorry. When I returned home, I was very anxious to show off all the tea I had acquired, not knowing that this was eventually to become my life. So I became a very pretty serious tea drinker, but nothing more.

And then, in 1991, a person from China came to the U.S. to visit. We were doing import/exporting business at that time. And she said, “I would really like to work with you. What can we do together?” And I said, “I always wanted to do a real tea shop.” With her help, we were able to bring one 40-foot container of material and six workmen from China to build our first original Imperial Tea Court right on the edge of Chinatown.

I don’t know what hit me. I was brave enough to sign a 15-year lease. And after we finished building the tea shop, I’ve never had any retail experience. I’ve never done anything similar to that. And not realizing, working with a group of workmen from China who have a totally different idea of what work is, what collaboration is, and what money really means. It took two years to build a tea shop. We had to send them home and hire another crew here that finished the job.

And it was my father, who was a contractor, who came out of retirement to help me to finish our shop. I was destitute. After the shop closed, I had to pay my partner off. And the six workmen who came turned out to be leaders in their company. They hadn’t done any work for years.

And so they came, the first thing they say was, “How much help are you gonna hire me for me?” And I said, “But it’s a thousand square feet. There’s six of you.” And they said, “Well, yeah, but we supervise. We don’t work.” Anyway, so from there, I had to make things work pretty quickly. And we opened officially on July 4th, 1993. The reason for July 4th was not only for patriotism, but I know all my friends had that day off. They better come and support me. So they-

Christy Hui:
The customers coming in.

Roy Fong:
Right, the day, like a week before opening, I flew to Hong Kong with $200 in my pocket, one Visa card, and no more money. So I went to a wholesaler I know, spoke to them, and said, “Look, I don’t have any money now. I’d like to buy some tea from you, but I would like you to give me some time to pay.”

And then they said, “Okay.” I was a little shocked, and then they were shocked after they agreed. And I’d give the list of tea I like to have that how much I demanded, for some young kid coming here, telling my 60-year-old tea roasting master how he’s not firing them correctly.

So I didn’t make any friends, but I think they probably just wanted to get rid of me. So they sent me two cases of tea. And at that time, it’s only total. I said only, but at that time, it was a pretty big amount for me. The two cases are about $600 or $700. So, I flew home with my ticket arriving on July 2nd, and then went on July 3rd, actually, the day before.

So I arrived with United Airlines early in the morning on July 3rd and waited at the luggage belt until everybody else was gone. I didn’t see my two cases. So I went to United Airlines, still full of hope. And after about 10 minutes, they looked at me and said, “Mr. Fong, I’m sorry to inform you your luggage is in Tokyo.”

And I said, “But I’m opening tomorrow.” So anyway, my wife was waiting to pick me up outside. And two hours later, I walked out of the terminal almost in tears. So I didn’t sleep all night. At 6:30 a.m. in the morning, when I was still thinking, “How am I gonna tell the 50 people I badgered into coming for my opening,” United Airlines called me and said, “Mr. Fong, we got your packages.

“Where should we deliver it?” I was floored. So, they delivered the packages by eight. I was able to open with tea that I just got in from Hong Kong. And all my friends chipped in. I did like $300 of business that day. So I said to my wife, “Okay, you and I work for free, and the rent’s $1,000 and change, we could do this.” So we opened officially from that day.

The next day, my wife and I came in and opened this door, waiting for a customer, and waited half a day. Nobody came in. Then an old lady kind of came in slowly, reluctantly, and looked at, I swear, every single item we have on display in the store. And then she wagged her fingers at me and said, “Do you know how much they’re selling these down in Chinatown? You’re crazy. If you were my son, I’d kill you.”

So anyway, I thought, “All right, one lady, one old lady, what the hell?” It was not until almost three months later, we finally had our first $100 day. And I was so ecstatic. I took my wife out to dinner and spent that $100 in like two blinks of the eyes. And then after that, something miraculously happened. The “San Francisco Chronicle” showed up and said, “You are doing something really unique. We’d like to do a little interview with you and maybe write about you.” And she said, maybe no, but I was very happy, obviously.

And so she interviewed me, we had tea. She spent like over two hours drinking tea with me. And then she left, and I thought that was it. A week later, a full-page story about us happened on the “San Francisco Chronicle” food page. And then ever since then, we started to climb the ladder a little bit. And then eventually, I had articles in “The New York Times” and the “Gourmet Magazine,” “Bon Appetit.”

The first 10 years or so of our business, it was pretty amazing. People come from all over the world to that little shop to talk tea, to just gleam a little bit of the real Chinese tea culture. But at least I like to consider it real. And a group of old men came in shortly after the article and they said, “We’ve been looking for a place like this to bring our songbirds.” So I said, “Come on in.”

Every Saturday, a group of old men, Chinese old men, bring their caged birds and hang them up on the latticework we have in the store, and they take up one table, they laugh, they drink tea, they argue, they lie to each other just like all men do. So it was wonderful. And this really unique tea culture has started.

I would like to claim that we were probably the only authentic Chinese tea shop in the U.S. at the time. Now, obviously, other people have sold tea before me. Other Chinese, obviously, did a lot of tea business before me, but the Chinese tea culture is like tea shops, but the proprietors are supposed to have something to do with every tea that they procure.

