Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Vendor promotion through social media channel creation


First published in TChing here.

I've mentioned a very successful pioneering case of social media channel creation before, the Yunnan Sourcing Fans Facebook group.  This post is focused on that kind of thing, versus a vendor creating good information content that can support sales in a recent post.  Of course any given vendor can do both; Farmerleaf is a good example of that, with only the content creation really clearly successful so far.

the feel of those groups is familiar, but the functional structure is a bit limited

The prompt for talking about this is being invited to a Farmerleaf Discord server (group), and hearing a nice audio interview there with a friend, Anna of Kinnari Tea, about development issues in Laos.  There are other vendor-specific tea-related groups there.  I don't buy enough Farmerleaf tea to talk about them in a group, or enough of any one vendor's tea (except maybe Moychay; they send me more than average for review).  I suppose that's one drawback, that a premise for participation is based on consuming a lot of one vendor's products.  Some people do that, or maybe even only buy tea from one source.

What other channel forms are out there?  Vendors using open form social discussion themed channels for promotion tends to be heavily restricted and moderated, for obvious reasons.  In the Facebook group I run, International Tea Talk, mostly populated by vendors, content about products is allowed but not explicit sales information.  For whatever reasons it's hard for vendors to adjust to talking about their products without moving on to sales range (mentioning a special, emphasizing contact information, utilizing marketing content that looks like obvious marketing content--ads).  Discussing background in other types of social media settings is an option, it would just require carefully working around restrictions.  Adagio created and hosted Tea Chat, really the former main old-style tea forum, but activity dropped off when they tried to play a more direct role in leveraging that for marketing.  Way off; one part of that upset some of the forum members so much that they created a spin-off forum, Tea Forum.

But what else, like Discord, or that Facebook group?  A Facebook page can work for a contact point, or providing information, but it wouldn't provide the same function.  Crimson Lotus has been developing a cool variation on these themes, doing a podcast series on Youtube.  They're a pu'er vendor (mainly), so it might be a conflict to have another similar pu'er vendor as a guest (eg. the Bitterleaf or Yunnan Sourcing guys), but even that might still work.  It's not as if their customers don't know about source options.  One episode had the Liquid Proust vendor Andrew Richardson on; he sells pu'er, but the business theme is a little different.  Making a podcast work can be hit and miss, but it would work to have really interesting people on, and do a good job of asking the questions people would want to hear answers to, just the basics.  It's quite indirect as marketing goes, and not so interactive, but live streaming versus posting edited video can give it a little more of that feel.

What else?  Due to covid lots of forms of online seminars and conferences are turning up; participating as a speaker could work.  This really assumes that the vendor has something to say beyond "I sell such and such tea."  Not all vendors are further through a learning and experience curve than an average social media group participant.  Someone having been to a tea production area in China--or anywhere--only one time could be used for all its worth; it would be enough.  Elyse of Tealet seems to do both seminar style events and informal streaming group talks, all really seeming more social than business-networking oriented.

I recently participated in a small Malaysian vendor holding an online meetup session to discuss this issue, hosted by Bigfuller Foong (his profile name), what would work for marketing or sales approach in the new business and social climate.  We didn't get so far.  Related to his own tea business he was expanding tea types, embracing a new Japanese tea interest there, and exploring cold brewing, so sharing that online could indirectly lead to sales.  The point related to this theme is that even without a group or channel base online video meetups could fulfill a similar function, with people networking to set up contacts to join those in any way that works.  He was doing more conventional tea enthusiast meetups too, not just talking among vendors and tea professionals.

Rather than arriving at approaches, in that discussion, we ended up discussing the context, how tea perspectives and very local cultures vary.  It makes a huge difference where you are and what you are trying to sell.  That Malaysian vendor was trying to move beyond the most conventional and in-demand Chinese teas that are popular there.  Another prospective vendor in Sydney, Australia was considering how to initiate and develop a Gongfu practice sub-culture there similar to what she had experienced in Austin, Texas.  It could work, it would just take some doing.  A one to one mapping of interest form and perspective might not work, actually, but with the right approach a similar theme and practices might be adapted.

One theme that often comes up:  it's a real challenge to try to replicate the effect of in-person tastings online.  Of course related to the main end-point you just can't, handing over someone tea to try.  You can mail it, but that still skips the brewing part.  A novel initiative combining training and online group tasting themes sold tasting sets and allowed participants to try a variety of Japanese teas together, a set they sold prior to the meetings, along with content presentation and discussion (the Tea Creative Japanese Tea Marathon).  That's different.

these online meetups used to be more about sharing tasting experience

No matter what the approach is it seems critical to identify a point of connection.  Going after existing customers who already have the existing product interest could be a challenge, given some sources have already taken steps to solidify a relationship with their customer base.  There would have to be an angle, something new to offer.  Regardless of channel format or approach if a vendor is sharing their own passion for a tea type that could help, some of it would come across.  

To my limited awareness--which must be missing more than I've caught word of--Yunnan Sourcing is the only success case in setting up a really active channel, on par with a main social media group for activity level, that ties back to developing sales so far.  Many others have had some success but aren't quite there yet (excluding podcast and seminar cases, many of which may have been successful, and I wouldn't know for not really following any).  A number of Discord channels could change that in short order, with those already in existence now.

To switch over to fortune-telling mode it seems likely that vendors who can provide the best source-neutral content and develop a shared-interest community theme will be most successful.  In one sense that's the opposite of the Yunnan Sourcing case; you can't even mention another vendor in that FB fan group.  To cite a possible example, once pandemic impact settles a bit doing local events could link together online connections and a meeting in real life theme, which would be helpful for an experiential subject like tea.  Now only vendor-neutral groups fill this kind of space, as far as I'm aware, usually local area themed.  A vendor being open to broadening discussion restrictions in running such a group could work, or just shifting what YS is doing to include real-life contact scope might, keeping that scope restriction.  That's back to the theme that most successful vendor I mentioned uses, Moychay using shop based tastings and events as a very successful tool to promote awareness, just using social media contact as a catalyst.

a Chinese IT vendor hosted a tea ceremony that helped me get started into tea

I'm guessing this, that a vendor hosted but vendor-neutral approach might work in the long run, because few other sources will be able to match the single-source loyalty of Yunnan Sourcing.  Related pu'er-themed vendors might, outlets like Crimson Lotus or Liquid Proust, or maybe even Bitterleaf, but somehow this group contact function doesn't seem to match with the White 2 Tea theme, to me.  

It's nice how this sort of function can seem to work out based entirely online (maybe in part now since so many people are stuck in isolation).  The main Discord tea community, Communitea, successfully shifts old forum style and FB / Reddit post comment discussion connection to a number of chat channels instead, covering some of the scope that had occurred in real life or through private messages.  It's promising.  All sorts of meetup circles seem to be initiating from lots of different starting points.

That Farmerleaf Discord server / group may mix vendor promotion and community / awareness themes, or it might not take, and limited early activity isn't a clear indication either way.  It's interesting how that location and form invokes gaming and tech interest, just related to being there, and to some extent excludes more people than it includes (like Reddit group sub-culture patterns, which can be rough).  Then it's odd thinking through how other permutations might work, how other social media channel biases might combine or prevent combination with a tea shared interest theme.  Communicator app versions, like Slack or Snapchat groups, might have as much potential as other forms, and for sure those forms will keep evolving.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Great Mississippi Tea Co. Mississippi Mud and Colonel Grey


After reviewing two plain teas from the Great Mississippi Tea Company I was really looking forward to trying some of the flavored versions (which they shared in part for review, but also tied to Jason being kind enough to offer them to try, after visiting in a video meetup talk).  Their plain teas were quite good, a lot better than blending material needs to be, but the blends sounded especially novel.

One of these is chocolate flavored mixed with black tea and the other a variation of Earl Grey, just with floral input (lavender) and sage.  Both sound like they go a big step beyond mixing black tea and flowers.

