Tea is a beverage that is so intrinsic to China. The beverage originated in the southwest part of the country and is now drunk everywhere, from hole in the wall eateries to Michelin-starred restaurants. But tea is losing popularity among younger Chinese, who perceive it as their parents’ drink or are lured away by the social cachet of coffee. It’s a problem Ren Siyi is trying to address with TeaPlays. Made organically and packaged like candy, we talk to Ren to find out what it takes to arrest the slide of tea, how she runs her brand as a new mother, and the sexism she faced from mainland investors.
How did you get the idea for TeaPlays?
What inspired me was my eight-month experience in Germany running my tea group through the website Meetup. We had 286 members of many nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures who joined and hosted sessions of tea tastings. It opened my eyes completely: tea-drinking can be so fun and dynamic! But back to China, teas are still so traditional and old-fashioned, and perceived by millennials as their parents’ drink. Teas on the market are either tea bags with fannings and artificial aroma, or are natural loose-leaf teas that are not convenient for people’s fast-paced lifestyle and not packaged attractively. I wanted to extract the essence of traditional Chinese teas while rejuvenating the image and experience of our tea culture, which is how I came up with the name Tea Plays, because it’s almost looks too fun to be real tea at first.
Where does the tea come from and how is it grown?
All tea is directly sourced from organic tea plantations and manufactured in an organic tea factory in Pu’er, Yunnan. We use Dianhong black tea in our Good Morning blend, Taiwan High-mountain Oolong in Brainstorming, raw Pu’er tea in After Lunch, and post-fermented Pu’er tea in Sweet Home. Organic tea means a safe cup free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are common in most teas in China. It is not an easy job for us to stick to organic tea, especially when the Chinese market is still not fully ready to pay more for organic farming. However, consuming non-organic tea in the long run means we are more likely to contract chronic and life-threatening diseases.
我们所有的茶都来自云南普洱的有机茶场，在有机茶叶厂中进行生产。在Good Morning茶中我们使用的是滇红茶，Brainstorming茶中使用的是台湾高山乌龙茶，After Lunch茶中使用的是生普洱，Sweet Home茶中使用的是熟普洱。不像大多数国内产的茶叶那样，有机茶叶不含化学肥料和杀虫剂，非常安全。坚持使用有机茶叶很不容易，尤其是中国市场目前还没有准备好为有机农业支付更高的成本。但是如果长期喝非有机茶叶的话，就很有可能会得慢性的致命疾病。
Why did you package the tea like candy?
Our tea is packaged like candy to not only make it stand out from other tea products in China, but to allow for a new and exciting way to consume it. I wanted people to reminisce about their childhood memories while unwrapping and playing with our tea bonbons. It’s the most convenient way to carry around, share, and enjoy loose-leaf tea without having to know how many grams to steep for a cup.
You marketed to other countries first before turning to the mainland. Why did you do it this way?
Blended teas in China are perceived as a low-end product without food safety and nice designs. Although many claim to be organic, Chinese national organic standards have faced credibility issue for decades. Being the first tea company in mainland China to achieve full organic certification by the American Food and Drug Administration, we not only used this opportunity to market our product to the health- and flavor-conscious population of the US, but also build our image as a brand that delivers uncompromising quality when we came back to the mainland market.
You faced some stereotypes when looking for investors. What were they?
As I began to present Tea Plays at business roadshows throughout China, many questions from investors were personal and unprofessional. Questions such as, “Are you married” or, “do you plan to have children anytime soon’ were frequent. I always answered them loud and clear, “Yes, and yes. I plan to have at least two children and being an entrepreneur is just my career choice.” One investor even withdrew his offer as he got to know my age and family planning. As forward as China is economically, young female entrepreneurs are at a significant disadvantage. Equality shouldn’t necessarily mean that a woman should always lean in and lead. It should give women the same opportunities and respect, no less and no more.
During my pregnancy, I have acquired our seed capital from two investors with our team performance in six months. As a mother to a five-month-old and with my booming business, I hope my efforts with Tea Plays provide a spark of optimism and hope for aspiring female entrepreneurs.
How do you juggle both your business and your baby?
I had my doubts if I could do it until I met other women in similar situations at a panel in Portugal. There was Elisabeth Rehn, the former Finnish minister of defense and a mother of three, and Shireen Shelleh, an engineer and member of the board on the biggest engineering enterprise in Palestine. I saw that determination can push you beyond your capabilities, so I marched on. My daily routine is now this: I work from 9pm to 1am after putting my baby to sleep. Practicing yoga and meditation both help me concentrate and focus on who am I in life.
我之前也很担心不能两者兼顾，直到我在葡萄牙的一场讨论圆桌上遇到了几位情况相似的女士。其中一位是前芬兰国防部长Elisabeth Rehn，她有三个孩子；另一位是Shireen Shelleh，她是一名工程师，也是巴勒斯坦最大的工程公司的董事会成员。他们让我意识到坚定的决心能够让你突破你的潜能，激励我不断向前。我现在每天的安排是，晚上9点把宝宝哄睡着之后，就开始工作直到凌晨1点。此外瑜伽和冥想也帮助我集中精力，清心生慧。
Where does tea stand now among the younger generation, and how do you compete with the popularity of coffee?
Coffee typically outcompetes tea for reasons such as gaining a quick dose of caffeine to keep one more active during the day. However, over time, a caffeine habit can have harmful effects on your heart rate, digestion, and can make you more prone to anxiety. TeaPlays is working to inform the younger generation of the health benefits of organic tea, including the lesser amounts of caffeine – for example, one Good Morning bonbon contains one-ninth of caffeine of an equivalent cup of coffee while still having an awakening effect from mint. With our bonbon style packaging, we aim to make the idea of consuming organic tea as easy as making a cup of coffee, but with much greater health benefits.
咖啡主要是因为能够快速补充咖啡因，让人打起精神来应对日常活动，所以比茶更符合现代人的生活节奏。但是长期喝咖啡的话可能会对心率、消化等产生有害影响，也会让人更焦虑。Tea Plays致力于让年轻一代认识到有机茶所带来的健康益处，包括所含咖啡因较少，比如一包Good Morning茶所含的咖啡因是一杯咖啡所含咖啡因的九分之一，而其中所含的薄荷也有提神效果。糖果的包装使得冲泡有机茶也和咖啡一样简单便利，让大家轻松享用茶带给人身心的健康。
Free shipping within China
Each box contains eight bonbons with two of each flavor. The flavors are:
Good Morning (green), for refreshment
Brainstorming (red), which energizes
After Lunch (yellow), for digestion
Sweet Home (Purple), for relaxation
Each bonbon contains 5 grams of organic whole leaf tea and flowers, which can be steeped for 3-5 times. It can be served either in a glass or a cup (350ml – 500ml) for yourself, or in a small tea pot (500ml) for two to share.
To get the the best flavor, use hot water of over 90 degrees Celsius and steep for around 1 minute. Add ice cubes to make it iced tea or sliced fruits for a refreshing drink.
每个糖果茶包含有5克有机原叶茶和花茶，可冲泡3-5次。可以冲泡在茶杯(350ml – 500ml)中一人独享，也可以冲泡在茶壶(500ml)中供两人共酌。