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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Singapore active senior food, travel & lifestyle diary

History of Nanyang Tea Culture in Singapore

Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants
You know, it is one of those things about Singapore life. I eat bak kut teh, eat dim sum, drink tea - Tie Guanyin, or whatever lah... that my buddies picked. Didn't think too much about it. Until, I went to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and hey... how come I don't get the same taste in my Tie Guanyin, or whatever lah tea... ?

That's the moment that I realised that Singapore tea is unique.

What we drink in Singapore is Nanyang Tie Guanyin, and Nanyang whatever lah, that we cannot get anywhere else.
It is like the parallel of Nanyang kopi. You know, to be anywhere in the world, hunting for that caffeine fix, Starbucks everywhere but cannot get the kick of a good old Nanyang kopi anywhere.

Nanyang tea withdrawal syndrome is the same.

But, what is Nanyang tea?

Like Singapore is an accidental nation, Singapore Nanyang tea are accidental teas.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Nanyang 南洋 which means south seas in Chinese, is a China-centric term referring to China's southern shoreline and all the maritime regions to its south including The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

How the term Nanyang tea came about, no one is sure now.

Chinese tea came to Nanyang with the coolies.

Pepper planation. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In the mid-1800s, the gambier and pepper plantations of British Malaya were magnets for Chinese coolies from Guangzhou and Fujian provinces eager to escape the chaos and misery of China's collapsing Qing dynasty.

German mail ship arriving in Singapore in 1906. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The inflow of Chinese coolies surged in the 1870s to 1920s as British Malayan tin mines and rubber plantations grew exponentially to meet insatiable world demand. At the same time, the Port of Singapore boomed with the advent of steam ships and opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Wuyi Mountain tea plantation 武夷山茶园. Image credit: Wikipedia
The coolies brought their way of life with them to Nanyang, which included drinking tea as a thirst quencher.

Buddha Palm tea. Image credit: Wikipedia
Most of the teas were southern Fujian Oolong tea from Anxi, Yong Chun, Nan An, Tong An, etc. The Oolong tea species (cultivars) include Tie Guanyin, Golden Cassia, Min Nan Shuixian, Yong Chun Buddha Palm and Se Zhong.

Shuixian tea from Wuyi Mountain. Image credit: Wikipedia
Northern Fujian Oolong teas from Wuyi Mountain, Jian Ou, Jian Yang, Shui Ji, etc., were also imported into Singapore. The main species include Shuixian, Cassia, Qi Zhong, Royal and Red Robe.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
But, transportation wasn't good then. The main means of international travel from China was wind powered Chinese junks. These took a long time to arrive in Singapore - the journey from tea plantation to Singapore sometimes took up to a year. The tea that got here often turned up damp. So, it was necessary to re-dry the tea leaves (by frying, roasting or baking).

Supply was also unreliable. No come, no come, one come two three four come. [Quoting an old timer Singaporean joke about Singapore bus services in the 1970s.] So, tea merchants were forced to mix and blend their rescued re-dried tea, new tea and old tea.

Fortunately, we had resourceful tea merchants who were skilful in making the best of a bad situation. They salvaged damp tea, old tea (existing stock), new tea (just arrived) and blended them into teas with distinctive fragrance and taste which people enjoy.

Southern Fujian Oolong is characterised by its fragrance while northern Fujian Oolong is known for its rich taste. By blending them together, Nanyang tea has the best of both worlds in fragrance and taste.

And, that was the accidental birth of unique Nanyang tea.  

We often heard it said that when you visit Singapore, you must try Nanyang kopi. Now, when you come to Singapore, Nanyang tea should be on your itinerary as well.

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And, there are few better ways to taste Nanyang tea than with Singapore's peppery bak kut teh as drinking tea and eating pork bone soup always go hand in hand in Singapore.

History of bak kut teh in Singapore
Pro-Tip: When you are at the bak kut teh shop, don't say "whatever lah... ", ask for Unknown Fragrance tea 不知香. The shop staff will be very impressed as Unknown Fragrance tea is a very Singapore thing.

Renowned Unknown Fragrance was developed in the 1950s by Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants founder, Pek Kim Ou. The quintessential Nanyang tea, Unknown Fragrance is a blend of north and south Fujian Oolang leaves. In the cup, the blend is dark red in colour, luscious on the lips and tip of the tongue. It leaves a lovely aftertaste on the palate and throat. As Pek just couldn’t find the words to describe the tea's unique fragrance, he simply named it Unknown Fragrance.

Unknown Fragrance is a fine example of Nanyang tea and pairs perfectly with Singapore bak kut teh.

Give it a try 😋

Written by Tony Boey on 18 Jun 2020 | Updated 28 Mar 2021

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