Story by Mel Patching
Gender discrimination is still, unfortunately, a reality in many industries, including the tea industry. While the prevalence of female tea masters, shop owners and tea producers may lead you to believe that the industry enjoys a good balance of genders, research shows that for the majority of tea farms, the more strenuous jobs are given to women, who often work longer hours than their male counterparts.
In spite of women’s high involvement in tea farming, they still experience discrimination in all aspects, including land ownership and the control of and access to benefits and profits.
We spoke with Nana Chan, founder of Hong Kong’s well-loved tea houses teakha and Plantation, who sources craft teas from small farms in Taiwan, Japan, India and China. Many of the farms she sources from are women-led or all female-run. She says that as a female business owner and new mother herself, she champions other women in the industry.
Plantation tea house is currently running a promotion of 20 percent off on all their teas from women-led farms for International Women’s Day 2021, to encourage more people to enjoy these teas and celebrate the women producing them.
“The women who run these farms inspire me no end. I’m so honored to work with them,” says Nana. “We hope you can take a moment to share a pot of their handcrafted tea with a woman who inspires you too. Happy International Women’s Day!”
Here are their stories:
Katie Yen leads an all-female organic tea farm in Yuchi Village, Nantou County, Taiwan.
Twenty-one years ago, Nantou County was the epicenter of Taiwan’s greatest natural disaster since the Second World War – the 921 Earthquake – a magnitude 7 earthquake that resulted in more than 2,400 deaths. Although Katie and her tea farm were fortunate enough to be safe, the road leading up to her farm was destroyed, and it was not until a year later that she was able to get to it.
When she was at last able to access the tea farm again, she realised the power of nature. Being abandoned for a year, the tea plants had not only survived but grown strong with intense flavors and an unusual fragrance. This amazed Katie, and she decided to run the farm completely organically.
Doing something pioneering and different is never easy, and for the first three years, Katie’s farm suffered immensely from poor harvests, expensive operational costs and a market that was not yet ready for a low-yield, high-priced product.
Most of Katie’s clients left, which drove her to eventually look at the overseas market. In 2014, Katie also received US and EU organic certification.
Katie inherited her tea farm from her father at a very young age. Married to an alcoholic, she was then made to toil the fields and take care of the children all by herself. Now divorced and happily independant, Katie believes in the power of women and employs a handful of female workers who take care of the entire production line from harvest to wilting, rolling, drying and blending.
Lian A Na, the matriarch of a small organic farm in Taitung, Taiwan, is the original creator of Red Oolong, a sweet, bug-bitten tea with top notes of black tea and undertones of an oolong – a breakthrough tea that put Taitung on the map.
Having been forced out of competition by imported cheap teas from Southeast Asia, Mrs. Lian was looking for a new kind of tea to win the hearts of local consumers again, and came up with an oolong / black tea hybrid in 2008, together with the head of the Tea Research and Extension Station in Taitung.
Her organic farm sits on the edges of Luye Highland, with an attached guest house. They harvest the organic tea five times a year in very small batches.
The Wu sisters are second-generation Red Jade tea growers whose patriarch played a critical role in a small tea revolution that took place almost a century ago.
During the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), the Yuchi area in Taiwan became the testing ground for an entirely different kind of tea. And it was a young Japanese entrepreneur by the name of Arai Kokichiro who started it all.
Seeing the potential in cultivating Camellia Assamica tea trees in Taiwan as they do in India, Arai summoned the help of local farmer Wu Chin-Hsi to help him manage the 71-hectare Yuchi Black Tea farm. The farm thrived under his care, and even after the Japanese occupation ended, Wu remained committed to his crop.
Nantou was the epicentre of the 921 earthquake in 1999, Taiwan’s worst earthquake since 1935, which killed more than 2,400 people and left more than 100,000 homeless. Yet, this catastrophic event would lead unexpectedly to a resurgence of the black tea industry.
It was during this time that a new cultivar of black tea called Taiwan tea #18 had been developed by the local Tea Research Station: a hybrid of the wild Taiwan tea tree (Camelia Formosensis) and the Burmese Assamica. This tea yields a highly palatable and well-balanced black tea, with a unique sweet aroma akin to cinnamon with just a hint of mint.
Wu Chin-Hsi invested hugely in this new cultivar, and his conviction paid off. Today, Taiwan tea #18, or Red Jade (紅玉紅茶), as it is endearingly called, is considered the crème de la crème of Taiwanese black tea.
Today, Father Wu having long passed, the Red Jade tea farm is run entirely by the Wu sisters.
A Meng leads a tea plantation in Wuyishan, China. Unlike most tea farms where tea is grown on one demarcated plot of land, the tea bushes in Wuyishan are scattered sporadically throughout the region.
The women here have been producing tea for generations. There is no secret formula — it’s all down to experience. They closely monitor and adjust the process at each step to get the desired result.
A woman of few words, A Meng is hard-working and doesn’t smile much, although there’s always a sparkle in her eye whenever she talks about her teas. She refers to them as if they have unique personalities of their own.
Every day, A Meng is out in the fields and factory, while her husband looks after their one-year-old son. She supervises every step of the tea production process, ensuring the meticulous attention to detail that rock teas require. The respect she commands is evident in the way people straighten their posture a little whenever she comes past.