I've become a little more open to tisanes and some blending lately.  Not so much; I still drink plain tea every morning, but once in awhile I'll mix chrysanthemum or a lemongrass and pandan tea bag (that someone gave me) in with sheng pu'er to drink grandpa style while driving around.  Trying some nice Moychay (Russian vendor) compressed tisane bars not long ago brought the tisane theme up again, which reminds me that I've still only tried 2 of the 6 of those.  High quality plain tea is still definitely the way to go, but there's something to be said for variation, and an option that involves less caffeine (which isn't how these mainly black tea versions go).

A main reason they've developed flavored versions, according to talking to Jason, was to suit American tea preferences, which don't focus on plain teas so much.  The average person in a Facebook tea group would be into plain teas, or people likely to read this blog, but it can tap into a broader potential audience to offer a range of novel flavored teas too.  They wouldn't necessarily need to be that novel, since conventional jasmine green tea or typical Earl Grey probably aren't familiar to most Americans either, but going a little further couldn't hurt.  It's one more differentiator, and a way to add something to the experience.  

It was hard to get myself to brew these Western style, since I tend to only use that approach to speed things along or when I have lower quality tea around to use up.  In some cases a Western approach works just as well though, for example for most green teas or for broken versions of black tea.  For flavored tea Gongfu brewing probably wouldn't work as well, because any flavoring would extract faster than the natural tea leaf flavors.  Or so I would expect; I'm almost never confirming that by checking.  Years back I would drink Earl Grey from time to time but I don't even remember when I did last.  I kind of like it but it somehow never comes up.  Onto how these worked out then.

not the same as the clean look in a gaiwan, using an infuser mug and small glass teapot


Mississippi Mud:  it's good.  Good is all relative; I'll try to be clearer about how good, and good in what way.  The ingredients are black tea (the Black Magnolia version), chocolate extract, and hazelnut extract, and I guess it tastes like those things, like a mild black tea, chocolate, and hazelnut.  It's a good combination.  Someone was asking online for suggestions about Christmas tea blends and this is pretty much there already, or perfect for a bit of extra messing around with, adding some candy cane, pine needle, or orange peel to it.  If there was any way to add dark cherry flavor it would be drifting closer to chocolate covered cherry, maybe even nicer for that with a small dash of brandy or cognac.

It's probably as well that I'm doing a simple review form of these, only checking two infusion rounds, related to that flavored tea form.  For as good as this tea quality is (I've already reviewed the plain black version) it won't get quite woody, astringent, and unpleasant in later rounds, so it would be fine for a second, but the extract might not be present at the same level.  

Fiscussion of relative flavor balance is in order.  Hazelnut is kind of on the same intensity level as the chocolate, which works well.  Chocolate flavor could be a lot stronger and this would still work, but it's a significant input at this level, a decent balance.  It doesn't taste like chocolate with tea, instead the opposite.  I've got a high tolerance for chocolate, so mixing this half and half with cacao husks would still be pleasant to me, or probably even better.

In trying this Black Magnolia again brewed Western style versus Gongfu (which I didn't write about here) a yam / sweet potato flavor came out a lot stronger, which is probably adding balance to this blend.  Somehow it almost comes across as a hint of vanilla or citrus, not that I'm noticing those specific flavors, but the the complex effect makes it hard to pin down exactly what it is.  It seems creamy, which I guess ties back to matching that chocolate covered cherry effect.  A dash of cherry brandy might make this really addictive.  It's strange to think about a Christmas party full of people getting hammered on a tea cocktail, like a festive older adult version of vodka and Red Bull.  I don't drink alcohol, for what that's worth, so I never try tea cocktails, just saying.  I don't have any problem with drinking, I just don't get around to it.

Nothing is really negative, although I guess if someone wanted to identify some aspect as potentially limiting it could be described as slightly woody.  There's really no astringency edge of black tea in this; I suppose that would be more naturally interpreted as not matching someone's personal preference.  Since I mostly drink Dian Hong, soft, flavorful, and complex Yunnan black teas, I don't miss that.

Colonel Grey:  that first hit of bergamot is nice; it's been a long time since I've had any Earl Grey.   To skip ahead to ingredients this includes Black Magnolia black tea (their version), bergamot oil, orange peel, lavender flower, and sage.  I suppose to some extent it must taste like those things.

Sage is noticeable if you try to pick it up but I doubt anyone would flag it as an input in blind tasting at this level.  That's my favorite overall tisane, from back when I drank a lot of those.  I would usually blend other tisanes then, but not usually sage, which I liked best alone, in order to fully experience it.  I think it adds a nice edge, or maybe a little depth.  Lavender flower is similar to the corn flower input in versions sold as Lady Grey.  It's hard to distinguish an orange peel input from bergamot but the level and type of citrus is pleasant; it really works.  I could brew this twice as strong and experience it as a nearly harsh bergamot blast and still love it.

Bergamot is strong enough that it stands out in the experience, and wafts into your nasal passages, and gives a nice aftertaste effect.  This isn't even really brewed strong, although I used a lot more than what I would consider a teaspoon of tea, maybe two or three fully heaped up, just with a good bit more water too (maybe 300 ml).  

From there it seems odd going further with discussion of other effect or relative balance.  It's Earl Grey, just a complex version of one.  The black tea input is better than those usually use, just a lot less edgy in terms of astringency and sharp flavors.  A Twinings version might be hit a little harder with bergamot, but this is comparable in input.  I think all the flavors together add up to the same level, it's just more complex.  

I had a maxed-out version from the Cordon Bleu culinary training organization once, so heavy on that input that brewing it a bit strong resulted in a palate shocking level of bergamot flavor.  So that's how I would brew it, every time.  If I had known that tea was going out of production I probably would've bought a half dozen of those tins.  I'm not saying that this is too weak, or should be stronger, but I suspect that half the people who love Earl Grey and bergamot flavor experience have a preference for it quite strong.

I would recommend brewing this a bit stronger than the package directions suggest (both of them, really). There is nothing to become harsh or out of balance from the mild black tea input, and for everything blending nicely as an experience but being subtle dialing it all up makes sense (to me).  I could've brewed both of these nearly twice as strong and they would probably be slightly better.  They worked as I made them though; they are nice.

For the right person messing around with Gongfu brewing would be more or less necessary, even with expectations that wouldn't work out as well. Probably those first 3 infusions would be really nice, for the extracts being so strong in them, and then stretched out versions after 5 or so would probably still be ok, but likely closer to the herbs and tea input, with the extracts wearing off.

this was that first infusion, but the second looked about the same

Second infusion:  notes stopped there, so I'm writing a bit more from memory later.  The flavors weren't really "rinsed off" in that first round, and for them being brewed stronger they were even more intense in the second round.  I don't remember if there was much difference related to aspects not being as pleasant; I think they were just shifted slightly.  

Using less tea and going with one long infusion probably wouldn't be better or worse, again just different.  For teaware that tends to soak up heat (the infuser mug but not the glass teapot) pre-warming the device would probably help, since hotter brewing would seem optimum, to me.

Which brings to mind the question of their input about that, which I can cite from a sales page description:

Mississippi Mud:  This is a Black Magnolia based tea that is flavored with chocolate and hazelnut extract. The hazelnut and chocolate bring out the natural cocoa/maltiness of the Black Magnolia in the most brilliant way.  It is a guilty pleasure without the calories of a Mississippi Mud Pie!

1 rounded tsp per 8 oz. of 200F water. Steep for 5 minutes.

Using water a bit off boiling for brewing a black tea is kind of typical, but I wouldn't for one as soft in character as this one, since there is no significant astringency edge to even consider, never mind brew around.  Let's check the other one, which should list the same brewing approach, so more for their description:

Colonel GreySince Jason is a Kentucky Colonel, our version is named Colonel Grey.  This is a Black Magnolia based tea that is flavored with premium bergamot oil then blended with orange peel, lavender flowers, and sage.

1 rounded tsp per 8 oz. of 212 F water. Steep for 5 minutes.

Nope, they recommend full boiling point for that one instead.  It is conventional to use that for tisanes; maybe the reasoning was that extracting full flavor from those required it.

