Exploitation in Northern Thailand -- A True Ugly Story Behind Stunning Photographs

It’s been a few years that we have had the curiosity about teas in southeast Asain countries. Tea trees were once a wild plant that grew in areas that are Yun Nan, Laos, Myanmar, northern Thailand and northern Vietnam as we know of today. China however, was the first country in the world that processed the camellia sinenses or camellia assamica’s leaves into tea. Naturally, China’s tea industry and market are well established with skillful and generational tea farmers compared to its neighboring countries. Nevertheless, we have never doubted the potential or surprise that are waiting for us to discover, or, quite contrary, the ugliness in tea industry as that in coffee in some developing countries.

This story is written by me as the firsthand account of what happened. This is my personal experience and I feel the need to be transparent with you, so to let you, a conscious tea drinker and a responsible consumer know about the dark side in our industry. It could affect not just you, or me as a small business owner, but most severely, the tea farmers. 

You can interpret this story as a classic capitalist business act or you can interpret it as an unethical trading practice. My goal here is only to share with you about what happened.

Before arrival

In December 2021, a friend in Europe sent me some Thai raw Pu Erh teas from a particular little village with a charming name, Wawee. After sampling a spring Pu Erh from 2021, an aged one from 2016 and a Pu Erh white tea, I was intrigued. They were mellow, smooth, so refreshingly clean with great aftertaste and a good Cha Qi. I began doing research about “Wawee”, searching it on the map or in google engine, but there’s just not much information. After establishing contact with the farmers on wechat, we started to build a constant communication. They struck me as kind, open and sharing. After refreshing the Thai Embassy’s travel policy page for two months, I started brewing the idea of going to Wawee to visit them. At the end of March 2022, we finally arrived in Chiang Rai, Thailand. 


Where is Wawee..or Wa Wi?

Wawee, or officially, Ban Wa Wi in Thai (Ban means village), it’s located in the Doi Chiang region somewhere in between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It also has a charming Chinese name, which is Cha Fang Cun or 茶房村, and it literally means Tea House Village.

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The Chinese name 茶房村 is also written on the entrance gate of Wa Wi

Most of the residents here nowadays are second or third generation Chinese Thai, whose father or grandfather were Kuomingtang (the Chinese National Party) refugees 60 years ago and came here in horses by following the ancient Tea Horse Road in Yun Nan. Their ancestry is Yunnanese, and they still speak Chinese, Yunnanese dialect and Thai. In the smaller villages that are scattered in this region, resided a local indigenous group known as Akha. They have always been aware of the wild Pu Erh tea trees in the region and referred to them as “Assam'' instead of Pu Erh.

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The gate of the village

The farmers

For their privacy’s protection, I will name them Vick and Emily. Vick is the third Chinese Thai generation of his family and the main successor of his family’s tea plantation. His wife Emily is Thai. After our arrival, Vick and Emily spent two days with us, taking us to visit their tea plantations, documenting their tea production, treating us with the most delicious homemade food we have ever had in Thailand and sharing their family history and stories. We were deeply touched by their father and grandfather’s strength after taking refuge in Wa Wi and their dedication to tea. They were also one of the first Chinese immigrant families (along with Kasem Liu, which is the farmer we eventually sourced teas from) in the area that took notice of the wild Pu Erh tea trees and started studying them. During our first day there, I did two lives on Instagram to show our followers their tea plantation and tea production. 

I was brewing tea at Vick and Emily's tea house in the village

In the morning of the third day, when we sat down for final sourcing discussions, I noticed there was a subtle anxious expression on the couple’s face and they seemed more exhausted than usual. Before the conversation could go anywhere, Emily started apologizing and asked if I knew an alleged big tea company based in the U.S. After my confirmation, she recounted a verbal agreement between them and this American company in which it states any tea company, excluding the consideration of actual physical location or business registration, as long as it sells to the U.S. consumers, these farmers are not allowed to sell any of their Pu Erh or sun dry black tea to that company. This verbal agreement was constructed after this big company purchased a X amount of tea in 2021. Emily then anxiously told me the owner of this company, alias as Jack, was also very “angry” (this is the original word she used) to see my activity with them in the past 2 days and in the area. He messaged Emily in a hostile manner after midnight the night before and the couple stayed up till 4am to come up with a solution in this dilemma. 

