Contamination-free Chinese Products

This year there has been a lot of concern around the world about lead (and other) contamination in Chinese products.  Since most companies have no first-hand knowledge of the factories (and especially sub-contractors) that produce their products, the potential exists for foreign companies buying Chinese products to get burned.

 The way to deal with this, of course, is to make sure that everything is kosher on the production side.  Now, a lot of companies have Chinese nationals working for them on the other side, making sure of quality control, but I have seen this to be a rather hit-or-miss proposition.  What if your employee gets a better deal from the factory to let things slide?  Where is the accountability?  The solution is to have experienced ex-pats, hired by you directly, and who are not beholden to Chinese political or economic bosses, go and check things out themselves, make sure that the products are being made and tested correctly, and that nobody is trying to pull a fast one.

Do you know how easy it is to fake a quality control test?  How do you know that a special batch of your product wan’t made just to pass the tests, and that the rest are intentionally faulty?  Of course, if discovered, the factory will plead ignorance, and fire a few people here and there, but in China, workers are expendable.  Expendable.  That means no accountability.  Nobody gets taken to task, and you are left holding the bag…unless, of course, you have your own man there covering your assets.

If you manufacture products in China, or want to, and you have the slightest concern about quality control and a “shenanegan-free” environment, drop me an email.  I am an experienced, multi-lingual sourcer who has been working and travelling between China and the U.S. since 1998, and this is my forte.  I know China, have been just about everywhere, and I have seen this happen too many times, and heard too many sob stories from folks who got burned in China.  Don’t let it happen again.  If you are doing business in China and are in any way concerned, send me an email, and we’ll talk about your options.

Lambert Ninteman (owner of Yi Pin Xiang tea import co.

The “China Recall Crisis”

As importers of organic Chinese whole leaf tea and artisanal tea-ware, few things could slow us down more than a “Chinese food poison” crisis, as well as lead contamination in manufactured Chinese products.  Here we are, trying to convince people that green tea is the greatest thing since sliced bread, full of untold health benefits, and that our teapots are totally lead free…

So American consumers are experiencing a crisis in confidence in Chinese products just as we are getting our tea into major grocery stores, and our tea-ware is gaining traction online.  Since I have personally sourced our tea and tea-ware in China over the past four years, travelling to tea farms and teapot manufactories, I have seen first hand every kind of shinanegan imaginable, with every explanation under the sun for discrepencies, contract violations, etc.  So, from the start my goal was to bring in products only from people I could trust, who had provided a consistently high-quality product and no “playing games”.  And this was before the current string of Chinese manufacturing scandals…

I was doing a demo at a certain major organic grocery store the other day, and found myself wondering at the shift in consumer awareness over Chinese products.  Talking with customers at the same location before this summer, no-one had any problem with organic Chiense tea and lead-free tea-ware.  Suddenly now, everyone is an expert, and nearly all of the conversation with people stopping by to taste the tea was not questions of health benefits (note: these statements have not been approved by the FDA…our usual mantra), or even taste, but rather the very justifiable concern over food contamination and reliability.  It seemed everyone was bent on buying products from anywhere BUT China, although they conveniently overlook the fact that almost everything is made in China!

So, for the duration of the demo, my partner and I clearly and thoughtfully answered every question, emphasizing that our organic certification was from a Swiss company that personally inspects the tea fields and packing facilities, and that our tea-ware is certified lead free–besides, our tea-ware is unglazed, so there is no need for lead in the first place!  I found that by engaging with them one by one, answering the same questions over and over, while plying them with delicious tea samples prepared gong-fu style as we were talking, the customers responded to our forthrightness, and the crowd around our table remained strong for all six hours of the demo!  In the end, we ended up moving over 1/3 of the stock of tea we had sold to the store, as customers were able to get the answers they were looking for in an honest and straightforward manner, and then relax enough to see that the product really was incredible after all.

If Western companies would just do the hard work with QC and really know the source and nature of their products in the first place, none of this “crisis” would have happened.  Because we knew about the origin and nature of our products, with no shady assurances or murky explanations, we were able to weather the crisis in good order.  We know where every single product comes from, we know there are no sub-contractors, middlemen, or sketchy deals just to save a penny.  Our costs are low enough in the first place that we don’t have to cheat to save another penny.  If only everybody else saw it that way…

In my day, sourcing all kinds of products for other companies, I have seen every kind and quality of Chinese factory imaginable, from places with thousands of workers and dorm facilities like small cities, all the way to 2-person hand-crafting operations in a barn in the middle of the countryside.  I know from first-hand experience when something looks to good to be true, and by sticking to my guns and trusting my instinct, I have avoided situations that would have compromised our integrity and threatened our reputation with our customer base.  In fact, we even stopped carrying most kinds of pu’er tea a year ago in response to Taiwanese newspaper articles that criticized current pu’er manufacturing techniques.  So we did a voluntary “recall”, traded tea with customers who bought the stuff, and stopped carrying anything we weren’t 100% positive couldn’t have been made improperly.

Our customers appreciated that honesty at the time…and all the more so now. 

Da Yuan in High Gear

Exciting times in Hangzhou and Las Vegas this year, as we get ready to rumble the Vegas furniture show in July/August!  We’re especially pleased with the expansion of our furniture supply network, with providers of everything from furniture fabric/upholstery to framing parts.  We’ve worked with all of them in the past, and all have provided for major American and European manufacturers.

 Anyone who is wary of dealing directly with Chinese suppliers, or tired of getting jerked around should definitely think about getting Da Yuan capability on board.  We’ve handled everything from light vehicles and machinery to paper products, furniture, and kitchen sinks.  Well, everything but kitchen sinks…but I have a line on them.