All in all really nice.  I like good quality, basic tea blends, and it's interesting trying versions that reinterpret that kind of range and go a step further.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

How evil China is or isn't, according to foreigners living there


I've long since taken up the habit of watching non-fiction channels on Youtube, for entertainment.  It's a good replacement for watching movies or television shows, or comedy videos, and so on, because learning is also involved.  Not so different than watching documentaries then, just different content form and scope.  In almost all cases it's not something even remotely useful, like following cave diving, mafia history, prison stories, or how movie special effects are created.  The most recent theme has been foreign expat perspective on China.  

This runs long, and there's nothing here anyone absolutely needs to know, just rambling on about culture-based perspective, so if anyone is opposed to reading long text passages this would be a good place to leave off, or one identified summary a few paragraphs in is also set up for that.

To start, I love and appreciate China.  Lots of countries and cultures, really, but China and a limited few of others hold special meaning for me.  I'm really into tea (of course), and that has served as a base for a special connection.  I've been to China three times, and to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan beyond that.  I've had friends in China, mostly Chinese people, with only one foreigner there now coming to mind, and a second having moved out from there a year or so ago.  Some of my closest family friends in Bangkok have been Chinese, foreigners living here for a moderate length stay, usually the family of my childrens' friends (three different families).  Shenzhen was the first and last place I visited in China, where Winston--the main China based Youtuber this post follows--had been living.

two of those friends, who are really missed

that little girl was just great, and for sure still is

It's a bit off the subject but I suppose Russia is the other main country I feel some attachment to.  That's odd, given those have been the two main enemies of the US, at least outside of the Middle East.  I've only visited there once, and friends from there tend to be more distant contacts, but I've known enough Russians that it wouldn't be easy to arrive at a count.  I've had really positive experiences with a lot of other countries, related both to positive vacation visits, and knowing close friends from many, so that's not intended as putting those two cultures or places on some different level.  Chance contact just happened to work out that way, that I've had more exposure to those two.

Those Chinese expats' perspectives (based on Youtube channel accounts, posted videos) have recently split into two separate groups, those more or less completely pro-China, and others who's message is divided between appreciation of the culture and dislike of government activities and a perceived strain of extreme nationalism, which tends to drift from being described as a radical position to something more mainstream over time, as the main parties present it.  Those two perspectives don't sound like they are in so much direct conflict, do they?  At least not the earlier and more positive form of the one.  It's not so simple identifying how far into pro or anti China range either "side" is, or in what ways, or why.

Winston of Serpent ZA (photo credit article on five China bloggers to follow)

It's a balance all Americans deal with, resolving a love of most aspects of America and a dislike of parts that have evolved in ways one regards as negative.  On the left / liberal side that dislike would relate to nationalism extended to downplaying the relative status of other countries, or the perspective of minorities in the US (or even rejecting racism, I guess).  On the right / conservative side it's more about rejecting perspectives involving social justice issues, over-extending feminist, minority, class-based, and sexual preference group concerns.  Few people in America reject a majority of American culture as positive, not just one main half like that, although there's no reason why someone couldn't.  In part that liberal and conservative divide does seem like two fictional story lines, to me, but it's as well to not go into that here, since I'm talking about China instead.

I will get on to covering more specifics here, but let's get one basic starting point out of the way first:  is China evil?  Sure, of course, at least in part.  Some citizens' rights are being repressed, broad free speech and free press is out, and some minorities are dealing with a lot more than the trade-off between maintaining social order and making allowance for free speech, standard rights, and diverse perspectives and interests.  Surely there are internment camps, and people disappearing, and whatever other bad things happening.  

It's just not a part of most people in China's daily lives, as I understand it, beyond something like making adjustment to what you should express online.  It's not at all like 1984 (Orwell's novel), where an oppressive government has everyone living in fear.  At least that's my perspective.  I can add a lot of depth to that in relation to what it's like living in a country without free speech, because I do live in one, in Thailand.  Limited criticism of the government is questionable but typically tolerated here, depending on the form and content, but any public negative comments about the royal family lead directly to a lengthy prison stay.  Any foreigner getting involved with any of it probably wouldn't be around long.

Before getting back to starting points let's consider this:  is America evil, or is Thailand?  Yes, to both, at least in part.  Governments tend to look out most for the interest of a wealthy few, in most places, and that's quite true of both those countries.  To say that the US is better because people have clearly defined, broader rights overlooks that an unfair distribution of wealth and generally horribly ineffective government focuses national resources and policies on making wealthy people wealthier.  Wars are taken up to benefit military contractor companies, refugee immigrants are held in internment camps, in appalling conditions, and in some cases foreign prisoners are held without regard to any universal rights or rule of law.  It doesn't get much more evil than that, although forms of genocide are a clear next step.  

The US government probably only murders foreign spies and government leaders, and those cases are surely exceptions, more of a Cold War era theme.  Or maybe someone like Epstein, but one might think he partly had it coming, just not before some due process.  Thailand is corrupt on many levels, and lots of problems stem from that; let's just leave it at that.  But it's not dystopian or anything, I don't think.

Is China worse?  Tough to say.  If you are on the receiving end of such national-culture and public policy limitations in any country that's the worst case for you personally.  An average experience seems more relevant, and it's too complicated to judge life-input factors related to that, since different people live out completely different life experiences.  Free speech is definitely an issue there.  Let's get back to the Chinese foreigner / expat theme though, since this is enough introduction of the broad themes.

Serpent ZA / Winston

Winston (aka Serpent ZA) is seemingly the main Youtuber, in terms of following count, and personal history as a foreigner talking about life in China.  This post talks most about him, and I've seen the most of his videos.  

Winston is from South Africa, no longer living in China, as of a year or two ago, but he seemed to spend about 15 years there before that.  He seems personable and well-spoken, which really makes his videos work (within reason; people would probably read him differently).  Both "sides" seem nice enough, him and a fellow Youtuber he creates content with, and others he sees as inappropriately supporting Chinese government interests, at least in some cases.  All that is what I'm taking from watching a limited number of videos, that there is no good and bad guy side in how I'm interpreting what I've seen.  It's more about scope exclusions, and in some cases perspective maturity.  Of course many related videos by those Youtubers say exactly that, that the other guy is saying and doing the wrong thing, for bad reasons.

In Winston's earlier videos there was some mention of cultural limitations related to China, about restrictions on public speech, and negative things that happened to him there, but content was more positive (I suppose even "mostly" positive).  In recent videos, over the last two years, especially since he has left China, almost all the content is highly critical of China, of the CCP government and a cultural strain he describes as radical nationalism.  In recent posts he accepts that this radical nationalism has become a relatively mainstream perspective, something he attributed as a minority perspective in the past.  I suppose the themes covered changed over from largely positive to negative even earlier, but the form and tone definitely shifted more over time.

At a guess those negative issues aren't necessarily made up, so it comes down to whether or not focus on the negative is fair for different reasons.  Maybe a number of negative personal experiences makes that side of life in China seem like a more mainstream concern than it really is, or worse yet emphasizing a real set of issues to the point of exaggerating them could be used to draw more Youtube video clicks.  Or both; valid concerns could couple with noticing that personal income from video views increases with discussing those concerns, and making them sound dramatic.  Winston was always risking being able to stay in China, it seemed, so he either made that trade-off related to wanting to tell a more complete story, or because that content was more popular.  He is self-employed as a Youtuber, so the clicks correlate to income level.

To jump ahead to what is really a final conclusion (making this a reasonable place to leave off reading) Winston probably added more and more negative scope about Chinese culture and noticed he drew more and more video views as he did so.  Posting about problems in a relationship or trouble getting a bank account wouldn't be a problem, but from there moving on to talk about free speech issues really would be.  As soon as he did that the writing was probably on the wall related to him needing to leave China at some point.  But every further step would lead to more Youtube views, since an anti-CCP or anti-China position would be of interest to many, and the more negative things he would say the more problems he would encounter with push-back.  Every bump in views would bring more personal freedom from work and financial concerns, so there would be no going back to lifestyle-oriented content, to more typical travel blogger themes.


To put that critique of society and broad worldviews in perspective, if you look for problems in the US or Thailand to focus on and discuss they are there.  There's no problem with someone putting focus on those, since the issues are genuine.  Hating and discussing the other political extreme--left and right going at it--is probably the overall most popular topic in the US, even before Trump's involvement escalated that quite a bit.