So we started making our signature Monkey Picked Tea from that first day I spent in Hong Kong, and we roast our own Monkey Picked Tea when it got oolong tea until today. We did a lot of things that little people have no business doing. I would go to China to supervise the production of our Lotus Heart Dragon Well. We never stopped that until recently. So, I think I could take up the rest of the hour if I wanted to. But long story short, that’s how we started.

Christy Hui:
Well, thank you, Roy. This is why I love tea masters and talking with my fellow tea people because I only asked you one question and look at that. So, thank you for that fascinating tea branch. Your story is like the tea branches, and it wraps around. And I think that’s why I love tea so much because everyone had their mystical beginning and it’s like you were guided by tea herself, the destiny. And I have so many questions for you just because of that story. One, if I hear correctly, it was Pu-erh tea that got you first started.

Roy Fong:
Right.

Christy Hui:
But it was Tieguanyin, which is a famous oolong tea that got you hooked. Am I correct?

Roy Fong:
On both counts. I think Pu-erh tea is in my blood growing up in Hong Kong.

Christy Hui:
Yes.

Roy Fong:
A lot of people always ask me, “What’s your favorite tea?” And I would say, “Pu-erh.” And they said, “Why?” And I had this kind of soul search. I love Tieguanyin, especially the old traditional Tieguanyin where the tea is actually oxidized to at least 30% and a good roast of the tea where just the roasting of the tea makes or breaks the tea, but also shows technique beyond people’s comprehension.

So I have to think why. And the simple reason is, whenever I have to make a decision on what tea I want to drink, or sometimes I don’t even realize I’m making a decision, it’s always Pu-erh because I think I grew up with that stuff. I drank it more than water when I was young; that’s what we always drink. When people show up in the house, being from Hong Kong, I just don’t know any better.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, I think that I love Pu-erh now. And it was funny because when I was a kid, I grew up watching my father drinking his Gong Fu Cha. And one time, he was drinking really, really dark tea. And I tasted it. I’m like, whoa, this is like medicine. And I said, “What is it? He says, “Oh, it’s Pu-erh.” And it was like, oh.

But I was a young girl then. It was like, oh, this is the old man’s tea. So I always related Pu-erh as old man tea. But until recently, because of the amazing health benefits and tasting Pu-erh at your event, that was brilliant. But I love to hear more about your Pu-erh. Yes, I think in Hong Kong, every Chinese restaurant that you go to, Sunday, Dim Sum, right? And it’s like, okay Bolay, right?

Roy Fong:
I mean, there’s Pu-erh, and there’s Pu-erh, you know, so-

Christy Hui:
I like how you say that pu-erh is also for cuts across all demographics. The Pu-erh people use Pu-erh, and there’s Pu-erh.

Roy Fong:
Well, I tell you, some of us were lucky enough to choose tea. Those of us who are extraordinarily lucky, tea chose you. So, I think I’m one of the extraordinarily lucky people who tea chose me.

So, I would encourage you guys to read my book. It’s not, unfortunately, available anywhere else except on my website because I basically wrote that book just to get it off my chest. One of the most asked questions I get is, “Why aren’t you writing a book?” So, this is my revised version. This is the second book. In it, it tells you the story of how I became the crazy tea person that I am today.

Christy Hui:
What is the title of your book?

Roy Fong:
“The Great Teas of China.”

Christy Hui:
Oh, okay, it’s available on your website. What is your website?

imperialtea.com

Christy Hui:
Okay, oh, you skipped the court. Okay, imperialtea.com

Roy Fong:
Yeah, just Imperial Tea. Okay. It’s about the tea, not about me.

Christy Hui:
I will definitely get a copy. I did not know that. Thank you for sharing that, by the way, Roy.

Roy Fong:
Thank you. So, in terms of Pu-erh, I think we were discussing the difference in Pu-erh. So you could go to a Dim Sum restaurant where they serve you so-called Pu-erh, but you just hope that it’s not too bad, and sometimes they don’t even clean the pot they used previously. So you could have other tea like Jasmine and whatever it tastes, and there’s Pu-erh tea that’s worth thousands of dollars a pound. I’ve sold aged Pu-erh back to China for a significant amount of money.

So, in the book also, we only have an hour so we… The short story about Pu-erh tea is that there are two first main two styles, the sheng style (RAW Pu-erh), and the shou style (RIPE Pu-erh).

The sheng style is Pu-erh tea that is from green tea and oxidized with air slowly aged. And hopefully, it’ll eventually turn red-ish. And when it turns red, then it’s become very expensive. This is the other version where Pu-erh is like a green tea made with green tea, like green tea, but water is added to the tea to encourage fermentation.

So, in tea terms, we always say fermentation, but what people really mean is oxidization, not fermentation. Pu-erh tea is fermentation where you add water to encourage bacteria to grow, and it changes into a mold, and then the mold changes to attack the tea leaf and change the dynamics inside. And then, after it dries off, some of the bacteria is still dominant in the tea. And then Pu-erh tea, this type of Pu-erh tea is called shou. In Cantonese, it is a lot.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, white Pu-erh.