Green Tea in Canada

For the past two weeks, I’ve been travelling through Ontario and Quebec, meeting with friends in the Chinese community, and establishing links for tea, import, and freight forwarding.  Now, being a native San Diegan, many have asked me if January and February were the natural choices for me to visit Canada for the first time…

Needless to say, I have discovered entirely new levels of cold, sometimes in the order of 33 below zero (celcius).  Not a pleasant feeling when your winter gear consists of heavy boots and a leather jacket.  Jeans and sweaters are not quite up to the task, and I have found myself craving saunas and hot, sandy beaches.

Which made my discovery of the numerous Canadian Chinese teahouses so much more pleasant.  I have visited quite a few now, as I find myself running from steaming hot cup to cup, discovering a whole lew level of appreciation and tolerance for less orthodox or traditional forms of tea preparation. 

My first discovery, that tea snobs do not exist when the sky and ground are equally white, was actually less painful than I had anticipated.  Mind you, my own tea shop is less than 150 feet (around 45m) from the beach, in San Diego, with more than 300 days of sun per year, and my own personal selection of (currently) over 126 kinds of pure, traditional Chinese tea.

In Canada, the most important consideration for tea is that it is hot.  And plentiful.  By the time your face unfreezes, and your brain realizes that it actually posesses five senses, taste is already a long-forgetten concern.  I found myself greedily gulping pot after pot of commercial-grade loose pu’er, unnamed random oolongs, and goodness knows what else.  I’m quite sure that my friends were also filling me full of Cantonese cold medicine, as I quite recall the taste, something like soap-flavored turpentine.  Definitely not green tea.  But hot, so it was quite alright.

My second and third discoveries were corallaries of the first, groundbreaking realization, and took even less time to assimilate.  The second discovery is that it is in fact possible to make bagged (sachet) green tea that tastes like…green tea.  I am quite accustomed to the “sour, sour, bitter, bitter” (suan suan ku ku) taste of green tea bags, and I have developed the art of disdain for them to an acceptably French level (I learned wine in Bordeaux, so I disdain even my native Californian wines). 

Finding that it is possible to brew a–good–yes, I said good, cup of tea from a tea bag was even less painful than drinking unknown loose tea.  And in fact, because of the original quality of the tea and the manner in which it was processed, I found it thoroughly enjoyable despite only getting three real cups (still better than average) out of each bag.  The tea in question was a Taiwanese Dong Ding (Tung Ting) oolong, grown in superb conditions, and of which I happen to have a great deal in loose, whole leaf form in my personal stocks (even from the same farm).

The third discovery would have been even more impossible (the French have degrees of impossible, which explains much) than the second, back home: bottled green tea.  From the same producers as the famous bagged green tea, and from the self-same Tung Ting oolong leaves, comes bottled green tea made with unprocessed and organic ingredients.  Nothing else.  The color and taste actually come from tea.  As in, you could pour it in a cup, heat it, and think that it was tea.  Quel surprise!

I have tasted four varieties, all of them flavored (oh well), such as green apple, lemon, jasmine, and ginger.  I have even visited the factory and packing plant, and showed appropriate awe and reverence.  Even a die-hard Gaulist would have been moved…

So, we enter the dawn of a new era at The Whole Leaf (My French snobbiness insists on the proper Chiense name, Yi Pin Xiang), one which includes–gasp–bagged tea and bottled tea.  So, for all of you die-hard tea lovers and snobs (we must never forget our Gallic friends), soon our home page will feature the world’s best–and only–real green tea in some other form than loose leaf.  Check it out and enjoy!        

Qing Xiang Pu’er

Years ago, when I first started getting interested in Chinese tea, no-one had ever heard of pu’er, the black, earthy, fermented cave tea from Yunnan.  Usually sold in bricks and cakes, pu’er is traditionally made from wild (uncultivated) tea trees that grow hundreds of feet tall in the jungle.  Nowadays Pu’er is cultivated much like any other green tea, save that the plants are a different cultivar of camellia sinensis, and so look and taste quite different from oolongs and other green teas. 

Oh, how I enjoyed the ten, twenty, even fifty year old aged pu’ers, aged and guarded like fine Bordeaux, or Islay single malt.  Not knowing better, I purchased and drank whole stocks of wine-red pu’er from the most famous farms and tea companies of Yunnan, never keeping my own reserve, just drinking and enjoying.

That, as they say, was then.  Now, I find myself in a desperate struggle to import high quality pu’er without breaking the bank.  It turns out that as China boomed, and Taiwan invested deeper and deeper in the countryside, the world (well, at least Asia) turned on to pu’er big time, and suddenly, all the old stocks were gone, and prices were skyrocketing! 

As my knowlege of tea grew, I found myself horrified at all that I had drunk (since I saved the labels), and how much they would be worth now.  Each of those labels reminds me, with a whisper of scent, the delight of each of those teas.  I cannot get them now.

I import pu’er, its a popular product.  I have over 26 varieties, some loose, some brick, some round cake, some “golden melon”.  Each visit to China, I go deeper and deeper into the countryside myself, looking for enterprising farmers willing to sell their own young stock (all the old stuff is long gone).  I have a local agent to do the real bargaining, my Chinese is great, but no way would I bargain for myself!

So I wander, and hope.  Someday, I’ll find an old farmer out of touch, out of time.  I’ll sit with him and drink long cups of wine-red pu’er laid down before the fires of revolution swept the earth of dreams.

And drink up pure fragrance, Qing Xiang pu’er, wild, old leaves, like the land before it was found.