If you extend that to say that general life experience in the US or Thailand is defined and shaped by a narrow range of government problems (unfair taxation or public policies, monitoring citizens, disrupting free speech or access to information, etc.) then that is probably going too far.  Lots of layers of problems come up in both places, in the US and in Thailand, but the two governments seem more guilty of not resolving problematic issues than of causing them.  

Exceptions come up, something like national debt the US government is directly causing, of course, and here I guess the election process seemed like an issue to many people.  Both cases tie to a point one of these China-based Youtubers mentioned, that the real underlying problem is that wealthy and powerful people tend to focus on gaining more wealth and power, and that causes problems.  Really poor and middle class people tend do the same, they're just not as good at it, and they can't steer governments and nations in unfortunate directions to benefit themselves, at most they can get a promotion at work.  That's beyond people being able to vote in bad political officials, but then it's normal for the whole range of options to be bad.

A later example will unpack how this plays out in relation to China and this Youtuber debate.  It seems informative to refer back to a cycle of experience for expats / foreigners in Thailand, related to how there is typically a very positive "honeymoon" period for foreigners living here, then a transition to a positive but more balanced view.  In many cases after that long exposure shifts to focus on problems and limitations, related to negative personal experiences.  Before covering an example that shows how it all ties together it would be helpful to review the "other side," what other China based foreigner Youtubers are saying about related issues, or debating with Winston.

The other side, pro-China foreign Youtubers

I've only seen a few videos of response or debate in relation to Winston's perspective and specific accusations (under a dozen), but I can still summarize what I take to be that position, it'll just be partly wrong, related to that limited input.  Per a recent vide--by Lee Barrett? I'll not put effort into including these people's full real names or positions--Winston overemphasizes problems, most likely as a means to draw Youtube views.  A specific example related to a take on conventional local tourism marketing versus generating pro-China propaganda that spreads a false narrative informs how this kind of divide can work in detail.  A section here at the end includes some links for some representative videos.

A response video about allegations of supporting Chinese propaganda, that crosses that line in relation to that issue, fills in the two opposing detailed perspectives.  I've not watched nearly as much video by this Youtuber, (Joeya?), but it seems to be typical travel-oriented content, not limited to within China.  It's not mostly about political commentary or related issues, and it seems likely he might put that topic completely out of scope.  

That's not going to help with unpacking the deeper question "how evil is China?," but one point seems to be whether or not focus on that as a main concern is necessary.  For a broad foreign nation perspective on China it's necessary to consider that, and to try to place how China relates to other countries, and its own citizens, and how it treats minorities, especially Tibet and the Uyghurs.  

The BBC wrote about this recently; that kind of source might be a better reference than an expat Youtube channel.  Their intro:

Human rights groups believe China has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will over the past few years in a large network of what the state calls "re-education camps", and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison terms.

There is also evidence that Uyghurs are being used as forced labour and of women being forcibly sterilised... 

That sounds bad.  Then again foreign news sources never get news issues in Thailand completely right, so maybe checking multiple sources before accepting what any one says would make sense.  The BBC wouldn't be able to place why people are protesting the current government in Thailand, exactly what it means, and which groups or interests are at play.  You would think they could, but they can't, over and over, even though connected themes and story lines keep repeating here.  

That gap in foreign media understanding seems to happen because Thai news sources are either not saying much or are biased towards one perspective or the other, and the BBC relies on foreigners working here to try to sort it out.  Foreigners tend to only be so integrated or connected.  Then there is a trend to try to place two extremes in perspectives, for any given issue, and map out where in the middle a likely truth must fall.  That could work, or it might miss more than it catches for getting parts wrong, or for that approach just not applying well in certain cases.  

An example will clarify what I mean, related to here, but before considering that it's as well to consider that in light of the conservative and liberal divide in the US.  Which side is responsible for national debt, extreme over-use of military to the extent that seems to be more about spending a lot of money than security, or the gap in setting up things like universal health care?  There's only one right answer:  both.  Back to a Thai example then.  

Either the current Thai government was democratically elected or not; it won't help to try to oppose two potential yes and no answers and then find a middle space that is accurate related to being nearest to one more correct extreme.  Then if a government was elected by a fair vote, related to the lever-pulling part, something like a political party paying for votes could potentially offset how valid that determination process was, since that's not fair.  Or even if a party made a number of false promises the election result could be less valid.  That would be like Trump's foundational position that he would balance the budget or "drain the swamp," prior to helping balloon national debt and placing prior petroleum company executives in charge of energy policy or environmental restrictions, and so on.  

I guess on the opposite side if a completely rigged election arrived at the same result a fair and open version would have then it's not good that the form was set up like that, but it didn't make a difference.  It's better to never really try to build a case around that last premise; elections should be open and legitimate from start to finish, without parts that need to be explained away.  Now it sounds like I'm talking about Bernie Sanders and the US process instead, doesn't it?

That special case, tourism promotion versus soft-power propaganda

A number of China-based foreigner Youtubers took part in a local sponsored tourism marketing program, accepting coverage of some degree of expenses to travel to and create content about visiting a Chinese city.  Per the one perspective (the people going on the trips) this is a normal practice, not different than a travel blogger getting a free hotel stay anywhere to help promote that business, or a food blogger a free meal, etc. Per the other perspective (Winston's, and his fellow Youtube podcast host's) it was more insidious.  This promotion was used as a cover-up to change the narrative about Chinese flooding, related to problems caused by dam development.  This shifted focus off local broad-scale tragedy to a much more positive agenda, about how nice restaurants and tourist sites are.  

Since local government tourism agencies were coordinating these the money was essentially coming from the central communist government.  I guess it's like a conspiracy theory, it's just not that much of a conspiracy, not like the JFK assassination or covering up knowing about aliens visiting.

Again, it's even possible these two themes are both valid, and don't conflict.  There could be personal tragedy going on, tied to mismanagement of water resources, or ineffective infrastructure development.  Local tourism options in the same general region could be positive.  The two themes might connect, or they might not.

This accusation of propaganda isn't easy to be clear on, related to how to place it.  Let's consider first, is the current Thai government making an effort to block news coverage and foreign awareness of political protests, attempting to alter foreign understanding of events in Thailand?  Sure.  But that's an extreme case, and it's not easy to separate that from any typical government spin.  You can't really trust anything the US government says about government budget issues, defense spending or armed conflicts, diplomacy, or government program or policy development.  That's just normal; governments and corporations generally aren't trying to be completely transparent.  

Not releasing information and blocking others from doing so are the crux of that issue.  If the Chinese government arranged to send foreign Youtubers to a flooded area, during floods, and made sure there was no mention or video showing that then it would be a case of disinformation,  just a relatively tame form of it.  

Flooding and water management issues aren't as simple to pin down as most other subjects, although I guess political protest can become a bit hazy too, who is protesting what and why.  Thailand had huge problems with flooding a number of years ago, something like 8 or 9 years back, and it wasn't easy to identify why that was happening, even for people here.  It rained a lot that year; that was part of it.  Water management practices definitely did not effectively predict how much water they needed to release from dams in advance of that period of heavy rain.  Per my understanding that's a typical problem, because water resource management involves maximizing retention of water in dams to use for agriculture during the dry period.  That level of retention maps directly to risk that higher than average rainfall will cause flooding problems, which the dams are there in part to control.

This background tangent runs long but that case was interesting, and it didn't go as one might expect.  It seems like China needed to release a lot of water relatively quickly from the Three Gorges Dam, and it caused devastation downstream; that's what one would expect.  Those years back Thailand needed to release a lot of water from a number of dams in a related way, for roughly the same reason, but then they knew that bottlenecks for what the main river could hold (the Chaophraya, going through Bangkok) would cause flooding here.  It had to flood somewhere, and they had controlled options to put industrial and residential communities outside Bangkok or the inner city itself underwater, related to controlling where overflows happened.  They did what they had to do, choosing the former and sparing the inner city.  

