Journey Through the Timeless Tea Legacy

By Yin Nwe Ko



Tucked away in a herit­age shophouse on Mosque Street in Singapore’s Chi­natown, Pek Sin Choon is a must-stop for any tea lover heading to that island nation. Outside the shop, you’re welcome to take a sample from the teapot, which they refill several times a day for all passersby. Wander in to see the older “aunties”, as they’re of­ten called, packing their unique blends of tea by hand in pink paper. These women, many of whom are older than age 60, average 2,000 packages of 15 grammes of tea per eight-hour day.


Yuen Eng Wah, their general manager, will likely be on hand to serve you their classic Nanyang tea, an oolong blend for which they’re famous, at the shop’s tra­ditional wooden brewing station in the front. The business’s name is taken from their founder’s family name, Pek, and “sin choon’, mean­ing “new spring’, which expresses their hope for good tea harvests.


This family-owned business was founded in 1925 by Bai-Zhuang Dan Niang and her son, Pek Kim Aw. After the death of her husband in 1910, Bai-Zhuang and Pek em­igrated from China, where, as a woman, she wouldn’t have been allowed to open her own business, says Yuen. However, she could go to Singapore with her young son’s help. Locally, Pek soon came to be known as “Buffalo Head” because of his upright character. Carrying tea on a shoulder pole, he pedalled it door to door and later married an Indonesian-Chinese woman. The buffalo head became the brand’s mascot.


Fourth-generation descend­ent Peh Ching Her, known as Kenry, now runs the tea business, which is mostly wholesale but also sells to walk-in customers. They’ve been sourced, blended, and roast­ed in the same ways for almost 100 years and are particularly known for their distinctive Nanyang tea. The term refers to this area of Asia where Chinese immigrated to these South Seas, including the southern coast of China and across Southeast Asia, following periods of unrest between the 17th and early 20th centuries.


At the tea station, Yuen waits for the water to come to 100° Cel­sius (212° Fahrenheit), which increases the tea’s fragrance and eagerly shares stories of the purveyor’s entrepreneurial past. In the early 1900s, business letters and tea shipments from the mountains of China through Malaysia could take months to years to arrive, depending on the weather and other factors, and tea often came damp. The purveyors, who imported from China’s Fujian Province, had to think creatively to ensure a steady supply to their customers. Cleverly, they began to blend the older tea on hand with the newly arrived teas and roast them together.


“They had to harmonize the new and old tea because of surviv­al. They had no choice,” explains Yuen. “The taste that eventually came up seemed to suit this area, a land of many immigrants. Their blending, much of which is still done on-site by hand in large bam­boo bowls, balanced the fragrant Southern oolong teas with the strong minerality and “mouthfeel” of the Northern oolongs, adding “another layer in both palate and after-taste”, Yuen says.


In its marketing, Pek Sin Choon emphasizes tea’s wellness aspects. The label on their first blend, Wuyi Iron Arhat, features a well-muscled man juggling iron balls, which they say “pays trib­ute to the labourers who built our nation”.


In the 1950s, after the Japa­nese occupation of World War II, they developed a tea with a high, indefinable scent they referred to as an “unknown fragrance”. When they asked a friend to help name it, he suggested they keep that mon­iker, and they added “renowned” as a prefix to make it sound fa­mous, which it became. Like most Chinese tea drinkers, Yuen adds nothing to the Renowned Un­known Fragrance as he pours it into small cups. He recommends steeping the tea for one minute and using the same tea leaves up to four times for a slightly different taste of this lightly caffeinated tea each time. Renowned Unknown Fragrance also pairs perfectly with a popular local dish, bah kut teh, or pork bone soup with rice, which could be a tad oily and pep­pery. In the shops, Yuen shares, customers would say, “Pour a buffalo out” when they ordered that tea with the soup. Singapore is known for its food aficionado culture, and gourmet-level street hawker stands, and visitors who opt to try bak kut teh at popular restaurants, like Song Fa, will find Pek Sin Choon’s Nanyang tea in their pot. Yuen also recommends that their teas accompany other local favourites, such as chicken rice, laksa, and dim sum.


