Tea, Roasted to Order Over Charcoal: The Story of Ming Heung

Ming Heung Tea Shop has been sitting in exactly the same position in Kowloon City since 1963. Chen Dak, the founder, had been in Hong Kong and in the tea business for about 10 years when the shop was established, following in the footsteps of his father, with whom he fled to Hong Kong in 1951. The two were from a Chiu Chow family, originally from the Chaozhou region of eastern Guangdong, that had been living in Guangzhou. But they decided to leave in response to political changes after the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. They moved near the Kowloon Walled City, where many other Chiu Chow people had already settled. 

If you visit the tea shop today, Chen Dak’s children, who now work alongside their father, will explain quite willingly that theirs had been classified as a landlord family in post-1949 China, because they owned the shop where they worked. And after witnessing the violence that followed the end of the war, the Chens decided to leave for Hong Kong.

“They were refugees,” says Bernie Chen, the middle son, with a serious expression in his eyes. “Just like people from Afghanistan today. My grandparents and my dad arrived here only with some tea.” Chen explains that in order to have some money to get started in Hong Kong, his family asked a neighbour who owed them money if he could pay them back. He couldn’t – but he had a tea business, and told them to take some tea to resell in Hong Kong. Which they did. 

“We weren’t very skilled in tea at the beginning, as we hadn’t worked in this field. But we are Chaozhou people – we know what good tea is supposed to taste like,” jokes Chen. That’s because, according to most sources, the gong fu tea (gung1 fu1 caa4 工夫茶) tradition, sometimes called the Chinese tea ceremony, was developed in Chaozhou during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). To this day, tea is an important part of local culture in Chaozhou, and among Chiu Chow people in the diaspora. 

Ming Heung is just a few steps from where the Walled City used to be. It sits in front of the neighbourhood’s well-known wet market, next to various shops that sell fruit, spices, oils and vinegars, dried foods and countless varieties of rice. While everything in front of it has changed quite dramatically, Ming Heung has managed to retain its original location, on a stretch of Hau Wong Road still lined by tong lau that haven’t changed much through the decades. 

But Ming Heung is not just a tea trader. Like most other tea import-export businesses, they both order tea from China—in particular oolong from Guangdong and Anhui, and pu’er from Yunnan—and ship it overseas for their clients. On top of this, however, Ming Heung also toasts the tea leaves over charcoal, a process that develops different layers of depth of flavour in the final brew. 

They are the only shop left in Hong Kong that still does this – and their clientele has become used to expecting tea that has been dried just to their exact specifications. Another shop that roasts the tea leaves in-house is the Fukien Tea Company, in Sheung Wan, but they use a machine similar to an oven, not charcoal. This modulates the flavour through the length of the roasting, and not through the added smokiness of the charcoal. In the past, more shops used to do their roasting in-house, but the practice has been discontinued in many places, partially because it requires a larger shop space, and partially because, as mainland China opened up, it was easier to have the tea sourced and roasted in the same place. But this also meant a certain loss of control in the exact roasting time and flavouring a dealer wanted to impart to the brew. 

While all tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, there are many different types that can be appreciated today. Tea is usually divided into six large categories that describe the degree of oxidation by colour: black (called red in China), oolong, green, yellow, white, and fermented, better known as pu’er. Black, green and white teas are produced around the world, while oolong, yellow and pu’er tea come only from mainland China and Taiwan. In all, experts consider that around 3,000 varieties of tea are currently being produced, spanning a vast range of flavours and levels of tein, the caffeine content of each tea. 

Beyond the original Chinese varieties, other types yet of tea have been developed since the 18th century, when the British first transplanted Camellia sinensis to the highlands of India and Sri Lanka, producing teas that have assumed new qualities and flavours, and developing what is known as Camellia sinensis assamica, or Assam tea. Just as wine from each region reflects its own terroir, teas differ according to the minerality, humidity and temperatures that characterise the area they are grown. Beyond these characteristics, a lot of tea’s flavour also depends on the way in which it is processed. This always involves some level of toasting in order to dry some of the moisture in the leaves and prevent moulding. The length of the roasting, the level of heat and the type of wood or charcoal that are used in the process can all impart different subtleties of flavours. 

Ming Heung imports leaves that are nearly entirely green—with the exception of the pu’er, which is a fermented and aged tea that can acquire even more depth of flavour by being aged in a dry environment for up to many decades—and then roasts them over charcoal. These are kept inside what looks like a long metal wardrobe, with a sliding door that reveals a number of round furnaces. In order to toast the tea, they need to arrange different levels of metal trays: one with the charcoal, the other with the tea leaves spread out in a rather thin layer, and then a lid. 

“We roast only once a month, and it takes a whole day – the tea must steam for ten hours minimum, a bit longer if we want a deeper flavour,” explains Bernie Chen. He demonstrates two different types of tieguanyin (tit3 gun1 jam1 鐵觀音), one of the most prized types of oolong. One was roasted for a whole day, with leaves that have turned dark brown, with a deep earthy fragrance. The other was taken out of the fire after only eight hours, and it maintains a fresh smell and a greenish edge on the curly leaves. 

For a few years, Ming Heung also tried to operate as a sit-in tea house, serving guests who came to drink the tea on the premises. However, this soon proved unmanageable, as they struggled to keep pace with the turnaround. The Chens decided that they preferred to stick to what they knew best, and to continue to develop their business as tea sellers and roasters. 

Business has been changing through the years, both in terms of revenue and in terms of the local impact of greater political happenings. The shop has some pu’er cakes that can cost many thousands of dollars, and some premium grade tieguanyin that sells for many hundreds. “Still, our oldest customers let us recommend less expensive teas,” says Chen. “You don’t need to always drink the most expensive wine, right? It isn’t necessarily the best, or the most indicated for a particular occasion.” 

The flood of tourists from mainland China in the 2010s boosted the popularity of the shop’s house-roasted tea, sometimes to the point where the shop couldn’t keep up with demand. “Sometimes we ran out, leaving local customers unsatisfied,” says Chen. But the pandemic and recent political upheaval have led things to morph yet again in Hong Kong. “These days people have started to leave Hong Kong again,” he says. “We have more business than before, because people will stop by and place orders that we have to fulfil every month so wherever they are, they can still drink the tea they like.” He stops to think for a moment. “I don’t know, maybe some will start selling it abroad, too?” 

For now, the business is still a close family affair. Chen Dak sits among Yixing teapots, the unglazed purple clay vessels produced in Jiangsu in the city by the same name, particularly beloved by tea connoisseurs – it is said that if you drink only one type of tea per teapot, its flavour will be enhanced as the clay absorbs flavorful tannins. Next to the teapots are fine porcelain cups and all sizes of tea canisters made out of tin. Chen Dak’s sons are in the back, sifting through tea leaves to check that there are no impurities. When customers come, a member of the family will serve them, just as they have for the past 58 years.

Ming Heung Tea Shop (ming5 hoeng1 caa4 zong1 茗香茶莊) is located at 77-79 Hau Wong Road in Kowloon City.

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