Roy Fong:
White, yeah, and some people quote unquote say. Yeah, I don’t like that word. It had nothing to do with it.

Christy Hui:
Me too.

Roy Fong:
So it’s more correct.

Christy Hui:
Yes.

Roy Fong:
So people, collectors like us, we look at this type of Pu-erh. We’re all poor in general as a living being. So, when you interact with a living being, you have to learn the likes and dislikes of the other person if you want to be friends. So my book, again, explained a little bit about how to encourage bacteria to grow at the appropriate time and discourage it at the appropriate time. So a Pu-erh is very old already.

You don’t want bacteria to grow again because the bacteria have to feed on something. So over-fermented Pu-erh turns really dark. When you pour the tea, it almost looks like charcoal, and it becomes very light in color. The cup becomes very light in color, and there’s no flavor. And then the next tipping, there’ll be nothing.

Well-aged Pu-erh is very dark red and at least you try to get it to be very dark red. And the leaf is still pliable. And that is not turning black. So black shou Pu-erh and sheng Pu-erh are two different animals, although they are the same. I have some Pu-erh that one of the advantages we have here in the U.S., or at least in my part of the U.S., is that we don’t have high humidity here, but we do have fluctuation of temperature. So I deliberately do not put insulation on the roof of my warehouse.

Christy Hui:
So you have your own warehouse, and you are fermented or fermenting or oxidizing, producing your Pu-erh?

Roy Fong:
I’m aging. Right, I’m aging my Pu-erh.

Christy Hui:
Wow, okay.

Roy Fong:
You’re looking at someone who had over 40 tons of Pu-erh all the time. I buy it every year.

Christy Hui:
Oh my goodness, do you actually travel to Yunnan?

Roy Fong:
Oh yeah, I have great friends there. When we have time, I tell you the story of my first visit to Yunnan.

Christy Hui:
Please do because, Roy, coming up is a, I don’t know if you heard of this book called “The Tea Girl from Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See.

Roy Fong:
I think so, yeah.

Christy Hui:
In fact, I’m doing a tea book club, and we are going to share our thoughts on this book. And I love the story, and it’s featuring Pu-erh prominently. And I mean, I started to learn about Yunnan Pu-erh tea after I met you. And I was just fascinated by it. I didn’t even know that a type of Pu-erh tea is actually caffeine-free. So yeah, they’re just so fascinating a tea type by itself because you and I, we Chinese, know that there are six traditional Chinese tea types, and Pu-erh tea is by itself, it’s a tea type, but it’s a world onto itself. And so yes, I’d love for you to share more about your Pu-erh tea aging and production.

Roy Fong:
For those of you who have never been to Yunnan, that is a magical place where even today, the oldest living tea tree is over 1,800 years old. You could still walk up to it look at it and touch it. It’s a protected sort of local treasure. There’s no place else on Earth where you find live tea trees that are in such abundance.

And several hundred-year-old tea trees abound. And people pick tea from them still today. They climb up to the tree, and they pick tea. Although the popularity and value of Pu-erh tea, I believe, harms the quality and the sort of tradition of how it has always been produced in Yunnan.

Yunnan means the southern clouds, so it’s a very high area where trees reach for the clouds. And it’s such a unique place where there’s a high altitude area, but it’s almost like a valley. So people find prehistoric plants there that they still can name.

They still find things there. This is probably the only, well, this is the only place in China where you still find wild elephants. So it’s a tremendous place. And the way that this tea is produced is not really a lot of techniques required to make a great Dragon Well needs great techniques from picking to pan firing to refiring to storage to brewing.

Every one of those steps is important. If the tea master makes a great tea, you and I could totally screw that up by putting half a cup of tea, even put some boiling water in it, it’ll be so bitter. It’ll throw you out the window. But with Pu-erh tea, it’s almost all natural. So you don’t even worry about just the tips and this and that. It’s wild, so the local minority groups pick them and basically sun dry them as in ancient times. This is a major difference between other tea production and Yunnan Pu-erh tea production. The final drying is not by forced heat. It’s by sun-dry.

So sun-dry is not as intense as or as close as direct fire. So the bacteria that’s within the leaf can continue to lift, and it retains a little bit higher moisture content because it’s a big leaf, it has a lot of moisture, and sun drying doesn’t completely bake it out. So the bacteria is able to survive. And the added moisture sometimes helps it remold. So that’s where I come in: where do you let it remold or not remold at all?

So that’s where the so-called store your tea in the cave idea comes in because in the cave, there’s a lot of humidity and moisture, and the tea will mold again and get that unique earthiness. But there is a point of too much molding. Also, people’s misconception is molding, and that moldy taste means it’s old.

I could produce mold for you in a week, and that’s how some of them make kind of, I don’t wanna say fake, but they doctor the tea to make it taste older. A good, well-fermented Pu-erh should taste earthy, almost like clean soil, but not moldy and powdery like mildew.

So you need to kind of understand that. There are some teas that will benefit from another mold and another fermentation because the first fermentation it went through might not be enough, so accelerate that aging and add more bacteria. But if you’re not careful, that bacteria will go rampant in the tea and be no good.

Christy Hui:
It’s a balance.