Making such climate-related predictions isn't going to get any easier, related to effects of global climate change, which make local rainfall patterns less stable and predictable.  If controlling authorities guess low, and get that wrong, water won't be available for growing crops in dry seasons, and farmers, farm industries, and the economy will suffer.  Guessing wrong on the other side can lead to flooding and a potential loss of life.  Without stable climate patterns year to year significant error related to both extremes will become normal, and continually worse over time.

Back to the China flooding propaganda and Youtuber as tourism promotion issue some details seemed trivial.  Were all expenses covered, leading to this being an atypical payoff for expressing certain ideas, or were only some, tying to a more limited and conventional promotion package?  It hardly matters, whether those bloggers paid for their own airfare or not.  The cost of domestic flights in Thailand is negligible, and I'd expect the same is true there.  Were there limitations in what they could express, topic scope placed out of bounds?  That seems more relevant.  Or did they get paid enough to fabricate information that had no bearing on their own personal opinions?  Seemingly not, all input considered, but it's worth at least listing as a potential concern.

On the one side Winston presented a letter from the tourism agency, or at least a reference represented as such, expressing limitations of what could be discussed.  On the opposing side two of the Youtubers who went on that trip described the letter as fake, not what they received or were told, confirmed as ingenuine by the tourism agency who was claimed to send it.  It seems possible the reference was fabricated, or conceivable that a second type of communication was sent to a second group with a slightly different message.  It's not unthinkable that a government sponsored PR agency could have said something that wasn't true.  

On the one hand this is a real crux of the matter, whether related communication documentation and the message content was falsified.  On the other it doesn't matter; if there really were two forms of communication it's not all that different than if it was made up.  It doesn't change things as much as it might initially seem to.

Is the content the Youtubers produced, related to expense-paid travel, an example of "soft-power fluff-piece propaganda?"  Or is it normal tourism promotion, which represents their own real impressions of the trips?  I suppose that's for any potential individual audience member to judge, but to me it seems like tourism promotion.  If a government blocks media coverage of political protest against that government, which China has definitely done in the past, and probably carries out regularly, then that's related to propaganda, directly adjusting what is and is not news.  If tourism is promoted to distract from flooding concerns then it's seemingly not the same thing.  Preventing or eliminating existing media coverage of flooding is something else, which would be possible in China, since they can even tidy up what is on their internet.  

Coverage of the corona virus outbreak background would work as a good example of how a distinction might be made, but it's not possible to identify what the Chinese government knew about and restricted release of.  It seems likely that the World Health Organization was notified relatively early in the outbreak, a main form of external communication of the issue (in late December 2019, maybe that was, if my memory is correct, or it was early January instead). What was known and not released never will see the full light of day.  Or if nothing significant was; the uncertainty works both ways.  Personally I think Chinese government corona virus conspiracy theories are absurd, mostly because virus research consensus is that the covid virus evolved naturally, and their opinion means more than the average blogger or news reporter's, but I'm not going to include a tangent on that here.

Why would tourism promotion even be connected to a flooding news cover-up?  In the presented letter it mentioned restricting coverage of sensitive topics (again which may or may not have been a genuine email communication), and the rest is speculation.  This part does look a lot like Winston looking for a scandal to "break."  To be fair if he had been involved in a number of similar related scandals, or issues that seemed complicated and somewhat negative, then a perspective that filters events inclined towards seeing nefarious plots could kind of make sense.  Just not the fabricated email part, if it came to that.  It would help to watch some of his other videos to see what else might have really worked out that way, cases of where and how the Chinese government agents did apply pressure.

Thailand expat experience cycles

This all seems to relate to a conventional experience pattern expats face here in Thailand.  It can't be completely generalized, because people are here for different reasons, and have radically different experiences (and pre-conceptions, personal biases, etc.), all based within a different culture.  A full description would unpack how a number of different types of expats exist in Thailand, and how their experiences follow general patterns, that any one given expat may or may not experience.  I don't want to go too far with that but a little description of that can set the stage for describing general experience patterns.

Retirees are one main group of foreigners here, typically older people here to live on less fixed income, or mostly to experience different life circumstances.  Younger expats (/ Western foreigners) fall into a few other categories.  Backpackers tend to overlap with "digital nomads," people traveling as part of a lifestyle choice that involves not working much, and IT professionals who work independently.  English teachers are the main work theme group, typically not so different than backpackers, beyond acceptance and emphasis on working to support themselves.  A backpacker could be living off a trust fund, or in Thailand for half a year with savings to support that, or working a little online.  Anyone working full time online couldn't really lay claim to the defining condition for being a backpacker, which isn't a category people necessarily aim to fall in anyway.  Traveling light and not using a suitcase isn't the main distinction, it's about subculture, without any one clear definition.

Working foreign professionals cover a broad scope:  embassy workers, NGO staff, technical employees (formerly a larger group, before local IT experience and training ramped up), chefs and scuba instructors, etc.  Many yoga instructors seem to be foreigners, and so on, covering a lot of working scope.  A much more negative stereotype relates to mafia types hiding from the law in Thailand.  That's a real thing, but there are probably as many foreign yoga instructors as those gangsters.  Maybe as many expats have some criminal past as the much larger group of English teachers; it would be hard to know.  

Youtubers, like these examples I'm discussing based in China, are kind of a unique subset.  There aren't so many foreigners in Thailand making a living completely off that, but some people definitely are.  I'm not aware of any who are critical of Thailand, making anti-Thailand themed content, and it definitely seems conceivable that anyone in that position could run into trouble getting a visa to stay around at some point.

For any of these individuals in these groups Thailand often seems a wonderful, almost magical place when you first arrive.  Not so much for me, maybe, because I moved here related to marrying a Thai while we both lived in the US, so I was dealing with adjustment tied to that relationship, and then soon enough after with work transition.  If someone arrives with very substantial savings the early period would essentially be a time of vacation, but I moved here right after grad school, when I had been working hard during those studies just to keep student debt in a moderate range.  I needed to keep expenses moderate, and I needed to get back to work, both fairly quickly.  Everything seemed very interesting and novel, maybe just falling short of idealistic.

After a more stable pattern of living off savings, or development of local income, expats are still typically quite positive about Thai culture and local experience.  Why wouldn't they be?  Thai people are friendly, at least superficially, and per my experience generally at a deeper level than that too.  Foods and entertainment themes are diverse, many natural settings are beautiful, and cost of living is low.  It takes years to really explore and understand local culture, so that lower cost factor could help with making it all come together while sorting out cultural integration.

Negative experiences tend to darken perspective, over time.  Divorces come up, or business failures, or other legal problems. In plenty of cases in the past decade foreigners were encouraged to not remain in Thailand due to changes in visa practices.  Some were working illegally, bringing those circumstances on themselves.  To be fair some degree of illegal activity is typically tolerated in Thailand, with teaching English "off the books" (using the wrong visa) not as forbidden in practice as the letter of the law had set it in the past, which then changed.  

Maybe it doesn't matter which category or what personal blame is involved, related to a shifting perspective on Thailand, since in the end it's degree of negative experience in relation to positive ties that define a local foreigner's perspective.  A factor like alcoholism has nothing to do with where someone lives, since that can occur anywhere, but that could lead to dissatisfaction with life circumstances, and a dislike of Thailand, even though the country or culture didn't play much role in that.  Let me be more specific:  if someone moves to Thailand to live out a permanent vacation experience, and they tend to focus on drinking alcohol on vacations, those conditions could easily not work out well in the long run.   

More than all that when one arrives in Thailand it can seem positive to stand out just for being foreign; people find you interesting and different, based only on appearance.  It's perfect for an introvert, because even at a maintained social distance some degree of positive public image is automatically granted.  That could work even more positively for extroverts, to build up social ties.  Later on it could seem much more negative, because it's very difficult to drop that and be included as an ordinary member of a local social circle.  

Being fluent in Thai would be necessary to socially integrate, but that alone would only go so far.  There would be no way to ever truly be seen as a Thai, because a foreigner is a different thing here.  Winston mentions this shift in how one sees host-nation locals as a factor in China in some of his videos, but claims the positive to negative shift relates to being able to understand Chinese later (as some can), and hearing what people say beyond what they express directly.  That's a real thing here too; it would factor in.

