Can Nicholas Tung's Modern Tea Bars Make Hong Kong Hipsters Traditional Again?

Here's what we found out at the Hong Kong International Tea Fair, Asia's premiere tea source expo.

Essence Bar Hong Kong

In the U.S. and Europe, Mariage Freres, Kusmi, and Samovar Tea Lounge have all introduced the tea bar concept with varying degrees of success. But in Hong Kong, where tea shops are aplenty and are frequented regularly by elderly Chinese getting their daily medicinal fix, the introduction of a modern, stylish, Western-friendly tea bar would be a true break with tradition. Yet that's exactly what Nicholas Tung has brewing.

Tung, a U.S. and London-educated businessman who hails from a family of Hong Kong entrepreneurs, decided to start a contemporary tea brand, Essense, as a passion project (he also runs real estate and private equity firms). Officially launched at the 2009 Hong Kong International Tea Fair, Tung is planning a serious expansion with the introduction of the legendary tea bar concept to Hong Kong.

Tung has enlisted the help of his friends, Jason Cheung and Justin Potter, of Go Public, to create a brand that simultaneously preserves Chinese heritage--the logo was taken from an antique furniture item that has been in Tung's family for generations--but makes it appealing to young, Western-influenced urbanites.

"My family's been in the antique pu-erh tea trade--ancient tea--for many generations," says Tung. "I was brought up drinking tea." Tung compares antique teas to Bordeaux red wines, and says he was inspired to rejuvenate his family business after returning from his studies in New York.

"The general concept for us is how to make an old industry a little bit younger and how to have a good cup of tea in a very convenient way," says Tung.

The Chinese are the original growers and producers of the tea plant responsible for black, green, and oolong teas (the camellia sinensis), which they’ve harvested for thousands of years. Tung wants to change how young Hong Kongese think about tea, and his chic, sexy black-themed packaging certainly sells a more glamorous image. But changing the image of tea from an ancient, ritualistic, family-based custom to something cool and edgy in none other than Hong Kong (we’re not talking faraway Los Angeles or Miami--we’re talking about the home of tea itself) will be challenging, to say the least.

The Hong Kong International Tea Fair wrapped last week and what we found there may just surprise you, namely real estate and private equity tycoons turning to tea in the already-saturated markets of Asia, the Violent Femmes bassist turning to tea in Tasmania, and Lord of the Rings country growing its own tea with pickers from Taiwan. Stay tuned for more.

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