Globe-trotting Tea and Travel

Meet Harvey Lin, Milk Tea King

Scarborough's Harvey Lin is the 2012 Hong Kong-style Milk Tea King

My visit to Hong Kong this August opportunely coincided with the Hong Kong International Tea Fair. It is one of dozens of trade events produced every year by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. I was only available to attend on Sunday which was open to the public, so it was crowded. As luck would have it though, it was also the day of the 4th Annual International Hong Kong-style Milk Tea Championship. I thought this would be a small sideline, but it turned out to be the centrepiece of Sunday’s events. A pavilion inside the entrance was serving samples of Milk Tea to a long queue.

Hong Kong-style milk tea Pavilion front and centre at the entrance to the Tea Fair
There was a long queue waiting for a samples of HK style milk tea

Hong Kong-style Milk Tea or “Kam Cha” became popular in the 1950’s, influenced heavily by British Colonial traditions. Made from a mixture of black tea leaves, warmed evaporated milk and sugar, it has become entrenched in daily HK life. They consume 900 million cups annually. If you have a Cantonese Chinatown in your city, chances are they will know how to prepare it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, particularly if you don’t like milk in your tea and even more so if you don’t like evaporated milk. I tasted something familiar in its creaminess – perhaps memories of using evaporated milk on camping trips? Hong Kong residents prefer a strong component of tea in their cup.

Dignitaries, Jury and Sponsors. Simon Wong, Chairman of the Assn. of Coffee and Tea of Hong Kong, second from left of cup and saucer

The Championship took place on the stage at the back of the Conference Hall. For almost an hour, the crowded audience sat through the pomp and speeches of celebrities, dignitaries and sponsors, before the 6 contestants were paraded onto the stage and made their way to the prep stations. Just as I had decided to move away from the area to explore the trade show, I heard the announcer say, “Harvey Lin of Toronto Canada” – what? I decided to watch the event play out though I admit I did take a little wander to nearby booths during the lengthy show. Each time I returned Harvey was holding his own and seemed to be intent on his technique. Holding pots of hot liquid high in the air, pouring and mixing like a mad chemist. See more pictures on The Association of Coffee and Tea of HK website, as they were major sponsors of the event.

From top: Harvey Lin pouring his blend through a cloth filter; Duty weighs heavily on the jury; Harvey Lin - the new International Milk Tea King!

When the winner was announced and it was Harvey, I thought, cool!  I’ll interview him! But I couldn’t get anywhere near him. He was now the crowned Milk Tea King! – an International honour that would follow him for months – maybe years. When he returned to Canada he caused a sensation in the Scarborough/Toronto community and beyond. I managed to snap some photos of him at the Fair giving a shout out to his home town, but it wasn’t until 6 months later that I got that interview.

It turns out that in the months following the contest, Taiwan-born Harvey Lin, age 32, of Marathon Donuts in the Scarborough area of Toronto, has become a celebrity, attracting visitors from the US and Vancouver. They want to see his trophy and try his famous Hong Kong-style Milk Tea. He and his establishment have been so popular, that in November, he was able to open a second location in Richmond Hill – Marathon Café.

What was his secret to winning? He says he was well-trained in Milk Tea preparation 5 years ago by Marathon’s former owner. Harvey progressed to the point where he was able to improve on the method by adding his own signature to the beverage. He mixes a ‘classified’ blend of tea leaves and applies a scientific approach to prep with exact calculations and timing. In Hong Kong, he had 3 days to practice on site with the equipment provided.

Lin's first location, Marathon Donuts in Scarborough, Greater Toronto Area

Will he be returning to Hong Kong in August 2013 to defend his title? He says not. He’s too busy with the new location. I’m sure, with his skills, he’ll be riding on his laurels for years to come. If you’re in the Toronto area and would like to try his Hong Kong-style Milk Tea, you can visit Marathon Donuts in Scarborough (this is where the trophy lives) or Richmond Hill. Call first though if you want to be sure the champ is there to make it for you in person!