Roy Fong:
Yeah, yeah, so even though it is not a lot of technical. So if you’ve been to Yunnan and you’ve been to, say, Hangzhou, where the Dragon Well is produced, and you look at the cuisine and look at the people, they’re vastly different. Not that one is more beautiful than the other.

The style is so different. And that’s why the tea is so different. So I used to take people to China on a tea and culinary culture tour. So the first thing I asked them to do is, when they get off the plane, start looking around them and record everything in their head: how the people look, how they sound, how the foliage looks like, how the leaves look like. And eventually, they’ll discover.

In Hangzhou, the leaves are lighter greens, smaller leaves, and the trees and people are more delicate. The food is sweeter and less intense. As you go south to Fujian and to Yunnan, everything is dark green, the leaves are bigger, and the food becomes simpler but more intense in flavor. When you go to Yunnan, it’s spicy and strong just like the land.

Christy Hui:
Yes, it matches what the land produces. And it’s like, that’s why we talk about just like in France, wine. And you drink local wine, and it matches with the local cuisine. So I love that. When I was tasting Pu-erh tea with you in your specialty tasting, it really opened my eyes about the different types of Pu-erh that, as you said, there’s Pu-erh, and there’s Pu-erh, and there’s Pu-erh, right? Given how big really Pu-erh has been growing, it’s a cult. There’s a cult-like following. I mean, expensive Pu-erh tea can go as high as what, Roy?

Roy Fong:
So just for example, I sold some 1989 tea cakes to China to a good friend of mine for $2,000 per piece.

Christy Hui:
One cake?

Roy Fong:
Per cake, yeah. So one cake is 357 grams, slightly less than a pound. So I thought I did pretty well. I only paid $4 a kilo when I bought it years ago. But he turns around and sells it for almost 100,000 yuan, so divided by seven, significantly more than$2,000. So this is a little bit like an antique.

There’s no set price. For those who like it and appreciate it and can afford it, the price almost doesn’t matter because every time you break down one of them, that’s one less in the world. Very seldom do people have tea that is that, oh, really? So, one of my first cardinal rules in purchasing for, or even antique, is that I’m not a big antique guy, but I love them. First, rule number one, stop telling me stories.

I don’t wanna hear the story. I just want to taste the tea for what it is. And from my own understanding of how the tea and I communicate, how do I like them? How seem like they like me back? If the price is acceptable to me, I don’t really care what other people buy it for. I buy, and I walk away.

I don’t ever go back and double-check. And I’m happy with it that way. And then, from that point on, it is me and that tea. So that’s my only cardinal rule: don’t listen to stories; listen to your heart, and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t do things that you can’t afford, obviously, like your mom always tells you.

Don’t be crazy and buy things you shouldn’t. If it’s something you have no idea about, even though you like it, it is a big number. You probably shouldn’t do it unless you’re one of those who could afford to do, like, I don’t know, a big basketball player or something. If you make 100 million, somebody wants 100,000 from you.

You probably think there’s some change. But those of us who have to fight to make $100, we’re pretty careful with our money. We don’t let our vanity or a story confuse us because we’re confused enough as it is.

Christy Hui:
So now, one of the things that you shared with me, with us, during the Pu-erh tea tasting was your way of being one with the tea. Would you like to say that? It really resonated with me, Roy.

Roy Fong:
Well, it’s a communication because if you look at that tea as a living being, what do you do when you meet someone else? You talk, you communicate, right? So remember, when I pour water in and rinse the leaf out, the fragrance of the tea, I show everyone, I tell them, that’s your first hello between you and the tea.

That fragrance tells you everything about itself: where it comes from, how old it is, how it was produced, and which region it comes from. And probably how you’re gonna be rewarded if you treat it this way or that way. It’s giving you all the answers, but it’s speaking in a different language than you usually do.

So you have to kind of decipher that, and then understand what signal you’re receiving, and then act accordingly. So this connection is like making art. It’s like painting, nobody should tell you. When you go paint, every time you should use a four-by-four canvas with three colors and only 45 strokes; you can’t make art that way. You have to release yourself, listen to you, and listen to everything around you, in this case, including the tea and the people around you.

And then you try to communicate, and you try to see what you do if you get a positive response, right? A non-positive response will be astringency or water tastes like water or-

Christy Hui:
Mold.

Roy Fong:
Like moldy tasting. So all these things are, it sounds complicated, but they really aren’t because those of you who are wine drinkers out there looking for the same thing. If you are a wine drinker, you look for the nose, you look for the color, you look for the legs, you look for the depth of the clarity; everything’s the same except you don’t get to affect the final outcome as much with wine.

So what’s already done is in the bottle. When you serve it, you’re only left with what temperature you should be serving it at. What kind of glass makes a huge difference? Do you pair with the correct type of food or not? But you are not making the wine stronger or lighter.

With tea, your participation determines the final outcome of your encounter by adjusting the temperature, using different tasting water, using boiling tea, less amount of tea, how you place your tea in your pot or in your cup, how you pour your water, how long you let it steep, how you let it steep, how you pour it out, and then finally, how do you drink it with what kind of cup. You have so much influence to make it so, so much different and-

Christy Hui:
It’s a dance, it’s like-

Roy Fong:
Absolutely.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, it’s a dance, and you are speaking. That’s one thing I love about talking with you is the language of tea that you’re speaking, and together, you’re creating this dance. And I love the fact that the Pu-erh tea is actually alive.