A friend back in the US, who is genetically Korean but born and raised in California, seems to face some of the same issues.  He couldn't be more integrated, related to personal history, perspective, and life experience, but he also just can't ever appear to be white.  You would think that the minority half of the US wouldn't care, or most of the white half, in terms of racism (negative bias), but still he blends in a lot better when visiting a Chinatown in a major city than anywhere else, except that he's not Chinese.  Foreigners in Thailand, or surely in China too, can never approach the degree of common ground perspective an Asian native-born American has in America, but he continually deals with how out of place he might feel, depending on circumstances, or the perspective of those around him.

In the end entire expat forums can seem overrun with a consensus view that Thailand is an unfair and harsh place for a foreigner to live.  To be fair getting into any legal trouble in Thailand wouldn't result in the experience of a fair, unbiased justice system judgement.  Thai government systems are biased towards protecting Thais.  Some degree of that is probably relatively universal.

One part of all this pattern relates to integration, to foreigners becoming a connected part of the society they live in, versus re-creating their original life in a different place (which is not directed as a critique of anyone in particular in this case).  A Quora answer about opinions about these China-based Youtubers reminded me of this, and states a summary version of it:

So, as of lately, I feel those guys suffer from the typical issue of so many westerns in China: They come here looking for an experience or money, but they are not really interested to make friends with locals and learn to respect and integrate with them. Some don’t even bother to learn a minimum amount of Chinese for daily life (like how to count from 1 to 10) and only hang-out with other expats in whichever city they live. They create their own bubbles where they typically talk about how much better is this or that back home and how bad is this or that here. Because physical and social differentiation, they slowly but surely end having the opinion that they are made of a better quality material than local people and that pushes farther away from their desire to integrate...

...They fail to realize that China is a country in transition, you have plenty of people you can befriend to, but you need to pick up your friends, just as you would do in any other country. And they fail to realize that a huge amount of Chinese themselves are complaining and fighting to make people with bad habits behave. They fail to realize that Chinese hate being identified and characterized by those people. And they fail to do all that, because in their bubble, if a Chinese is clean, likes to live in a good area, likes to eat healthy food, that is a westernized Chinese, he is not a real Chinese. Those guys are no different from those immigrants going to western countries and living within their self-created ghettoes and complaining the host country people of not allowing them to be part of the society.

Surely only parts of this apply to Winston, but this is all a really common theme that defines most of the negative experience of most foreigners living in Thailand.  The more people integrate into Thai society and adopt Thai perspective and life practices, and make local friends, the more positive their lives tend to be.  The exact opposite described in this citation is probably more common.  The last part about locals being "Westernized Chinese" is a poor fit for how things go here, because Thais are relatively Western enough, as many Chinese people in Shenzhen would be, living relatively modern lifestyles.  Or at least that's my limited input take, from visiting Shenzhen twice, which only amounts to a quick look around.

Tied back to Winston's case

It seems like I'm probably claiming that Winston just experienced the natural cycle of loving China, then seeing more and more of the negative side, eventually getting caught up in that range in personal life circumstances, later becoming biased towards mostly seeing the negative side of China.  To some extent that must have happened.  But is he also fairly reporting on those real negatives, in an unbiased fashion, or does he emphasize them even further to cater to anti-Chinese sentiment, and viewership? I don't know.  Maybe not, but what I could even mean by "unbiased" I'm not clear on myself.  Every human perspective involves biases as a foundational basic context for experience.  What else would a worldview be like?

Someone could be unusually positive and optimistic, turning a blind eye to the negative factors that shape the local world around them.  Focusing on the positive instead of the negative anywhere is probably healthy enough, a good thing.  Americans probably shouldn't worry too much about crime or random shootings, or political divides (not that you could hope to completely escape all of it).  

The pandemic is an exception; it's a reasonable time to put risk assessment and resolution towards the center of your worldview and life practices, anywhere in the world.  Thais definitely don't feel overburdened by limitations of Thai social systems or government, as I see it.  Then again it's easy to conflate a tendency to only show the positive in public and a truly ingrained live and let live / "mai ben rai" attitude.  The more integrated one becomes in Thai society the more "in on" how those levels of what you express or conceal work.  To be clear I'm not implying that I'm at the far side of the scale for being socially integrated here, and it's probably as well to skip that particular tangent since my own status doesn't really shed light on the rest of the range.

In conclusion

This doesn't land on tidy conclusions.  All the patterns I've discussed here seem to make it possible for people to experience roughly the same set of two different online perspectives and interpret them very differently.

For having two friends living in China, one of whom is out now, I've not heard of how all this sorts out, from either.  The one living there I can't discuss this with; he couldn't talk freely about it over social media messages, even DM versions.  The other one seems more concerned with his own day to day issues than these kinds of broad social patterns.  If he had needed to leave China due to such conflict he would have strong opinions about it, but per my understanding it wasn't like that.  I think he did experience dissatisfaction with some form of local academic work culture, but university culture and politics can be a real mess in the US too; it's typically like that.  Corporate politics and government work too, for that matter; it's just human nature everywhere.  If you end up working in a comfortable and stress-free environment that's an exception.

I would be surprised if Winston didn't play out a similar pattern in the US, talking about how free and open society is there, about how opposing political inclinations are potentially stressful, but no big deal in relation to repression of free speech and other human rights.  Then years later media misinformation, political spin, government program biases and unfairness, legal system issues, racism, varying levels of access to medical care, and so on will become problems, or at least concerns.  Gradually the US won't seem all that ideal either.  The first time a random shooting occurs near him that will seem pressing, and personal.  Then either a shift to acceptance will happen, or at least a move towards some degree of isolation, or he will be on to some European country to go through it all again.  Maybe they really do have it all sorted out in Scandinavia.

Oddly I wrote that draft section before seeing a video by him on how much Americans whine / complain too much about everything.  It's started.  I suppose that I agree, but then I'm not posting Youtube videos about it, which serve as a basis for my income.  He might need to narrow his expressed views down to supporting a conservative or liberal take on things, if he's going to be critical of American culture, and intends to retain one half of all Americans as an audience.  The anti-China themes will probably resonate better with conservatives, which for me would be an unfortunate group perspective to try to align with.  I see the most typical liberal perspective as wrong about how it all maps out, unclear about context, and essentially wrong about half the issues, but they're still partly right.  I'm from a conservative area and sub-culture, originally, so I kind the other side, but not as much.

I had planned to add links within this text to point towards more source content about those two sets of views but it seems as well to list it separately afterwards.

Winston (Serpent ZA) and "" anti-pro-China Youtuber video links

#65 China Is Getting Worse | Laowhy86 and SerpentZA:  an anti-Chinese government podcast hosts Winston and "C-milk" (Matt), explaining their own story and transition from pro-China to focusing on problems in China related to the Chinese government, speech restrictions, and nationalist perspective.  Obviously it's biased and a bit revised (it's them), but a decent summary.

Why I Left China For Good:  Winston explains why he left

TRAITORS working for Communist Chinese Government?:  Winston explains "his side" in the conflict with other foreign Youtubers over them promoting local tourism, or also allegedly potentially covering up flooding issues through misdirection

Canadian Michael Spavor is NOT a SPY! - Held as hostage in China:  Winston / Serpent ZA explains how his friend being charged with spying in China is really not a spy.  I'm not sure how he would know that, since a spy would try act like they're not a spy, but it's still interesting.

What does it really feel like to be a foreigner in China? (a 2010 early post by Serpent ZA / Winston)

I'm QUITTING my job!:  in July 2016 Winston quit teaching English (not really exactly how he framed that, but it's honest work) to switch to a marriage visa.  He had 60,000 subscribers right around that time, and per his own statement in this first video Youtube became his main job.  His words:  "if I do the kind of videos that you guys, the subscribers, are interested in, then I can actually make a success out of it..."  It's not as if he never posted anything remotely critical of China before, as covered in this March 2012 video "China,  How Is It -- Topics to Avoid."  

To be fair he didn't immediately change over to post much more negative content about China to draw views just then; it wasn't like that.  Topics seemed geared towards drawing an audience more, hitting on popular themes that people might connect with versus just culture and life experience, or even obvious clickbait, like Are Chinese Girls Easy? 

top posts by views.  click-bait topics seem fine to me, catering to what audiences want to see.

