Raising Frogs: A Tea-seller's Story

By Rebecca Davis
Ye Huabin welcomes customers to his shop with a cup of tea as a sample. After picking tealeaves in the fields, Ye now owns two shops in Beijing.

Ye Huabin sits on a low stool, perspiration beading on his smiling face. Three different kinds of tea brew in small Chinese teapots on the wooden table before him, at the far end of his small Beijing shop, hidden away in a hutong near the Forbidden City. Beside the teapots sit several shot glass-sized cups and a row of wooden frogs, which he says he is “raising” for good luck, by ritualistically pouring a pot of tea over them.

Ye warmly greets travelers and locals alike, wearing a traditional Chinese-style silk shirt. He pours samples of oolong, jasmine, white, and green teas, and delights visitors with balls of purple chrysanthemum flower tea that blossom open in hot water. He proudly displays a guestbook with comments about the quality of his tea, written in Japanese, French, English and a handful of other languages. With each cup he seems to grow more excited, explaining the intricacies of each type of leaf, and the growing and processing methods that give each tea its special characteristics.

Thanks to China's booming economy, more Chinese can afford gourmet tea these days, and Ye says his business is on the rise. China’s middle class numbered more than 80 million last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. An increase in domestic tea consumption, combined with the beverage’s growing popularity in the West, indicate that tea-selling is a good business to be in. While most tea in China is modestly priced, Ye is selling one type of oolong tea, with a lingering sweet taste, for 2,600 yuan per 500 grams ($376 for 1.25 pounds). Drinking the tea, he says, confers special health benefits and causes an endorphin release in the brain similar to that triggered by eating chocolate.

Fujianese people are known around China as skilled businessmen, and Ye, 39, lives up to the reputation. He is one of many Chinese who have been able to rise from modest backgrounds to relative success in China’s rapidly developing economy. Starbucks has expanded deep into China and inspired a slew of homegrown copycat coffee chains, but millions of Chinese still love tea. Ye says that as the initial rush to coffee and Western trends wears off, young people are beginning to appreciate Chinese culture more.

Ye entered the tea business when he finished high school in Fujian, directly across the strait from Taiwan in China’s most famous tea-growing region. He began his career at the bottom, picking tea leaves on a farm in his hometown. Since arriving in Beijing just over a year ago, Ye has opened two shops. Tonight he sits in the second of these, which he has named Zhi Ming Xuan Chazhuang (炙茗轩茶庄), which, roughly translated, means “Roasted Leaf Tea House.”

Like many of China’s new entrepreneurs, Ye is also sacrificing a great deal to start his business. After more than 10 years of working on the tea farm, one of the most laborious types of farming, Ye left his wife and two children behind in Fujian to start his business alone in Beijing. And like many small businesses here, Li’s shop is also his home. He sleeps in the back of the shop among giant tins of tealeaves, and rarely ventures out.

To start his shops, he said he borrowed 30,000 yuan from a friend because it was much easier than getting a loan from the bank. Chinese banks usually won’t lend to individual entrepreneurs who don’t have tangible assets to offer as collateral, said David Livdahl, a partner at an international law firm in Beijing.

Ye is excited about the Olympics, and the chance to pour cups of tea for even more visitors. He says he dreams of opening more teashops someday. Despite the sacrifices involved in starting a business Ye’s outlook is hopeful.