Roy Fong:
Yeah.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, so you brought on so many wonderful little questions I have. And due to time, we’re going to have to have another session, but Roy, because I wanna ask you something. If someone listening to the podcast and they really, really wanna start drinking Pu-erh, how do they start? What do they look for? What’s the best way to go about it?

Roy Fong:
Well, I mean, there’s no better way than just trying, number one. And again, there’s so much chatter today with the internet and everybody pounding their chest about how good they are, which is very anti-Chinese. We always believe that when you are good, people will find out. When you have to say you’re good, then you probably still need a little work. Tea is one art that you are not gonna finish in one lifetime.

I don’t care who you are. So it’s an ongoing process, and your truth is a little different than my truth. Because like for example, you come from Yunnan or something, you eat very spicy food. The way you wanna enjoy your tea would be very different than someone who comes from Shanghai.

The preliminary culture is very different. So don’t let people force you to do things this way or that way. I’m the anti-rules guy. All my life, I don’t really like to follow what people tell me unless I understand it the same way that was told to me. So I would say listen to yourself. And again, like I said, don’t listen to the stories just because of this story. If you don’t agree, don’t be afraid to say so. And then try it, try to get your tea from a reputable vendor.

At some point, you’re gonna have to develop trust with the person who provides you with the tea. And no, going directly to China to buy tea will not always give you the best deal. My advice to people is, when you go to Hangzhou, don’t buy Dragon Well. If you go to Yunnan, don’t run into the shop and buy a bunch of Yunnan Pu-erh because the chances of you getting great Pu-erh are not as great as you think.

So find somebody you can trust, preferably somebody that allows you to sample taste. And there’s somebody that could explain in a way you can understand. And this is just personal. If somebody said, you make your tea this way and only this way, so many seconds, so many minutes, I myself have a problem with that because, again, your preference is different than my preference. I would take somebody who gave me directions like that. I’ll take their advice and try it for myself, and then I’ll explore other options to see if that really works for me. If it doesn’t, I’m not afraid to say no.

Christy Hui:
It’s an individual experience with tea. And so don’t be afraid to meet the tea and communicate.

Roy Fong:
Don’t be afraid to disagree because I’ve been in tea tastings where I don’t wanna say, but the person is well known, and so they’re describing flavors that I simply don’t believe are there. But obviously, I wasn’t gonna stand up and say no. I think everybody should be respected when they’re sharing their understanding and knowledge. Maybe you agree or not agree; that’s okay. But I don’t think direct confrontation is respectful.

Christy Hui:
I have a question. When you’re going to, let’s say one of your sourcing trips in Yunnan and trying to buy tea, you are obviously tasting and communicating with tea. What other qualifications are you looking for?

Roy Fong:
Well, I think the person you deal with is important because ultimately, that’s a people’s business. So you have to trust each other. And I gotta tell you, over 30 years of importing tea, I rarely ever have to pay ahead of time. The tea gets shipped to me, it gets into my warehouse, I pay them.

If I find anything wrong, they’ll take care of me. It tells you that there’s a pretty deep trust between me and my suppliers now. But also, I have a fortunate advantage because in the early days, in order to make better tea, I went to the farm where the tea was grown, and I worked the entire harvest with them. So I know what happens when you pick the tea on rainy days, or you pick the tea during good weather days.

If you pick it, cut it with a knife, for example, or cut it with a machine, or you pick it with your hands, what the differences are during each process, each step of the process, affects the next step. So, by knowing the entire process, I knew the finished product was lacking this or that. So I could tell them, for example, your rolling process is not enough because you don’t roll it enough. If you don’t break the cellular structures within the leaf flavors don’t release. If your rolling is not enough, then you won’t develop full flavor. The oxidation won’t happen correctly. So I could tell them, so they could adjust on the next day because harvest comes in every day. And you could tell when the teas picked in the rainy day, the flavor is a lot less.

Christy Hui:
In Pu-erh tea, do you also roll or knead?

Roy Fong:
Yeah, yes, you have to roll. So you pan-fire to cook the leaf to stop the rawness, but you also cook through the leaf so it stops any further oxidation. And then it also makes it soft and pliable, allowing you to roll it. If you don’t cook through it, then you roll it, you break the leaf. So if you overcook the leaf, it’ll burn, it tastes burnt, and it’ll be too dry. You can’t roll it. So it’s just you miss that, your rolling won’t be correct.

And then the rolling has to be done intermittently. That means you can’t roll it for three hours because you break it off. The rolling creates heat. When it’s too hot, you have to stop. You have to break the leaves of the pot, let them cool off, and roll them again. So this is all my eyes. They have not discovered a computer better than the one you have between your ears. It’s by eye, by touch, by smell. That’s how we do it.

Christy Hui:
What’s your favorite part of the process, Roy?

Roy Fong:
Oh, my favorite part is when they’re done, I get to drink it.

Christy Hui:
Speaking as a true tea enthusiast.

