When I first walked in this new tea store, the most striking aspect was the wall of large black and white paintings that were hung against a flush red wallpaper. The paintings are of people’s faces, but the most striking details were embedded in the eyes, through which, with their mouths closed shut, they ever so softly cry out. It wasn’t eerie or uncomfortable looking at them. On the contrary, they inspired strength and perseverance. I stood staring a little longer before zooming out onto the rest of the floor and furniture. There is a single, long, wooden table zig-zagging through the room with tree stumps acting as chairs arranged periodically on both sides and on my right are more paintings of what I assume to be Hanzi characters. The store has a modern-historic Chinese look to it. Across the store on the other side, Phillip, the store owner, waves and greets me. We exchange some pleasantries before I inquire about the paintings. He tells me that the paintings are by an artist, born and raised in Toronto, who spent over four years teaching Desin at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The artist was inspired by the young people there, who speak, not with their mouths for fear of retribution, but with their eyes. Philip tells me that he exhibits different artist’s work in his store.
‘Crimson Tea’ is a new tea shop on College, near its intersection with Huron, specializing in traditional, wholesome and natural teas and foods. On the menu there are an assortment of teas, coffees, bakery items, and very reasonably priced entrees including green tea noodles with beef strips all served in a broth of pumpkin seed, black sesame, yam, lotus seeds, lily pods and other healthy ingredients. The whole menu is not what I expected at all; it is surprisingly simple. Quite contrary to your neighborhood Teavana, you’re not going to find ‘Blueberry Mango Madness’ here. Phillip brews me a cup of milk tea and as he serves it, he excitedly tells me he deliberately left out sugar. “Kids back in Hong Kong called this the panty host milk tea. It tastes good and it is also very health. I spent a lot of time researching teas while working at the Kidney Foundation of Canada; the black tea that is used to make milk tea is actually neuroprotective and reduces the risk of Parkinson Diseases.” The tea is served in a very tall, rather daunting, clear mug, but as I hold it and take the first few sips, particularly since I had come from the cold, I feel its warmth spread throughout my stomach and hands and it leaves a milky, very delicately earthy after-taste in my mouth. We sit down to talk.
Phillip tells me he wasn’t always passionate about tea. He came to Canada as an immigrant, working as an urban planner while pursuing a Masters degree in psychology. It all started in 2008 when the deadly earthquakes struck Sichuan in China on May 12 killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands more. He made the decision to apply his experience and expertise by taking on a three years contract with a relief organization to write development proposals submitted to major foundations to raise funding that would best help the earthquake stricken zones recover. In three years he would meet people in many different types of circumstances and his goal was to, as he put it, “help them become self-sufficient, because I can’t support them forever.” One of the most outstanding earthquake survivor that he encounter was a young girl who has not been able to walk since three years old who he supported in building her own business. His final project was in Yunnan which is at the southern part of China bordering northern Burma helping a minority group of young children who lived in a poor, remote area with limited resources. He learned that these children were often exploited and shipped to tourist areas in Thailand as teenage prostitutes. The group of people who connected Phillip to these children turned out to be young adults from Pu-erh tea farmer communities. Not being a fan of tea, he was surprised to learn that the tea they grew was somehow very different from the teas he drank the city. Still, this wouldn’t be what sparked his passion, and after his time in China came to a close, he would buy some of the tea himself and take it back to Canada with him where it would be forgotten in the back of his mind.
Back in Canada, Phillip began work, this time at Hong Fook mental services as well as the Kidney Foundation of Canada. At Hong Fook, Phillip started to serve his Pu-Erh tea to the patients, to help them relax and so that they can drink something healthier than soda and juice. In parallel, at the Kidney Foundation, Phillip would realize the extent of the irreversible effects of sugar, on the kidney, and on the body. He was becoming increasingly upset that diabetes – a leading cause of kidney failure – is often caused by the reckless amounts of sugar in processed food and fast food. The circumstances were all aligned when the manager at Hong Fook raised concerns about the tea’s side effects with the patients’ medicine which sparked Phillip to research Pu-Erh tea. His research revealed that Pu-erh not only is hypoglycemic but also inhibits the advanced glycation end product formation and ameliorates the progression of experimental diabetic nephropathy. Further research revealed that pu-erh tea is a radical scavenger and it offers promising results in the areas of obesity/weight management, liver issues especially fatty liver, and dementia. Motivated by those who he helped before who now became entrepreneurs, Phillip began thinking about creating his own tea shop as socially responsible business to help promote social changes against junk food diets.
It would be his experience in China that this time come to him to inspire. The young woman he had helped start her own business emailed him about her success, thanking him for helping her achieve her dreams and helping her to become self-sufficient. Here was a young woman who he inspired, but couldn’t he practice what he preached, and follow his own dream and truly become self-sufficient as well? He decided to bite the bullet and so he opened ‘Crimson Tea’ and the girl he helped is now the supplier of the Chrysanthemum and Golgi berry for his store.
I start to pack up my things and I ask Phillip why he called the store ‘Crimson Tea.’ He explained that the word phonetically resembles the Chinese characters of “堅信” which means “firmly believe” so as to honor those remarkable people who he met during his time in China, the people who survived unspeakable adversaries by holding firmly on to faith. As I left I looked back one more time at the wall of paintings. They were definitely fitting.