Mysteries of Chinese culture found in the tea leaves

Sydney Chinese Cultural Festival and Tea Expo at ICC Darling Harbour

Sydney hosts the biggest annual expo of Chinese tea and culture where thousands sample the flavours and the traditions of China

22 November 2019 | (Staff Writers)

Long before espresso machines and coffee baristas became a part of the landscape, Australia was almost exclusively a nation of tea drinkers. Thanks to the biggest expo of Chinese tea, Australians are discovering a new, and far more refined taste in a vast variety of teas brought to Australia direct from China.

Now in its third year, the Australian Chinese Cultural Festival and Tea Expo features more than one-hundred individual tea blends, several of which have come to Australia for the first time.  

Chinese tea bringing cultures together

Among the dozens of exhibitors is Shane Shu, who for the past six years has operated a specialty tea shop, in Sydney’s Chinatown, called Topo Tea. He says, “We have many multicultural customers, not only Chinese people.”

“This tea expo is a great opportunity to be part of a major cultural event and to help promote the appreciation of tea.

“The history of tea goes back three-thousand years in China but it’s also a daily beverage, so drinking tea is a way for Chinese people to come together but to also connect with people from other cultures like Australia.”

Shane Shu from Topo Tea at Australian Chinese Culture and Tea Expo
Shane Shu says Chinese tea is appreciated by all cultures

Australians are rediscovering tea

After water, tea is the world’s most popular beverage. Research shows that, in Australia, 50% of the population drinks tea every week, with the average seven-day consumption being 9.5 cups.

Another report, by Roy Morgan research, shows that Australians are consuming green and speciality teas (as opposed regular tea blends) in greater quantities and their decisions to drink tea is primarily driven by its health benefits.

For Sydneysider Richard Simpkin this was his first experience tasting such a large variety of teas, “I love the idea of tea-expo. I used to only drink English blends of tea but I’ve discovered so many new varieties and teas I’d never heard of before.”

A best-selling biographical author, Simpkin is the founder of World Letter Writing Day, an initiative to preserve writing for young people that he hopes to one day bring to China. “Because of its rich history and traditions, Chinese tea brings people and cultures together,” he says.

“Like writing a letter it is a meaningful and way to sit down, think, share stories and show a genuine interest in others.”

While tea is a popular beverage across most of Asia, thanks to its enormous size and many ethnic groups, and different growing conditions, China boasts more tea types than any other country.

Every variety of Chinese tea on show

There are six major varieties – classified in ascending order from dark to light – green tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, black tea, and dark tea. While green tea is almost transparent and dark tea has a mahogany colour, what the Chinese call black tea or “hong cha” has a mixed tone of red and orange – “hong” is the Chinese word for red.

Throughout the expo, masters of each of these six main varieties will hold demonstrations and tastings. Many of the tea exhibitors have come from Fujian province in eastern China, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s finest tea growing regions. The great news for Australian tea lovers, is there are direct flights, to Fujian with Xiamen Airlines, every week from both Sydney and Melbourne.  

Vincent Ngai of Yuntai Tea Company at Sydney Chinese Culture and Tea Expo
Third generation tea merchant Vincent Ngai from Fujian

The Yuntai Tea company mainly sells in China but also exports black tea to Japan, it has come to the expo with hopes of expanding the brand’s reach into Australia. The company is based in Fujian and, though its name comes from Yunnan province, most of its teas are grown in the Wuyishan area, a lush mountainous region which produces some of the finest, and most expensive, tea blends in the world.  

Owner, Vincent Ngai is a third-generation tea merchant, he says, “This is the second time we’ve been to Sydney, and we’ve discovered that Australians like tea; but they can also recognise high quality teas and the difference between blends.”

Chinese artisans bring their art to Australia

While the main focus of the cultural festival is tea, there are a number of other exhibitors and cultural activities on show.

38-year old Herbert Wang has come to Australia, to show his hand-crafted embroidery. He comes from Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, and is a fourth-generation embroiderer. “My family has been making and selling embroidery for more than 120 years,” he says.

“We only sell in our home city but it is a great experience to share this craft with another culture. The environment in Australia is very nice, the people are kind and the food is very good too.”

Sydney Chinese Culture and Tea Expo, embroider Herbert Wang
Master embroiderer Herbert Wang

Herbert is one of a group of artisans who’ve come to Sydney from Zhejiang, one of the province’s most famous crafts is porcelain, especially tea cups and pots. At the expo, there are daily pottery demonstrations as well as the opportunity to buy the perfect Chinese porcelain from which to enjoy the perfect cup of Chinese tea.

One of the major exhibitors is the China National Tourist Office, cultural tourism has become one of the great appeals for people visiting China; and the annual number of Australians visiting China each year is expected to exceed one million within the next five years.

Ten airlines fly more than 35 non-stop routes from Australia into mainland China. All of China’s major airlines offer flights to Europe with visa-free stopovers in a number of Chinese cities.

The Cultural Festival and Tea Expo, held at the ICC exhibition centre, features four days of cultural performances and demonstrations.

The Chinese Cultural Festival and Tea Expo was held at Sydney’s ICC Exhibition Centre Darling Harbour from 21-24 November