Roy Fong:
So I remember the first time I tried to make Dragon Well. This is several years after I became a professional tea merchant. So I was there, and I thought I knew a lot about this already. And I saw this little girl pan-firing the tea for me. So I was telling her this and that and giving direction. And finally, I told her, “Move aside, let me do it.”

Although I had never done it. I just thought it didn’t look so hot. So I said, “Move aside, let me do it.” She looks like 15. So I sat down there. Within three seconds, I burned my hand. And my white palm, half of it is completely blistered. But everybody, like 20 people was watching me. So I had to finish it. So I finished it, and I did a terrible job, and my hand is completely burned. So I slowly stood up and said, “Oh, maybe you should finish it.” And then I walked against the wall and tried to put my hand on the window to try to cool it off. And everybody is so politely could pretend not to see that.

Christy Hui:
That giant wok that you use your hand to do this, right?

Roy Fong:
Yeah, on the wok. The only thing keeping your hand being cooked are those shrinking tea leaves, and they shrink fast.

Christy Hui:
And that wok is hot. It can get up to 420 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roy Fong:
I mean, so that gave me renewed respect for the people who did that. I just realized that moment, that girl has more tea flowing through her blood than I ever will because, for maybe six or seven generations, that’s all they did. They come out of the womb knowing how to do this stuff. And then, after I burned my hand and I looked, I realized the intricacy of every single movement she’s doing without thinking because she’s reacting to what the tea’s telling them.

If it’s shrinking, you use a different technique so you don’t burn your hand, but you gotta keep the tea moving all the time so it doesn’t get burned. It’s a real art. To really honestly answer your question, just watching the art happen live is my biggest thrill. And every step of the way is a different thrill. I remember making oolong tea in Taiwan with my friend. I went there after dinner at about nine o’clock.

So the teas are being rolled, and you work all the way through until the next morning. So every step of the production, after they finish pan-firing, I’ll grab a handful. We’ll go back to the office. We’ll cup that tea when it’s pan-firing. Before it’s completely done, it is very bitter. And you could taste the difference as each production goes on.

The beginning of the rolling to the end of the rolling is a completely different tea. I think I even mentioned that in my book. That’s the biggest tea lesson in my life, understanding each production technique and step and how it affects the flavor. The only way you could tell is that you drink it on each step. So I did that through the night. And then the next morning, I went through picking with them and I came out of that farm a new person.

Christy Hui:
It’s very intense, a laborious process and also sequential. Like you said, you can’t miss a step. And when one step is finished, you gotta go to the next step. When I was in Wuyi Shan, having the tea master talk about their tea-making process, it was a two-week intensive for each batch. And it was like night and day, 24/7, like you said.

Roy Fong:
A lot of people make tea because they need to make a living. Only a few people are very good at what they do, and they make it because they can’t help it. You just love it; that’s not enough. You just can’t help yourself. No one can pay you to make excellent tea. Only you can make excellent tea. And you’re doing it, not even by choice. You just can’t help it.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, I have to agree with you and so much in that way that what I talk about after my journey of making the tea movie and watching the tea masters, and I’m so grateful to be talking with you because you remind me and you reminded me of that journey that I went through, that it was a tea spirit.

To make good tea, you have to be a good person, that moral character, and be one with tea because you’re learning from each other, you’re communicating. And this tea master, he’s an 11th generation oolong tea master, and he puts it this way. He said, tea making is a limitless art, which hearing from you is the same message, isn’t it, Roy?

Roy Fong:
Yeah, the key culture as we know it today came from millions and millions and millions of people’s wisdom in combination with thousands of years of progression to make it what it is. So you and I are lucky enough to live a healthy 100 years. It’s just a speck of time in terms of history.

So it’s just not enough time to learn everything, that’s not possible. And you could consider it an art, which art is, you could finish learning. It is an art because it’s unending. You learn from yourself, you learn from others, you learn from just being. I just can’t be more grateful for who I am today because of tea.

Every success I have had in life is because of tea. Until I found tea, I was just floundering. Tea gave me a sense of purpose and self-respect. It takes me to places I never thought possible. I meet great people like you and others, and sometimes you even get paid for it. I don’t know what else you want in life.

Christy Hui:
If you could put the tea spirit into one sentence, what would that be?

Roy Fong:
In one sentence, tea spirit.

Christy Hui:
And you said so many wonderful things like tea changed your life and how tea-

Roy Fong:
I think for me, it’s tea is life. If you just live your life like you treat your tea, you’re probably gonna be okay. It will change. The famous thing Bruce Lee says is, “Be like water.”

Christy Hui:
Yes.

Roy Fong:
Be like tea.

Christy Hui:
Be like tea.

Roy Fong:
Tea is water. It could be anything you want. And there’s a level of tea for every human being. Nobody should belittle anyone who wants a no-good tea bag or drinks Earl Gray tea or whatever because that’s the level that suits them. Nobody should be uppity. And in fact, I fired, the only time in my life I fired someone. I fired three people in my whole life. I’ve been in the business since I’m 21-year-old.

