South China Tea Corporation (華南茶業) and “Cocktail Tea” (鷄尾茶)

York Lo: South China Tea Corporation (華南茶業) and “Cocktail Tea” (鷄尾茶)

South China Tea Corporation Image 1 York Lo

Left: Outdoor advertising for South China Tea’s “Cocktail” covering the building which housed the Mayfair Studio in Kowloon (likely 3 Saigon Street); Right: a South China Tea Corp’s “China Beauty” Chinese green tea tin (Worthpoint)

While the family of Southeast Asian tycoon Eu Tong-sen might be best known in HK for the Chinese medicine firm Eu Yan Sang or to a lesser degree the auto dealership China International Motors which was covered earlier in the group, in the 1940s and 1950s they also operated South China Tea Corporation, which was a leading exporter of tea in Hong Kong known for its “Cocktail” brand of blended tea and allegedly represented half of HK’s tea exports at one point.  

South China Tea was incorporated in HK in 1947 and its chairperson and chief backer was Mrs. Jenny Eu (Liu Ching-yee 廖正而,  1903-1978), who was the fifth concubine of Eu Tong-sen and the mother of six of his 13 sons – William Eu Keng-yuet (余經, no. 4), Richard Eu Keng-mun (余經文, head of Lee Wah Bank in Singapore, no. 7), Charles Eu (余經鵬, son in law of T.V. Soong, no. 8), John Eu Keng-dean (余經典, managing director of Euco Trading, no. 10), Andrew Eu Keng-wai (余經緯, general manager of TVB, no. 12) and Roy Eu Keng-Iu (余經堯, no. 13). A native of Nam Hoi, Jenny was the most influential of Eu’s eleven wives and ruled over the three Eu castles and various businesses in HK after her husband’s death. She was also an accomplished painter who studied under the master Pau Siu-yau (鮑少游) in the late 1950s and a noted philanthropist in HK having sponsored the China Academy (中國書院) in Wanchai (which she served as chair), the Chung Chak-hei Home for the Elderly in Cheung Chau and the Ching Yee School in Tai Po.  

The brainchild behind South China Tea however was its managing director Johnson Ku Ving-ming (古永, 1911-1975), a tea expert who was allegedly the only certified tea taster in HK at one time. Ku was motivated to revive the Chinese tea industry, which in the early 20th century had 90% of the British market but had dwindled to 3% market share by 1948 and displaced by Indian and Javanese tea which had captured 50% and 30% respectively thanks to their lower prices and the decline in quality and lack of innovation in Chinese teas. Ku believed that product innovation was the solution and invented the “Cocktail” brand of blended tea (a concept popular in the West but not in China at the time) based on his “Ku’s mixture” (later rebranded as “China mixture”) in 1947, leveraging his knowledge of over 100 varieties of Chinese tea. The initial feedback from foreign experts were mixed so Ku revised his mixture and came up with a blend which was comprised of roughly 80% black tea and 20% green tea with the intention of providing a neutral taste – neither too warm or too cold. The product was a hit and established South China Tea in the marketplace. (WKYP, 1948-12-16) 

In 1949, South China Tea’s head office was listed as 1st and 2nd floor of 55 Connaught Road Central with factory on King’s Road in North Point and godown at 4 Wing Hing Street in Causeway Bay. The firm also had branches in Foochow, Shanghai, Hankow, Formosa (Taiwan) and South Africa. Aside from Johnson Ku and Jenny Eu, the management team comprised of Jenny’s son William Eu and Wincha Ku (likely Johnson’s brother) as managers, John Yvanovich as secretary and C.K. Chen as accountant.  (Business Directory of HK, Canton & Macao, 1949). 

In mid-1949, Johnson Ku spent three months on a round the world trip during which he visited the British Industries Fair in London (Jenny Eu was also an attendee), Italy, France, Switzerland, Canada, Japan and America and after seeing how well Taiwanese tea was selling in the US market which was importing 90 million pounds of tea that year, decided to set up a branch in the US with William Eu as manager. (WKYP, 1949-6-12, 1949-8-19) 

South China Tea Corporation Image 2 York Lo

Left: South China Tea chairman Jenny Eu at Euston; Right: article about South China Tea in 1953 (WKYP, 1953-5-8) 

By 1951, South China Tea had over 100 workers at its North Point plant with several dozen machines and daily output of 20 tons of high-quality green tea and 20000 pounds of black tea. In addition to “Cocktail” tea, it also made the “China Beauty” brand of green tea, “Scented Cup” brand of jasmine green tea and Iron Goddess tea. According to Ku, the firm represented 50% of Hong Kong’s total exports of 10 million pounds of tea that year. As a result of the Korean War embargo, South China Tea received cancellation of 1.8 million pounds in orders from the United States, but Ku was able to substitute the loss with the promising North African market, which was importing 15 million pounds of Chinese green tea per year in business, beating out its Japanese competition. Business also suffered because of the loss of supply from the mainland but Ku managed to source his tea from Taiwan instead and at the time South China handled over half of all Taiwanese tea going through HK. (KSDN, WKYP, 1951-11-23)

In mid-1951, Johnson Ku and Jenny Eu were part of the delegation selected by the HK government to attend the British Industries Fair (Great Britain and the East, 1951) and Ku also visited Holland, Belgium, West Germany, Switzerland, France and North Africa during this trip. (WKYP, 1951-6-21) 

By 1953, South China Tea had outgrown its facilities in North Point so the firm acquired a 30,000 sq ft space in a new factory building built by a plastics manufacturer on Kam Wah Street in Shau Kei Wan in May to build the largest tea processing plant in the Far East at the cost of HK$500,000. Johnson Ku also announced to the press that South China Tea had achieved great success in the export market and represented one quarter of all green tea imported by Africa that year. (WKYP, 1953-5-8) 

In 1954, Johnson Ku began exploring the possibility of growing tea in New Territories in partnership with Professor Lin Dao-yang (凌道, 1888-1993), prominent forestry expert and the head of Chung Chi College at the time as they had favorable views of the climate and soil of the area for tea production. After three years of research, Ku announced to the press in late 1957 that he had secured the support of the colonial administration to develop a tea plantation on 300 acres of land in the Tai Mo Shan area (an area which had tea plantations as early as 1688 based on Sun On Gazette) with the first harvest as early as 1958 and potential annual production volume of 10 million pounds of tea leaves which was equivalent to HK$20 million in value.  (WKYP, 1957-11-17) For whatever reason, this ambitious plan never appeared to have materialized.  

As a firm, South China Tea Corporation was dissolved in 1966. According to the England and Wales Death Registration Index, Johnson Ku died in Watford in England in 1975 while Jenny Eu died in Hong Kong in July 1978. 

This article was first posted on 3rd April 2020.

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