The main road of Wa Wi village

My first response was questioning how Jack found out about my activity since neither my company nor I have had any association with his company or him personally. Without further questioning Emily and causing her additional stress, my instinct guided me to our Instagram “Followers” list, and after scrolling down for a few minutes, there was Jack! After my discovery, my second thought was to contact Jack directly and see if we could come up with a neutral agreement that I buy whichever they don’t plan on selling, considering there are many types and ages of Pu Erh tea, so we won’t cause stress to the farmers and I won’t let their hospitality and time go in waste. However, Emily indirectly rejected my idea by telling me that when she told Jack I was mostly interested in their white teas, Jack told Emily not to sell us any white tea either and said he would buy (but will he really?) out their white teas instead, even though that was not part of their original verbal agreement. Furthermore, Emily has also been contacted by other tea companies in America in the past, and had to reject their requests because of this verbal agreement. How many other opportunities have they missed?

The only gas station in the village

I wondered to myself, would this count as a purposeful and direct business sabotage by tracing and following another business unethically? Further and more importantly, would this be considered as a direct exploitation and unethical trade in a developing country? At first, I was furious to experience this ugly issue of gatekeeping in our industry first hand, but more than that, I felt deeply sorry for Vick and Emily. There was no written contract, but another verbal agreement of X amount of tea will be purchased this year (which we don’t know if it will be actually fulfilled) and a website talking about transparency and their long term caring relationship with farmers.

I asked myself, what does this mean to farmers, small business owners and you?

Aftermath

We had to pivot in order to not cause further trouble to the couple, so we gathered ourselves and went out again to scout new teas and new producers. We were very lucky, but this is a different story about Kasem. After going back to Chiang Rai, I felt the need to be transparent about our sourcing trip and the new farmer we will be working with, and most crucially, let our followers know the truth. So I took a risk and I did an Instagram live. 

While we have received so much warming support and attention from our online tea community, I have also received questions, such as what’s wrong with such business practice since it seems like a common “business strategy” in the coffee industry? Secondly, what’s the name of this company? I believe the answer to the first question is up to our individual conscience. The answer to the second question unfortunately, can not be revealed by us for our own legal protection. We were later informed by caring others who have had the same experience with this company, that they are notorious for threatening others who they perceived to be vulnerable with lawsuits. 

Others who also had the same experiences with this company? So I wasn’t an isolated case for being an Asian woman independent business owner? How long has this been going on? Is this a classic big shark killing small fish in the pond business story or is there more to it? How come no one else has ever talked about it before me? Have we discovered the Harvey Weinstein of the tea industry?

I had to ask myself again, what does this mean to farmers, small business owners and you?

Behind the beautiful video and pics

When I was in China last year, I was greeted by other tea business owners based in China with a warm welcome and a collaborative spirit. We teamed up with another tea company and group- bought more teas (different types) from the same famer. It was a beautiful experience as it perfectly fitted the tea spirit, openness, sharing and fairness. I asked myself another question, what kind of culture do we want to encourage and establish for our industry?

Doi Chiang. No land or people shall be exploited. 

We are all consumers. As a consumer myself, transparency is extremely valuable to me, is what's behind the scene fitting what appear on the screen or is it an abuse of power? How do we ever know the truth? This is another emerging question after what happened. How do we know what really happened behind a stunning photograph or a well made video? Another ugly truth is I don’t have the answer to this question, and I think no one has it. 

Our Wawee Raw Pu Erh 2022 cake's wrapping paper was inspired by this event

 

Last note

Again, this is my first hand experience and clearly I have recounted this story from my perspective without any other party’s testimonials. This is not just a business event that marked Serene Tea’s business history (though we are still very young), but it’s also an event that completely shaked what I once thought I knew about this industry (and many others too). My goal is only to tell the truth and raise your awareness because that's the at least I can do in order to stand by our belief. I thank you for your attention and on behalf of Serene Tea, I also thank you for your support. Because of you, we have always and will continue conduct our business with integrity, and we value behind the scenes more than ever after such an experience. 


*As of this very moment, we are working with other media platforms on this story*

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