They forced me, okay? The only person I ever fired in tea was this person who gives people a bad face when they come in, asking for Earl Gray. And I walked him aside, and I said, “Listen, you can’t do that. I don’t like that. If you think they’re beneath you, then maybe you should find another job. Nobody’s beneath you or above you. We should be respectful to others for their choices, but also for what they prefer. Who the hell are you?” So he didn’t really take that warning seriously. And I had to fire him. I’ve never done that to any; I mean, we’re Chinese, you know how it is.

Christy Hui:
Yes.

Roy Fong:
Having to confront someone to tell them they’re not doing their job, it’s very difficult for us.

Christy Hui:
Yes, yes.

Roy Fong:
Because we’re imagining somebody doing that to us. That’s such a huge loss of face. So you’re supposed to understand it’s really time for you to exit so that we can avoid having to confront each other. Americans want you to come out. Well, you don’t like it. Why don’t you tell me?

Christy Hui:
Yeah, yeah, to lean in and say, “Hey, I’m here. Give it to me, give it to me.”

Roy Fong:
I’m practically born here, but I still have this problem. I came here when I was 13, and I’m 68 now. I’ve been here for a long time. But I still have difficulty being “American” sometimes.

Christy Hui:
Well, being a tea person also, I find that tea brings out the harmonious nature. And tea is a harmonious entity. It brings us internal harmony and harmony with each other. And that’s what I always say: Tea is a cup of humanity. And you nailed it in every one of your stories just confirms and affirms all that. After making the tea film, I have so much more respect. I mean, I had a lot of respect for tea. You know how it is, Roy, that it takes time for you to see?

Roy Fong:
Right.

Christy Hui:
And for me, that represents tea so much.

Roy Fong:
Absolutely.

Christy Hui:
And it teaches us how to be better humans, in my opinion.

Roy Fong:
Right.

Christy Hui:
Better humans.

Roy Fong:
Yeah, I certainly have become a better human being, at least in my opinion. Sometimes my wife doesn’t actually agree but–

Christy Hui:
Ask your wife that, yes.

Roy Fong:
I came from Hong Kong at 13. When I went back to Hong Kong at 21, I could barely read a newspaper anymore. I only have a sixth-grade education in Hong Kong.

And I wasn’t a very good student. I remember when they said, “Oh, we’re applying to bring you guys to the U.S. I go, “Oh, no more school. “Put that year off.” So because of tea, certainly because of tea, I’m a lot more cultured in terms of Chinese. I not only can read a newspaper, I even read poetry, it’s shocking.

Christy Hui:
Oh, while you’re sipping your tea and you’re like reciting poetry?

Roy Fong:
But there’s so much poetry about tea.

Christy Hui:
Oh, that’s right.

Roy Fong:
I quote the three of them in my book.

Christy Hui:
Can you please recite for our audience? I would love to hear you recite your favorite tea poem.

Roy Fong:
Well, there’s a poem about oolong tea.

The final sentence is… <in Cantonese> That means everybody shows off their aged tea from last year. And this is surprisingly not about Pu-erh, it’s about the place you came from that you make your film. It’s about Wuyi tea because the traditional method of Wuyi tea is to make the tea this year, save it until next year, and re-fire before you sell.

That means that the firing, means the firing energy, means hasn’t been removed. Do not let it touch your lips. So that means freshly roasted tea, don’t drink it. My standard practice is to fire two weeks prior to when I sell it, and I let it cool off. Almost like you barbecue and let the meat rest, right?

Christy Hui:
Sit, yeah, let the meat sit, yeah.

Roy Fong:
So with roasting tea, you let the tea sit so that it absorbs some moisture around it so that it has a toasty, fiery taste. And to the Chinese, it’s not just a taste; it’s energy. You need that to be…

Christy Hui:
Re-energizing the leaves.

Roy Fong:
Yeah, yeah, so. That means before the firing energy is gone, do not touch. So it’s in my book.

Christy Hui:
There are 400+ poems that celebrate Wuyi tea. We, the Chinese, have so many poems about tea. She’s a major star.

Roy Fong:
If you go up to Wuyi Shan, they’re halfway on the side of the mountain everywhere. You can’t help but learn.

Christy Hui:
It is along the river. It is so amazing, the tea culture.

Roy Fong:
I can encourage people to go to Wuyi Shan more. I mean, if it’s already changed so much, not for the better, unfortunately. The Wuyi Shan is one of 36 more portals to immortality for Taoists. And if you go there, you know why. Every turn is just not this well.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, there are so many temples that we shot, and we had to scale up the mountains to shoot those temples. The Taoist temples and the Buddhist temples. Now I know; you told me earlier when we met, Roy, that you were a Taoist.

Roy Fong:
Correct, yeah. I’m from the Cheng Chong Taoist Association of America. I’m the first “priest” in America for that temple. So I learned that. So I believe major direction in your life is preplanned. You could do anything you want, whatever you want. You could change a small direction, but you end up in that direction eventually. So I learned Tai Chi, and then I learned Buddhism and Taoism. And I learned tea, Tai Chi, and Taoism in that order. It only happened when that period of time, I got in a very bad car accident, and I wasn’t able to work for almost six months.

