Faces Behind the Makers: Discovering Singapore's Heritage Trades
by Elena Boyce (first published in the AWA Sep-Oct 2022 issue)
The history of tea dates back to ancient China, almost 5,000 years ago. According to legend, in 2732 B.C. Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves from a wild tree blew into his pot of boiling water.
Tea has been a media for fostering relationships since 1046BC. At first, tea was rare and was used as a tribute to a superior such as the King or Emperor. From 733AD, tea became an item to gift to friends and acquaintances and gifting tea became a way to express the giver’s value for the relationship.
Nowadays, friends are made through a tea-tasting session and memories of that friendship are rekindled while drinking tea.
Founded in 1925, the near century-old company Pek Sin Choon has established itself as the foremost purveyor of premium Chinese tea in Singapore. Today, the company is helmed by fourth generation descendent and tea man Kenry Peh. The company continues to source, blend and roast tea in the traditional way. Each pack of tea is painstakingly packed by hand in-store.
Kenry, how did you become engaged with your family business?
I am blessed by my Dad’s teaching to never give up easily. I had to start at the bottom of my Grandfather's shop, learning the ropes the hard way with one of the company's loyal, old tea masters. The old tea master told me that he wanted to make sure that I truly had the passion and commitment towards tea culture and tea trade. I learned that only through hard work are we able to taste the sweetness that was imparted by my Grandfather.
What are your favorite aspects of the trade?
When we travel to Nanyang, we do not know what is available to us , but we need to solve all the problems on the way to fulfill our dream. Trade allows us to interact with people and become better.
Challenges keep us on the toe, to always improve ourselves, learn new things, and become wiser through the process
In the old days when China was a poor country, the Chinese had to leave China to look for jobs in order to send back money to the family. There were two main routes. For the people from Guangdong, it was the Americas. For others, it was South East Asia, known as Nanyang. Nanyang tea blend was created by Pek Sin Choon. It comprises [of] oolongs from North and South Fujian in Mainland China.
What are the challenges your company is facing?
Easy access to information on tea for the general public. The negative impact of this is that people who have little knowledge on tea will pick up the information they found and apply it immensely without verifying and quantifying the information.
More demanding customers. This is also a spillover effect of point one.
More intense competition. Competition started to emerge from nontraditional sources such as online and other businesses who did not focus on tea previously.
How does your trade fit into Singapore’s heritage?
Tea has a 5000 year long history, but the heritage that Singapore can call its own is Nanyang Tea, a craftsmanship that is unique in this region where the tea merchants in Singapore creatively blended and roasted the aged and new oolong tea together in an attempt to keep the quantity and quality of the tea supply consistent.
A unique taste was established during this exercise.
Pek Sin Choon made this Singaporean tea culture even stronger when the co-founder Pek Kim Aw, crossed the boundary to blend and roast the Southern and Northern Fujian aged and new tea together, creating a more all-rounded tea taste, which he called Classical Nanyang Tea in order to differentiate the uniqueness of this tea blend.
Part of the essential process of creating these blends is tea tasting with friends.
Each time Pek Kim Aw developed a new Classical Nanyang Tea, he would invite his friends to do a tea tasting. One of the signature blends, Renowned Unknown Fragrance, even got its name through the tea-tasting session.
Kenry also follows his Grandfather’s ways of doing business where relationships play an important role. He treats all business partners as friends, most of the customers become his friends and he establishes constant communication with trade associates and competitors.
Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants 白新春茶庄
Address: 36 Mosque Street, Singapore
Elena Boyce is currently working on her new photographic project "Faces Behind the Makers" that aims to create awareness and revive an interest in Singapore's heritage trades. Find out more at www.photoimpressia.com