“You think you know a lot about tea, having worked in a tea shop all your life. But then someone comes along and shows you something new you’ve never come across before in your life,” said Kenry Peh. He represents the current generation overseeing Pek Sin Choon, one of the oldest tea merchants in Singapore; established in 1925, the brand has been recognised by the Singapore Tourism Board.
The instance Peh was referring to was when a customer presented him with a tea that was thought to have been lostcsince the days of his grandfather. He cites the example to illustrate how the learning process is a never-ending one and helps contribute to the creation of new brews for their clients.
It is also one of the rare businesses that has grown with Singapore’s development. It moved from its pre-war location at Old George Street twice—once to make way for a new Central Expressway exit, the other for the Clarke Quay MRT station—to its current place at Mosque Street.
Earning his stripes
Like his predecessors, Peh started learning the ropes from a young age. As a boy, his grandfather would get them to try different teas at intervals throughout the day. If anyone gave the wrong answer, there would be punishment but if they got it right, they would be given five cents to buy an ice ball to be shared amongst themselves.
Learning to swiftly identify the distinct notes and flavours in different teas as a boy may have initially been to avoid punishment, but he eventually grew to become passionate about the business. “My grandfather never allowed us to give up so easily and this has helped instil a never-surrender attitude that has trained us to learn [through] hardship, patience and to be consistent,” he said.
As he grew older, he got more involved with the business. Up till his mid20s, he was only permitted to unpack items and wasn’t allowed to be part of the tea-making process. This changed, however, when the usual worker-in-charge fell sick. Having carefully observed the process over the years, he had no trouble stepping up when called upon. It is a day he reflects on as his ‘tea graduation’.
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September - October 2020