Volume 16 • Issue 31 | December 30 - January 8, 2004

International tea business grows in Chinatown

By H. Michael Jalili

Downtown Express photos by Joe Kennedy

The Ten Ren Teashop on Mott St.

On her second day in New York, Dora Hargitai came to Chinatown to buy tea.

She and her boyfriend, Bruce Chatterjee, 27, were visiting from Holland. The salesclerk at the Ten Ren Teashop, on Mott St., gave them each a cup of hot green tea to sample. “One of the first things I wanted to do in New York,” Hargitai, 29, said, “was to buy tea in Chinatown.” They purchased four different brands. “His mother brought some jasmine tea from England,” said Hargitai, “here, I could find the same tea and more.”

Two decades ago, Mark Lii, the owner of the Ten Ren teashop, dealt almost exclusively with Chinese customers. He came to the United States from Taiwan in 1980, hoping to inaugurate a new trend in this country. “I came with the mission to introduce the best tea in the world,” Lii said. But in the early 1980s, he found few non-Chinese were willing to give his products a chance.

Today, he said, about 40 percent of his customers are not Chinese. According to Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the U.S., tea sales in America have grown from less than $2 billion in 1990 to more than $5 billion today. Consideration of the health benefits of drinking tea has propelled the rise in sales of this foreign drink. According to Simrany, America imports virtually all of the tea Americans consume.

Lii spent extensive effort and energy trying to usher a tea culture into mainstream America. He opened his first shop in a partnership in San Francisco. He tried to find wholesale buyers, but few were willing to try tea products he was importing from Taiwan. After years of endeavor, Lii said his patience paid off. Drinking tea has become trendy and Lii, one of the early pioneers in the effort, is benefiting. Today, he operates three stores in New York City, each selling a variety of tea brands, which are cultivated and processed in Taiwan, and American-grown ginseng.

Simrany predicts drinking tea will continue to rise. “There is no end, it appears, to the benefits of consuming tea,” said Simrany. Speaking about the health benefits of drinking tea, Simrany said, “Asian scientists have known for centuries about its health benefits.” “Recently, [Western] scientists have started looking at the topic.” According to him, drinking tea can help people lose weight and also inhibit cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Laura Cit, a nutrition consultant at Farmingdale State University, in Long Island, said, “drinking tea, particularly green tea, helps menopausal women with night sweats.” According to Cit, studies by researchers at Cambridge University also suggest that drinking tea may protect against osteoporosis, or bone loss. “It specially helps postmenopausal women with bone density,” Cit said. China has fewer cases of cancer than the United States, according to statistics. Although there is no solid proof that tea prevents cancer, scientists believe, Cit said, that green tea maybe a contributing factor to the lower incidence of cancer in China.

In 1978, after completing a degree in engineering, Lii began working in his uncle’s tea factory in Taiwan. His uncle encouraged him to learn the business and take it to America. “I grew up under a tea tree,” Lii said. “My family has been tea farmers for many generations.”

His uncle was the first person in the family to leave farming. He moved to the city to become a tea businessman. In 1953 Lee Rie-Ho, Mark Lii’s uncle, founded a teashop in southern Taiwan. He named his store Ten Ren, which means “heavenly love” in Chinese. Today, Ten Ren is a global company, with more than 60 stores in Taiwan and about 50 more in Canada, Japan, Malaysia, and the United States, including three New York City branches managed by Lii and his wife, Ellen. Relatives of the founder operate every Ten Ren store. The company’s factories and headquarters are in Taiwan. Lii is a 30 percent stockholder in the New York shops.

On July 4, 1980, Mark Lii arrived in Los Angeles. He worked part-time at Ten Ren’s first American branch and studied for an M.B.A. at Claremont University. Two years later, he and his new wife went north to help another relative open a branch in San Francisco. He borrowed money and contributed 10 percent to start the new store. To increase profits, Lii sought outlets that would shelf Ten Ren’s products. To find buyers, Lii said he spent time calling, making appointments and giving out samples to stores. He would set up tables in grocery stores to demonstrate to shoppers how to make tea, “but [most people] had no idea,” said Lii. His efforts to find buyers in mainstream America met little success, he said. Drinking tea had not yet caught on in this country, he thought.

While Americans drank Lipton and Tetley tea brands, drinking oriental tea had not became popular in America. “In 1980, drinking tea was not something to do,” Cit, the nutrition consultant, said.

After two years in San Francisco, Lii made his next move. The store failed to be profitable enough for two partners.

“There are three large Chinatowns in America, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York,” Lii said. The latter was not yet conquered. “I had come to America with a mission,” he said. “I must go forward, not back, so, I had no choice but to come to New York.”

In June of 1984, he and his wife filled their Toyota with their modest belongings, and along with their six-moth old son drove east for eights days and seven nights. For five months, Lii searched for a suitable store in Chinatown. On Dec. 2, 1984, New York’s Ten Ren was inaugurated on Canal St. He said he paid a high rent for the store, “but I thought we must succeed, only go forward.” Founding the new branch required a $500,000 investment. Lii put down 30 percent. He borrowed more than $120,000 from family members to found the business. His own savings amounted to $30,000.

In May 1985, Lii got some free advertising, which boosted his business. The New York Times ran an article about Ten Ren and drinking tea. Lii credits the article for introducing new customers to his store. He said he got another boost few years later, when the local ABC station interviewed him in the store.

Today, Lii operates his three stores in areas with significant concentration of Chinese immigrants: in Flushing, Queens; on Eighth Ave. in Brooklyn and at 77 Mott St., in Manhattan’s Chinatown. On the latter location, he operates another store, with the same brand name, which sells Chinese bubble tea. In the Queens and Brooklyn stores the two functions are combined. He generates a substantial part of his combined $2.7 million revenue by selling brands of tealeaves, some going for more than $300 per pound; teabags; ginseng and tea utensils. His profits amount to five to seven percent annually, he said.

In the back of every store, Mark and Ellen Lii maintain a decorated room for the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The cost of such an event is $30 per group. The walls are decorated with Chinese calligraphy. A table made of lacquered wood and jade occupies the hardwood floor. The chairs are made of hand-carved wood with golden cloth covers.

On the table rests a tray containing half a dozen small cups, two small teapots and outside the tray lies a larger waste pot, with carved Chinese characters, used for storing excess water. On another table, an electronic device produces boiling water. The heated water is poured into one teapot, which contains the tealeaves. This is the brewing process. Lii demonstrated, emptying the brewed tea into the other pot, which strains the leaves. The master of ceremonies then fills the cups with freshly brewed tea.

John Lii and his wife demonstrate the ceremony for “educational” purposes at different functions around the city. In the past, they have performed at events held at the Asia Society, Flushing Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts and New York Public Library.

The walls of the store display pictures of celebrated guests who visited: mayors, governors, actors, and former President Bush. Mark and Ellen Lii have demonstrated the tea ceremony to each of them.

According to Simrany, tea ranks seventh among drinks that are consumed in the United States, although, it occupies number one in most other places. He thinks as other soft drinks continue to come under criticism for containing too much sugar and calories, more people will consume more tea. “It is possible,” he said, “that tea may replace carbonated drinks in schools.”

Grace Wong, a sales associate at Ten Ren said a significant portion of the customers she caters to consist of tourists. Simrany said, “tea is becoming more popular with young and more educated and sophisticated people.”

In 1992, Lii moved from Canal St. to his dream location on Mott St. “Mott St. is the best location in Chinatown to run any store.” Now, he has one remaining dream: to open another Ten Ren in Midtown Manhattan.


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