Then about three to four years ago Winston's posts seemed to delve into negative sides of China even more.  This included cultural divide issues, scams, kidnapping, health risks, his own politics related problems, and so on, ramping up further about two years ago, going into sensitive issues like international politics and pollution (which he must have intentionally avoided covering prior to that, although that would be easier to avoid focus on in Shenzhen than some other cities).

To be clear on the framing I find Winston to represent a reasonable, grounded, and sympathetic but biased opining (perhaps even a flawed one in some cases).  It all works, he just seems to get caught up in one limited perspective orientation at a time.  It's probably also that you can't really present issues from a few different perspectives in a short video very easily.  A summary take on anything would need to be simple.  

I suppose he crosses the line a little in shifting from so pro-China to so opposed to such a broad range, when the same mix of positives and negatives probably haven't changed that much in the last decade. His life experiences have changed, and his focus along with that.  China was already evil a decade ago, and the same positives exist now as back then, with only limited parts of what the CCP is doing relating to the evil empire theme.  Maybe it is worse now.  If you interpret what Winston is saying as ingenuine, adjusted to cater to a limited audience, then his communicated perspective seems less valid, but I think he really has undergone the shift he passes on.  Then I also suppose that if Thailand threw me out of the country in the next month or two my statements about Thailand wouldn't be quite as positive and balanced. 

Other foreign Youtubers critical of China

Why I Changed my Opinion on China:  Laowhy / C-milk / Matt's take on his changing perspective on China (Winston's fellow podcaster, travel companion, and documentary developer).

China's Weird YouTube Propaganda (the MT Right blog):  a Youtuber reviews pro-China Youtubers, claiming that these are directly supported by the CCP as propaganda outlets.  Maybe, or maybe not; seems a bit heavy on conspiracy theory putting it that way.

Chinese Propaganda on YouTube (ft. serpentza & laowhy86):  a Russian Youtube video blogger defends Winston and "C-milk."  There's not much new in this but it's interesting how others either feel compelled to weigh in, or else at least draw Youtube clicks by repeating the same ideas.

Pro-China anti-SerpentZA foreign Youtuber perspective

SerpentZa, Laowhy86, Lies, Deceit & Propaganda, by JaYoe Nation (Matt), with his own website here:  "This video is a rebuttal and explanation for the lies and misrepresentations made against me and my friend for the recent trip we took to Chongqing."  Really this is just addressing one part of one issue, but it all seems to work, that the one travel promotion case didn't necessarily involve playing a role in broader Chinese politics or political spin.

We are the White Monkeys of Big Bad CHINA // 我们是在中国的白猴子:  Barrett (the other pro-China anti-SerpentZA bloggers, more or less) explains his take on why promoting Chinese tourism isn't the same as promoting China in the sense of political involvement.  It kind of works, but it's only a one-sided explanation of one part of the general context.  This "white monkey" concept is about jobs in China for foreigners, in the role of being a foreigner, which in some forms would seem like accepting exploitation and in others no different than any other marketing promotion role.

SerpentZA Exposed as a Fraud!:  a fairly extremist and pro-China foreign video blogger's take on Winston, rejecting his positions on China and portrayal of his own work history.  It does seem like Winston was probably an English teacher, which he kind of indirectly rejects in different ways but never really completely denies, but teaching English isn't such a bad thing.  He says he trained doctors, and he was teaching them English; fair enough.  Adjusting or spinning your own biography isn't a great sign, but it doesn't mean that the other parts about China are wrong.  Framing about some other issues might be getting adjusted as suits Winston's present concerns.  But then that may also be true of all these other bloggers, that pre-conceptions and intended narratives are being communicated more than any bare objective truths.  Or maybe communication in general is always like that. 

Winston Sterzel, SerpentZA:  Matt's take on Winston, as of March 2021.  It's pretty much what you would expect, nothing too controversial or novel, he disagrees with a general negative framing of China.

China Flood:  again Matt (the Jayoe Nation guy) did post several videos covering flood issues in that broad region in China.

The Heart of the True Global Conspiracy (Matt / Jayoe Nation again):  he explains his position that instead of left versus right or China versus the US being the real concern, or source of underlying conflict, it's all really about the wealthy and powerful trying to gain more wealth and power, everywhere.  That's pretty much how I see it.   Off the subject of what he's talking about, Chinese government is putting out pro-China propaganda, but that's just one form of many types of spin and influence.  The larger problem is that to some degree most societies aren't set up to support the common good, or at least that's definitely true of countries like China, the US, Russia, and Thailand.  This stops short of directly addressing "the American Dream," if it's ok for people to want to own a house and a car and have two kids.  One part is about what wealthy people are doing, but it connects that everyone else wants to own more too.

The Jayoe video blog / Youtube channel is also nice as a travel blog, worth clicking around related to that.  It's really that context that makes sense of him keeping his political statements limited; it's not a politically oriented blog.  His earlier theme had been bike-touring the world, which just stalled as a stay in China due to the pandemic.  That's surely not all about him saying what he needs to say--or not say--to stay online in the country, but likely as much about what he finds interesting and wishes to discuss.  

Talking about free speech issues or use of propaganda really is only practical for bloggers or Youtubers based outside of China.  Winston knew that, and made the shifts in what he communicated over time for the reasons I've already described.  To me it makes for a more interesting story, following multiple perspectives and levels of the same issues like that.  To some extent the pro-China bloggers might go a bit far in cleaning up what they say, or how they say it, but it's not so difficult to put it all in the proper context.  I doubt that any are serving in any role remotely like that of a paid spy, but it spices up the exchanges mixing in allegations like that.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Rishi of Gopaldhara on changes to Darjeeling processing


We met with Rishi, the plantation manager of Gopaldhara and Rohini, two of the main Darjeeling plantations.  Or surely many others of them are significant, or all just slightly different.  He explained that Gopaldhara is one of the older plantations, and that Rohini one of the newer ones, with Gopaldhara working with issues with many plants being older there, and Rohini producing from younger plants, at lower elevation.  So the challenges would be different, and potential outcome related to what approaches would work out well at both.

Josh Linvers joined us this time too, the tea sommelier from Canada who we've met with twice.  He went through a Darjeeling exploration phase this year, focused as much on Gopaldhara as any other source, so it made sense to include him.  He had even been in contact with Rishi, in discussing what he had reviewed.

Per usual this won't cover everything we talked about; these summaries don't work out like that.  And some degree of bias or selection has to be applied in that filtering. This represents an indicative summary, but also one adjusted for what I see as main themes, or most interesting for readers, avoiding personal discussion scope, which didn't come up much this time.

Changing Darjeeling tea processing and aspects outcome

To me this is not only one of the main things we discussed but also one of the main themes Gopaldhara has been working on for years.  They've been moving towards making more whole-leaf versions of teas, versus Darjeeling tending to be quite broken or chopped in many product forms in the past.  Rishi explained why that is, and to some extent even covered more about the different forms (to a tiresome extent, really, delving deep into how the grade codes work, which are complicated, but I'll not even touch on that here).  He clarified they make as much of whole leaf versions as they can, with some proportion always broken leaf of different sizes, and with that outcome varying by harvest season, material type input, and other factors. 

The basics, as he described it, relate to Darjeeling tea production stemming back to how the British made tea 150 years ago.  That was based mostly on automated production of Assamica variety teas (although it would require a tea historian to place how the equipment varied over that time), with more focus on low elevation growth.  Darjeeling is based mainly on variety Sinensis plant types now, as it has been for some time, just newer form selected genetics cultivars of those.  

Per his surely oversimplified summary, condensed for an audience not comprised of tea production professionals, this earlier production, which extends to the present day, had involved use of a different kind of rolling table than is typically used in Chinese production.  Rolling is the step of bruising the leaves, enabling air contact with enzymes that cause oxidation.  Use of the prior form of equipment results in production of a much higher proportion of broken leaf material.

So beyond the rounded off description his goal has been to make whole-leaf Darjeeling teas.  Of course this would also relate to the picking methods used, and sorting concerns, and so on; it's not all about one piece of equipment and one processing step.