With each passing decade, Pek Sin Choon has resourcefully read the cultural situation while also following their established tea traditions. In 1959, when China won its first table tennis world male singles championship, the tea makers were so elated that they created a celebratory cham­pion, “ping pong” tea. Optimisti­cally, they featured a female play­er on the package as inspiration, and several years later, a Chinese woman won the championship. In 1976, they introduced Preemi­nent Fragrance, “very high in fra­grance,’ which was inspired by a Mongolian princess character in a popular Hong Kong drama series.


Preserving their unique fra­grances is so vital to them that some teas are wrapped twice in wax paper. Initially, they used white wax paper, like most others. During World War II, though, they faced a shortage, so they switched to pink paper acquired from the hospital. After the war, they re­tained this newer colour tradition.


“Pink is more auspicious and reminds us of what our fore­fathers went through,” says Yuen. While the store is moving toward semi-automation, they remain true to their storied roots and continue the hand packing, which tourists love to see.


After you sip a cup of tea, Yuen will show you where the tea is hand-blended and roasted on-site. When he was young, Kenry Peh learned to “blend tea the old-school way”, says Yuen, from “Mr Poh”, their master tea blender for four generations. Peh had to observe Poh in action for several hours a day for four years before being allowed to try himself. These days, Yuen is doing most of the blending and then putting it on trays in their 50-year-old oven to roast. The leaves are then left to cool for at least a week before be­ing packaged. As part of the yearly Singapore Heritage Festival, Pek Sin Choon often hosts a Nanyang Tea Challenge, during which con­testants correctly identify their tea varieties, create their own blend, and suggest a suitable accompa­nying dish.


Pek Sin Choon is committed to sharing the delights of Nan­yang tea with new generations and visitors who wander into their charming shophouse.


In wandering the whole text, nestled within the charming lanes of Singapore’s Chinatown, Pek Sin Choon emerges as a time­less beacon for tea enthusiasts worldwide. By stepping through its doors, visitors are enveloped in an atmosphere steeped in his­tory and tradition. The aroma of freshly brewed Nanyang tea wafts through the air, a testament to the legacy crafted by generations of artisans. Here, amidst the hus­tle and bustle of modernity, time seems to stand still as elderly “aunties” delicately package tea blends by hand, their movements a graceful dance preserving a by­gone era. It is in this sanctuary of serenity that one finds solace, connecting with a tradition that transcends geographical bound­aries and temporal constraints.


As Yuen Eng Wah, the gen­eral manager, regales visitors with tales of the establishment’s founding, a rich tapestry of herit­age unfolds. Founded in 1925 by Bai-Zhuang Dan Niang and her son, Pek Kim Aw, Pek Sin Choon stands as a testament to persever­ance and entrepreneurial spirit. Emigrating from China in search of opportunity, Bai-Zhuang defied societal norms to realize her vi­sion, laying the cornerstone for what would become an iconic tea house. Through trials and tribula­tions, the family’s commitment to their craft remained unwavering, a beacon of hope amidst turbulent times. Today, under the steward­ship of fourth-generation descend­ant Peh Ching Her, fondly known as Kenry, Pek Sin Choon contin­ues to flourish, bridging the gap between tradition and modernity with finesse.


In sum, in a rapidly evolving world, Pek Sin Choon stands as a bastion of tradition, its storied leg­acy a testament to the timeless al­lure of tea culture. With each sip of Nanyang tea, patrons embark on a journey through time, tracing the footsteps of generations past who toiled tirelessly to perfect their craft. As the aroma of fragrant blends fills the air, it serves as a reminder of the enduring bond between humanity and nature, encapsulated in a humble cup of tea. As visitors bid farewell to the hallowed halls of Pek Sin Choon, they carry with them more than just packets of tea; they carry the spirit of resilience, innovation, and heritage that defines Singapore’s rich tapestry. In a world character­ized by flux and uncertainty, Pek Sin Choon stands as an anchor, offering solace and continuity in an ever-changing landscape. As the sun sets over Chinatown, casting a golden hue over the heritage shophouse, one cannot help but marvel at the timeless allure of Pek Sin Choon, a beacon of tra­dition amidst the tides of change.


Reference: Tea Time Feb 2024