Long story short, a friend called me up and said, “Roy, let’s go to dinner.” I said, “Okay.” I haven’t seen this guy forever. And so he came to my house, picked me up, we went to Chinatown for dinner, and just couldn’t find a parking space anywhere. So I told him, “Wherever we park, we just go to the closest restaurant.” And after I said that, within seconds, we found this huge big parking space on Grand Avenue.

We pulled in, and we walked across the street. It’s a vegetarian restaurant. And I didn’t know at the time that it’s customary to be a vegetarian, at least on your birthday because that’s the day you get life. So you don’t take life on that day. I did not know that. Okay, so we walk into the restaurant and I did not know that’s in the Chinese calendar, that was my birthday.

My birthday is January 15th in the Chinese calendar. In the Western calendar, it’s February 26th. So I did not know that it was January 15th, and I did not know January 15th was the first festival, the first important day of the year. It’s called. This is where the star, the gods come down to give good fortune to people. So I did not know that.

So I went to the restaurant. We ate vegetarian. Halfway through, I needed to go to the bathroom, and I went upstairs, not knowing that the second floor was the Taoist temple. I walked up, and I forgot to go to the bathroom because the sounds they were making were so fascinating. And there’s a group of people there waiting, watching. So I went, and I watched, and they were performing the star praising ceremony. Traditionally, the first such ceremony is performed. On January 15, the ceremony was done. So, the Taoists believe that everybody belongs to a star system.

So your star system is bright, energetic, you’ll be in good fortune. The really special people have their own star. So praising the star and trying to align yourself with positive energy is what that ceremony is about. And I didn’t know that. So I met the priest there and a couple, and they asked me to come back. Long story short, I ended up living with them for two years because, at that time, in the beginning, I wasn’t working. So I spent a month learning.

So I was a sixth grade educated person that hadn’t spoken Chinese for a long time. And I had to learn scriptures and incantations and talismans that are like two-inch thick books. I learned that in a little over a year. They said that nobody has ever done that on top of you not being literate in Chinese. So it only could happen because I lived with them for two years, and it only could happen because they let me live and become like their third son. And then, because Tai Chi and Taoism teach me a lot of things about energy and movement and position and balancing. And I put all that into my tea when I make tea.

And I believe that’s what caused me to be a different tea person. I could direct my energy into the tea I’m making because I’m communicative. So that’s why the tea to me tastes better to me, of course. My little energy going up again. But yeah. This life of mine has been very interesting and almost everything is pointed towards tea. So I said earlier, some of us were lucky enough, are fortunate enough for tea to choose you.

I really believe tea chose me. I did not have any idea. None of these things that I described, I knew beforehand. I did not know that on my birthday every year, they do the star praising ceremony for me and I’ve become part of the temple. So, in the 10 years or so I spent being active in the temple every birthday, I did the star praising ceremony for myself and everybody. I mean, if that’s not destiny, I don’t know what is.

Christy Hui:
Yeah, well, I can taste that, like you say, in the energy when we were doing the Pu-erh tea tasting, and you were so generous with the tasting, the flight. It was spectacular. I definitely taste that earthiness. I don’t know if it’s your energy because I didn’t know that you were making it then, but it was exquisite Pu-erh tea.

So thank you for sharing that with me. And I definitely feel like I met you. I think when I walk into your Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco to have Dim Sum. And by the way, if you’re listening and you are going to San Francisco, you have to go visit Roy’s Imperial Tea Court. It gave me a slice of the kind of Hong Kong experience, Roy.

I love the food. And not only do you sell tea, I love the tea things you sell and we haven’t even talked about it, the tea things.

Roy Fong:
Well, tea is such a big subject.

Christy Hui:
Yes, it is. And I love the fact that I just let you roll, Roy. And then that’s it, we’re out of time.

Roy Fong:
That’s a problem; when you get to talk tea, I talk your ears off.

Christy Hui:
I love it, I love it. So we’re gonna have to make a second time and, well, a third time because we are sharing something miraculous about tea that I think most people are not even aware of. To me, the tea spirit. In my conversations with you, you have awakened that tea spirit within me. So I wanna thank you for that.

Roy Fong:
Thank you, thank you. I would look forward to more conversation.

Christy Hui:
Absolutely.

Roy Fong:
This is just only one passion left in my life and I love to share it. I look at it as almost my duty. Tea has been so good to me, at least I can do is to give a little back and let people know how other people can be so enthusiastic about this one magic plant. And you don’t even have to get arrested to get high. Just water and tea, you could get high.

Christy Hui:
So one-liner to button this entire talk. Roy, what is the one thing tea taught you?

Roy Fong:
I said earlier, be like water, be like tea. I think it says all.

Christy Hui:
Beautiful.

Roy Fong:
Thank you.

Christy Hui:
Thank you, Roy. I appreciate your time and your sharing. And thank you, my fellow tea person. You have a fabulous weekend.

Christy Hui and Roy Fong
Christy Hui and Roy Fong

That’s all for this episode. I really enjoyed sharing this cup with you. For tea floats between us, bestowing her wisdom in the leaves. Remember, it’s not about the tea you drink, but the spirit you bring to your tea drinking.

Thank you all for listening. Until the next Enchantea. May the tea spirit embrace you.

To join the 9 Dragons Tea Society, visit 9dragonstea.com.

 

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