Heading down to the local cha chaan teng for breakfast, inhaling the invigorating scent of tea behind the counter, and getting ready to start the day – this is a morning ritual for many Hongkongers, a central part of their daily lives from the time they were children. It’s a memory that Eric Wong, a tea leaf wholesaler turned maker of milk tea, now hopes to evoke amongst his fellow Hongkongers in the United Kingdom.
“When you’re in Hong Kong, this is not something that you might particularly cherish,” he says. “But in a new place, what used to be part of your everyday life is now hard to come by.”
Every morning, after Wong sends off his daughter Trini to school, he returns to the basement overlooking a garden in his house in Sutton, which has been converted into a production space for his milk tea business. Trini Hong Kong Style Milk Tea, named after his daughter, is available at Asian supermarkets all across London, with Wong at times handling the delivery himself, piling bottles of tea into the trunk of his car and dropping them off at the shops. Wong also sources the ingredients, organises the food labelling, takes orders, makes the tea, and liaises with his customers. The tea is made to order, and there are days Wong spends over 10 hours in the basement, churning out more than 200 bottles of milk tea and stopping only for meals or to pick up his daughter.
Wong and his family moved to the United Kingdom on Christmas Eve in 2020. They settled in an apartment block in Sutton, a quiet suburb in south London which has since emerged as a prominent neighbourhood for Hong Kong immigrants. Wong’s father-in-law had arrived half a year earlier, scouting out locations across the city, and eventually chose Sutton for its schools. At first, the pandemic and lockdown measures had restricted the family’s movement, and Wong was unaware of the sheer number of Hong Kong people in his area. By the time he left the building and moved to another house in the area, there were more than 200 families in his block alone.
In the aftermath of the political tumult in Hong Kong in 2019 and the introduction of the national security law, scores of Hong Kongers left home and moved to the United Kingdom. At the time Wong decided to move, the British government had not yet implemented a visa scheme for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders to stay in the country, with a potential path towards settlement after five years. His family first emigrated on Leave Outside the [Immigration] Rules (LOTR) grounds, and later applied to stay with their BNOs, which were granted to anyone born in Hong Kong before the handover in 1997. Since the implementation of the policy, over 144,000 have left the city and resettled in Britain, leading to the formation of new diaspora communities in cities such as London, Liverpool, and Manchester.
The first wave of Hongkongers to arrive were especially close-knit, says Wong. “We had fewer concerns that the Hong Kong people that move here now have. Many of them are thinking about how to live – but we were thinking about how to survive.” Sometimes, when Wong and his fellow Hongkongers ran into each other on the street, they would stop and chat for an hour. They often stayed in touch so as to exchange information or help each other out. One of Wong’s neighbours now runs the Instagram account for the milk tea business, after Wong confessed to not being proficient with social media. Another kaifong is learning to bake pineapple buns, a Hong Kong bakery staple, and has sought Wong’s advice on acquiring a licence, with the ambition of also turning it into a business venture.
Before moving to London, Wong’s tea leaf wholesale business supplied Sri Lankan (Ceylon) tea to cha chaan tengs all over Hong Kong, sometimes tailor-making different blends according to their preferred taste. It was from his business partner, a childhood friend, that Wong acquired his craft of making milk tea. Wong then studied the relevant laws and regulations and learned how to set up a company in the United Kingdom. These days, aside from running the milk tea business, Wong also supplies tea leaves to several Chinese restaurants, as well as tea leaf packages to cities such as Birmingham and Reading.
To make his milk tea, Wong first boils hot water in large antimony kettles. He then pours the water into another kettle containing the specially concocted Ceylon tea leaf mixture — a heap of dark brown leaves of three different sizes, fine as a powder — in a hemp cloth. Over time, the cloth turns the colour of caramel, not unlike that of pantyhose, which is what gives the beverage the nickname of silk stocking milk tea. After the tea is brewed once, the process of pouring water and straining the tea is repeated three times, in order to loosen up the tea leaf so that they would not stick together, and each particle would release its flavour to produce a richer, more intense tea. The tea is then boiled again. When the tea is brewed, locally-sourced evaporated milk and sugar are added. It is a time-consuming procedure: the tea has to be cool enough to bottle, but not left on the counter for too long that germs would fester. The creations are then stored in a fridge and could keep up to three weeks.
As a one-man business, Wong has not had the time to pay a visit back to Hong Kong. He misses the wonton noodles and congee shops, late-night Chiu Chow daa2 laang1 (打冷) restaurants, and street snack stalls – food that is now an inseparable part of his memories of the city he grew up in. With his milk tea, he hopes to bring Hong Kong people in Britain a small taste of home, as well as introduce the drink to Britons who may be unfamiliar with the idea of a smooth, sweet tea that is sometimes consumed cold. It was the Brits who had introduced tea with milk to Hong Kong during the colonial era, and Wong wants to bring the culture to them, show them how they have transformed the drink and made it their own. “They may need some time, but I believe that one day they’ll warm to it,” he says.
Wong has recently experimented with new variants such as charcoal-flavoured milk tea and Earl Grey milk tea, as well as a new line of fruit teas, all of which are now available on the market. When Wong and his daughter are at the supermarket, the five-year-old would sometimes point to the bottles of tea bearing her name on the shelf and squeal in delight. “Now, with both the brand and my daughter – I get to watch them grow up together,” he says.