Why A Kansas City Immigrant Goes Back To China To Keep Traditional Tea Alive

Feb 1, 2018

On the first floor of Crown Center in Kansas City sits Shang Tea, a tea shop where teabags are frowned upon and traditional dried leaves applauded.

Owner Zehua Shang is a native of the Shandong province in eastern China and moved to Kansas City 18 years ago.

“I was invited by a professor friend at UMKC,” Shang says, “to be his Chinese language teacher and cultural assistant.”

The interior of Shang Tea.
Credit Courtesy of Shang Tea

Although Shang Tea wouldn’t open until years later, Shang first considered the idea shortly after moving to the United States in a twinge of nostalgia.

“After one month I came to America, I thought: ‘Oh there’s no tea shop in the Kansas City area,’” Shang says.

Shang’s appreciation for tea stretches back to his childhood in rural China where he had only two choices of drink: water or tea.

“Before I was 13 years old, I never had juice or soda or anything in a bottle,” he says.

Shang now travels regularly back to China to select tea leaves from a friend’s farm in the Fujian Province.

Zehua Shang sits near a trail in the Fujian Mountains.
Credit Courtesy of Zehua Shang

“In Fujian, 85 percent [of the region] is mountainous,” he says. “So it’s really good for tea growing.”

There are six major types of tea: green, white, yellow, oolong, black and red (also known as post-fermented.)

Shang chose Fujian due to its ideal climate for white tea plants, his favorite of the six.

“The aroma and texture of white tea is not as grassy as green tea,” he says. “Plus good white tea [plants] have a natural honey aroma.”

Tea harvesting is a lengthy process. Tea plants are typically ready for harvest after about three years. After harvest, the leaves are dried through exposure to sun and wind. Some of the leaves at Shang Tea are dried for seven years before they’re ready to be used.

Shang Tea also serves dim sum, a style of Chinese cuisine where treats small enough to fit in a steamer basket or a small plate are served alongside tea.

Examples include dumplings, rice rolls and Shang’s favorite: mooncakes. Mooncakes are a pastry with regional differences.

A mooncake with lotus seed filling and egg yolk.
Credit Wee Keat Chin / Flickr-CC

“In China there is a Mid-Autumn festival, also called Mooncake Festival. It’s like Thanksgiving in the United States, it’s the second biggest holiday in China,” he says.

Shang Tea sells mooncakes made of either lotus seed paste or red bean paste. In some areas of China, a hard-boiled egg is included inside to represent the moon.

Comfort foods are often paired with tea to create a relaxing meal and help spark conversation with guests. 

“In China we have an old saying, ‘drinking tea, talking principles’ it is the old tradition from Confucius,” said Shang.

Shang's passion for traditionally-brewed tea made opening a tea shop here in Kansas City a near necessity.

"Since I like tea so much, I just feel strongly about this," said Shang. "Without good tea, it's hard for me to survive."