More Than Just Tea
The last business we're highlighting as part of our NYC Chinatown series this AAPI Heritage month in celebration of our NY Forever x WE ARE CHIMMI collaboration is Grand Tea & Imports. We had the chance to visit sisters Karen and Alice Liu to talk about their parents' venture into the tea business and how it has also been a way to pass down cultural values onto the next generation.
When did your family open Grand Tea & Imports and what was the inspiration behind the business?
ALICE: Grand Tea & Imports was started by my father, Zhong Ming Liu who is also lovingly known in the neighborhood as “Teafucius.” My dad went back to China for the first time since immigrating to America. He was able to catch up with family members and old friends during this trip through lots of hanging out and drinking cups of tea. He saw how much tea had evolved in the 20 years that he was gone. He wanted to bring that back because he wasn’t happy with tea consumption in America as it did not resonate as a high-value product yet. The way people understood tea in America was mainly through Lipton Tea. So he established Grand Tea & Imports in 2006.
He also wanted to instill Chinese cultural values in us and thought that tea was a good vehicle for that. That’s where teaching us the tea ceremony came along. We had a shoe store at the beginning, so it started off with us taking a corner of our shoe store to sell tea along with the shoes. Eventually, we turned it into a real thing and opened a whole new store dedicated to tea. We’ve moved to several locations but tea was always my dad’s passion.
Was the plan to involve all members of the family in the business or did this happen over time?
ALICE: It just happened over time. Growing up as an immigrant family, you kind of do everything all the time. So whatever business endeavor your parents had, you also helped out. So when my parents had a restaurant, Karen and I worked at that restaurant. When they had a shoe store, my whole family worked at the shoe store. Same with the tea business as well. Though with the tea business, it was very much intentional. My dad took me back to China to study tea ceremonies for a year so I could learn from the source and afterwards he made sure Karen and I also cultivated our own passions for tea. It became more than just hustling to help parents.
What are your parents' and your expectations and future goals for the family business?
ALICE: I think it will continue to be a family business. It’s their baby and my parents think of it as their retirement plan. They’ll keep working there until they can’t work there anymore. And even then, they’ll still come to the store everyday to see old customers and be in the neighborhood because when you do a family business for this long and work 7 days a week, 365 days year, you end up spending more time at the store than your own house and your own living room.
We’re happy they’ve carved out a space for themselves where they can continue to make a dignified living and be self-sufficient despite their limited English and technology skills. And we’re personally invested in keeping the business open for my own cultural roots and to feel grounded.
Karen and I both have day jobs and we find a balance in doing things slower and respecting our parents’ wishes and working at their level, meaning making sure that technology and English translation is accessible to them too.
KAREN: For us, it has been a self-affirming, identity-affirming, and culturally rewarding experience. It's super meaningful to have this relationship with our parents through the store. As much as it feels like an obligation sometimes, it’s also something we derive a lot of joy and love from. In terms of the future operations of the store. It’s not a matter of whether we’ll do it or not. I think Alice and I are definitely of the sense that we want Grand Tea & Imports to stay in the community and in the family.
Our parents poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into it. It’s really a matter of whether it will continue to exist based on the availability of affordable real estate. Is it still tenable to run a business based on the environment that we operate in for New York? Will Chinatown look the same in a couple years time? I think those are the long term challenges we need to contend with.
What do you want people to know about your business/Chinatown?
ALICE: We’re an inter-generational Buddhist cultural goods and tea store and we’re tightly tied with our neighborhood. Our business is not just a business. We want to continue making a vibrant and welcoming space in the community so that people can maintain their cultural practices through businesses like us.
What does being children of immigrants mean to you or what has it taught you?
KAREN: It’s taught us to really appreciate our parents and the people who came before us, the sacrifices that they’ve made, the hustle they had to go through to create a new life and for future generations. I think that the amount of labor and love that’s gone into setting up this life for us and setting up this business, it requires a great deal of effort that is not as easy to muster. We just are really grateful for our parents and appreciative and empathetic to the challenges that they had to work through. They may not be perfect. They may not have all the answers but they’ve been able to really give it their best and channel their incredible work ethic and grit. That’s something we admire and are grateful for.