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History of Hu-Kwa Tea
One of Mark T. Wendell Tea Company’s first imported teas was a unique tea from China, known by locals as “la” (pine) “sang” (wood) or Lapsang Souchong. The term Souchong refers to the larger leaf size. Unlike other Chinese teas, this black, full leaf tea was allowed to oxidize over burning pine fires in specially constructed sheds. The end result was a superb tea that had a taste all its own. Its mellow smoky overtones with a hint of caramel yield a great cup anytime of the day. Like most types of teas, there is a great story to be told. It is a story that is as old as our company and one that is rooted in an era that is long gone.

From the late 1700s to about the mid 1800s the Chinese seaport of Canton was the center of the China tea trade. Any foreign traders arriving to this area to conduct business were required to sail up the Pearl River to an anchorage in Whampoa. At this point, they were assigned a Hong merchant. Assigned by the Emperor, Hong merchants were responsible for overseeing the unloading of the western goods arriving in China and then re-loading the ships with the Chinese goods (tea, silk, porcelain) for delivery to the West. But most importantly, the Hong merchants needed to make sure that the “foreign devils” did not stray from the port and into China.

History records that the most famous of these Hong merchants was Wu Ping-Chien, whom the Western traders called Houqua (pronounced who-kwaa). He was an intelligent and powerful Hong merchant whose business sense and understanding of foreigners allowed him to create a considerable fortune. During this era, his wealth was only rivaled by a handful worldwide. During the initial dealings with foreigners, the Chinese were uneasy and treated their trading partners with disdain. Houqua saw this as an unfair and unprofitable practice and quickly developed a reputation as true and gracious. Over time his name was know by all American importers. Goods bearing his stamp commanded higher prices because the quality was indisputable.

Mark T. Wendell Tea Company’s roots originally date back to the height of the China trade during the 1850's. It was at this time that Mark T. Wendell's uncle, Richard Devens, established an importing company in Boston. His imported products included port, sherry, coffee, olive oil, porcelain, snuff and Chinese teas. He had the means to own and maintain several sailing ships. These Clipper ships made frequent trips to China each year. Upon returning to Boston, they were loaded with the finest China tea, a true luxury for the upper class Bostonians. It is written that Mr. Devens met with and personally purchased his tea directly from Houqua. He noted that Houqua was “a warm friend of Americans and his barter with them is characterized by an ingenuous confidence and an unbusiness-like generosity.” In all his dealings, written agreements were unknown. He was a man of honor and distinction.

For many years, the smoky black tea that was imported by Clipper ship from China was simply labeled as “XXX”. This was a common symbol of excellence and high quality from this era. In the 1910's, Mark T. Wendell changed the name of his unusual tea, as the old name “did not seem to carry with it the atmosphere and distinction merited by so rare a tea as ours.” He appropriately began calling it Hu-Kwa (a more Americanized version of Houqua) as a tribute to the famous Hong merchant with whom his uncle had traded. During this time, many Americans were still familiar with Houqua and his famous reputation. By re-naming his tea after Houqua, he was telling his customers that he too was willing to guarantee the integrity of his tea and that he felt it was the finest available.

Since the Korean War era, when the established Lapsang Souchong growers were forced out of China, Hu-Kwa tea has been cultivated in the island country of Formosa (Taiwan). During that time, they were able to salvage their machinery and found the climate to be a perfect match for continuing their production of Hu-Kwa tea. To this day, Hu-Kwa tea is grown and processed in a small part of Formosa and shipped to us once a year.

“Hu-Kwa tea has been a symbol of hospitality in the home for many years. Generation after generation have continued to drink Hu-Kwa tea and serve it to their guests with great pride.” -Mark T. Wendell , 4/15/54

To view excerpts from the vintage booklet, “The Story of Hu-Kwa”, please click here.
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