The Origin Story of The Caravan Tea Company

Posted by thecaravan tea on

Hi I’m Noel. This is my story of our families journey into making tea. It all started many years ago with my mother. As a mother of three daughters who was a foreigner of Thai-Chinese descent in Malaysia, she divorced her estranged spouse and had no formal qualifications to note. Seeking employment as a foreigner in KL, options were limited to laborious work. She washed cars and performed other menial tasks in an effort to make ends meet. Slowly, she began working in a salon as a hair stylist, garnering recognition from customers and colleagues alike for having an eye for detail. However, supporting her daughters with a single income was an ordeal. 

 the caravan tea puer puerh

Knowing that a chance at a better life and a university education for her daughters was unlikely if she didn’t consider a career change, she made the life altering decision to approach her half sister for some guidance and direction. Her sister lived in the Yunnan Province of China and was abundantly supportive of her decision to embrace entrepreneurship. Leveraging on her husband’s skills and connections as a businessman in Yunnan, the sister introduced her to the tea business and coached my mother on the industry and its operation. 

Their assistance was invaluable, as they also taught her how to finance the operations while paying attention to the growing parental needs of three young daughters. Unfortunately, the story takes a dark turn as the sister and her husband passed away from a senseless tragedy of a car crash in the windy mountainous roads of Yunnan. 

This tragedy left my mother heartbroken, yet their legacy of the fledgling tea business they left behind was collapsing from the directionless lack of leadership. My mother abandoned her mourning to focus on saving the business. Without her usual support system and a lack of industry connections, my mother came into her own as she forged a clear direction for tea production and tapped into the only resources that have served her well: self reliance and determination. 

This was a difficult time as a family and as an eight year old at the time, my siblings and I struggled to understand why we could only see my mother once a year. As difficult as this was as children, the pain of being away from her children was terribly unbearable. For the first five years since she had moved to Yunnan, while we lived in Kuala Lumpur, she couldn’t bear to hear a child scream or cry anywhere near her as it would trigger a visceral emotional outpouring. Yet time heals all wounds and pain subsided into the throbbing dull of inconvenience. 

Meanwhile, the safety net of previous contacts proved useful but a new direction meant forging new relationships with new management. With the business came room for enriching the lives of her extended family. She enlisted my cousin, the daughter of her brother, to maintain the store. This involved minor housekeeping and serving tea to guests and business people alike who sought an audience with my mother about the business. My cousin was a young and rebellious socialite, who found herself at the nearest KTV on a weekend. It took everything in my mother to drag her back to the reality of their business and remind her of her commitment to bettering her life. She moulded my rebellious cousin into a seasoned entrepreneur who today has her own factory. This small town girl now had the means to afford a nice home, a car and take care of her family by virtue of affording private health care for her aging father. While this my seem like a normal trajectory in life, women in rural Yunnan rarely live this life of wealth and privilege. With a lack of employment, marriages are plagued with domestic violence and result in divorce while families languish in poverty with no means to elevate themselves through education. A significant number of men in these communities opt to dull the pain of their fruitless lives with alcohol and drugs. Yet, as with many ethic minorities in China, the hand of progress can be slow to reach out, nor is it often welcomed with open arms. My cousin escaped these odds and made her fortune through hard work and determination. 

the caravan tea puer puerh

Another beneficiary of the legacy of my mothers tea production company was my aunt. Recently divorced, she and her mother run their own tea production business in partnership with my mother. Having to fight societal stigma on divorce, my aunt was emboldened by the financial liberty of her tea business. Unlike many women who relied on their husbands income to run the household, her tea business was sufficient for her and her children to live free of pain and suffering. This confidence of the trajectory of her business and gave her the power to change her personal for the better. 

Despite being, for lack of a better word: badass, their quintessential femininity was profound. Evenings often involved them putting on face masks and chatting away about the days’ laborious efforts while discussing what to have for lunch tomorrow as they discuss business matters such as expected delivery times. 

This world seemed like an illusion and I didn’t quite believe it when I was told I was drinking tea from a 500 year old tree. It was only till I took a tour of the plantations that I fully understood the gravity of the tea heritage I was a part of. The miniscule things like why tea from an old tree is bitter and how to spot a shrub that yields great tea were taught to me with anecdotal stories rather than a scientific explanation.

These secrets of growing tea were passed on through observation and deduction as opposed to an agricultural method of assessing growth factors and contributory results. Yet, knowledge does not lose merit in spite of a lack of academic merit. This informal knowledge garnered from asking the older generation can often have a major disconnect with modern agriculture, but it is a part of the charm that tea drinking culture imbues. 

Here is the thing. We hope to someday qualify this knowledge with scientific analysis. But rather that muddy the waters with scientific conjecture, we have a method of quality control that has never failed us. If we like it, we’re confident you will too. We demand the best tea from our suppliers and we know exactly what we want. If it’s not good enough for our tea pot, it certainly won't end up in yours. 

Every spring, my mother and her band of womenfolk travel from mountain to mountain to inspect the harvest of Yunnan tea farmers. They rely on pure instinct informed by years of tea production and connoisseurial ability to visibly determine the best tea samples for packaging. Their “no B.S” approach to inspection means they’re immune to the product etymology that farmers tend to use to market their tea. If they don’t like it, they won’t sell it. Plain and simple. Its worked fantastically, so far. 

the caravan tea puer puerh

The community surrounding the tea production premises has embraced the business with stereotypes being defied and men joining the ranks of this predominantly female operation. Yet the factory emphasizes on equal opportunity, and even labour intensive tasks are offered to women who want it. While we offer our employees a modest income, this is a significant contribution to their livelihood, as they can comfortably invest in a new business idea or save for a motorcycle to improve their quality of life. 

This stable income from their work is a lifeline that helps them diversify income streams such as buying seeds to plant vegetables to harvest and sell in the market. It’s a stabilising force in the nuclear family as a reduction in employment anxiety keeps the family happy and children are less likely to drop out of school. 

Unlike a production factory setting where workers are kept in isolation while focussing on their tasks, we have a communal floor where workers who are often neighbours, gather to work on their lots for the day, all the while chatting about each other's children and friendly banter. It’s truly a family. 

And so our vision is to make you a part of our tea family. A movement of people empowered to take control of their destiny with calm heads, cool minds and a spirit of wanderlust and adventure.

Our tea is a heritage we share with you.   


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