It's not as if all Darjeeling isn't sorted by leaf size.  Automated processes support separating and selling whatever is produced as finer particles, broken leaf, and more whole leaf.  The difference lies in setting up processing, and changing equipment use, to lead to production of a much more whole-leaf main outcome form.  

This isn't unfamiliar in higher quality Chinese tea production; it's standard from there.  I drink broken leaf tea from time to time, but on the average day I'm drinking very whole leaf sheng pu'er, at different times replaced by very whole leaf versions of oolong or Chinese black teas, and so on.  Or sometimes Darjeeling, or other teas from lots of places.  I'm drinking a black tea from Russia while I write this initial draft (whole leaf processed, but a gaba version, a completely different story).

This doesn't result in a claim that Gopaldhara is leading the way to completely changing Darjeeling tea, or that they already stand far above almost all other producers at this time.  It does seem likely that Rishi is a real visionary, leading the way in a likely future direction, which was probably already clear enough to some others, who have been taking similar steps.  Other parts of the story fill in why it's just not that simple.

Making these changes adds cost, from the harvest step on through equipment expenses and processing time.  The demand has to be there, or else they aren't producing this tea for an established market to consume.  Distribution channels also need to be open to the change. They've been selling other forms of Darjeeling for a long time (mostly that, at least), and need to accept a shift in cost, and other changes.  It's just far easier to source and sell the same products than to make any changes, which also involves some degree of risk.  It would filter down to packaging issues too; more whole leaf products won't be as dense, changing that requirement.

Before going further with that range of effects, and how it has worked out in practice, we might consider why Rishi sees this as a natural next step, and why it's so necessary.  He explained that it's his passion to make better versions of tea.  Seems a bit idealistic, maybe almost too simple, but I fully accept that a main part of pushing this change is a personal love of tea.  It's the part that presumably all tea enthusiasts share, just in different forms.  Per my preference their teas are the best Darjeeling I've ever tried.  But then I'm not a Darjeeling specialist, and focus more on Chinese teas, which has probably driven me to be biased towards this tea form and related character (experienced brewed tea aspects that tend to correspond with that form).

While I'm on an aside I want to cover one more tangent, prior to getting back to how broad awareness and demand issues are playing out.  Brewing some teas Western style works better than a Gongfu approach, and for some Gongfu brewing is much better.  It applies by tea type as one factor, with others also relevant.  Sheng pu'er gives better results brewed Gongfu style (using a much higher proportion and many short infusions, versus using a teaspoon per cup brewed for 4 to 5 minutes, maybe only for two infusions).  Broken leaf material, for green and black tea, typically works out better brewed Western style.  As I see it shu pu'er is an odd exception; it works fairly well made lots of different ways, not just Western or Gongfu brewed, but also "grandpa style," or even thermos brewed.  If one assumes that only Western style brewing is going to be used this change to whole leaf versions would still be positive, but that offsets some of the potential for improved experience.

All of that is my own personal opinion; others could see brewing issues and likely cause and effect patterns far differently.  That applies to most range related to tea.  Expectations change a lot, and personal preference changes what is the best-case outcome quite a bit.

there's always at least one issue with every picture (credit Suzana)

Demand and awareness patterns

We talked as much about how distribution channels and end-point vending is affected by shifting the nature of the product (moving from broken leaf to whole leaf), but I'll settle more here on the consumer perspective instead.  In taking up that other discussion it could easily seem like I'm blaming wholesale distribution systems and companies for being short-sighted, or favoring profits over an inclination to provide the highest quality tea, and all of this isn't intended as judgmental in that way.  Change occurs slowly in relation to the activities of large companies and governments, or even related to consumer preferences (typically); it just is what it is. Selling what people already expect and want is a much easier, more direct path to profiting as a business.  It works as well to look at related issues from a different angle and consider consumer preference instead of distribution or sales range, which is the angle I'll review the same issues in regard to instead.

Some people are getting it.  Access to these teas is out there in different vending forms, and word gets out.  Not nearly as much in India as in European markets and in America, as Rishi described it.  That's partly due to expectations, to the developed tea enthusiast perspective in places like the US having been shaped by Chinese product ranges, in part.  Indians don't already drink that much Chinese tea; they produce their own domestically.

To be clear when I'm talking about "tea enthusiast preference" here I'm generally not referring to people buying tea in tins at the grocery store.  That's a different range of products.  It seems so judgmental, to sweep aside the entire mainstream product range as irrelevant, but that's not entirely what I mean, and a bit beside the point.  Those teas are fine, there is nothing wrong with consuming them and loving them, they're just something else, a different kind of thing.  They are lower in quality and cost, in general.  Part of why what I mean might not be clear is because what grocery stores sell varies by country, and by type of grocery store, specialty stores versus more mainstream versions.  At the same time I say that I've been to grocery stores in a dozen different countries, throughout the US, a lot of Asia, in Australia, and in Russia, and it's a lot more consistent than one might expect.  Tea aisles in China are really something to see but even in places like Japan the range can be limited (although they are a lot more open to foreign teas than I expected, based on very limited sampling input there).

Products sold by a mainstream online outlet like Yunnan Sourcing represent this "better quality" range I'm talking about. Or even Adagio, to a lesser extent, or Moychay, in Russia.  Per ideas outlined by Ralph in the last talk--meeting with an Assam farmer and producer and smaller scale online Indian specialty tea vendor--the main channels in Germany sell tea not completely unlike grocery store tin versions, maybe just a slightly broader range across parts of the scale.  Smaller shops and online vendors fill in higher quality source range (whole-leaf tea, higher quality Chinese and Japanese teas, a typical broad range of sheng pu'er and oolongs, etc.).  In India Ketlee, that vendor outlet we discussed last week, and others like Tea Leaf Theory, represent attempts to source and distribute higher quality range.

Soon enough in one might question how broad the demand is for these ranges of tea, leading to the question of how relevant they are in relation to the grocery store versions (again which I'm not really condemning, or really clearly defining, even though I don't really drink much of that range).  Are we talking about the equivalent of a $30-40 bottle of wine, something mid-range but priced beyond what many people would purchase, or $100-200 per bottle versions, that next level up, demanded by an even smaller group?  

Right now by consumer count the demand for higher quality tea is limited (everywhere, per my understanding), even for 10-20 cents a gram moderate cost tea.  The expense level is at the far low end of the scale though, in relation to wine.  On the high side 3 grams of 20 cent a gram tea would easily brew two cups, at 30 cents a cup, and on that low side for "better wine" a glass of $30 / bottle costs about $8.  To put both in perspective a retail take-away cup of coffee tends to sell for over $5 in the US now, which varies here in Bangkok depending on the outlet, but that range is common too.

Limited demand seems to be about limited awareness, not mostly about a cost barrier.  People in the US overwhelmingly favor drinking tea-bag tea that costs less than 5 cents a cup, versus that 30 cent range, but I think many could easily afford the extra quarter.  Then in interest-specific tea groups that can seem odd, since some people are debating whether $80 a cake sheng pu'er is good enough for them to drink or not (which is already beyond my own tea budget, to be clear).  That's still 22 cents a gram, dividing out from a standard 357 gram amount, so still just at what I'm describing as the high side of high quality but moderate cost specialty tea.

Without someone having experienced any of this range I'm talking about it would all be far too abstract to make any sense of it.  How could someone get any feel for the typical differences in wines that retail for $10, $30, and $100 per bottle if they never drank much wine at all?  It could all seem a waste, something that only wealthier people need to be concerned about.  Then it's a little odd setting that framing related to tea, and saying that a 30 cent cup of tea is out of bounds, while someone regularly buys $5 cups of coffee (or maybe $8 is more typical at Starbucks now).  Water costs $1 a bottle, inexpensive versions of it.  Again, it's probably more about awareness and developed preference based on prior exposure than a cost and value issue.

Huyen's nephew learns about Darjeeling

Other scope

Since that was a main point, that already involved a few tangents, I won't go further in detail about other discussion.  The parts about tea processing were interesting, but I can't summarize that clearly, even if I wanted to.  We talked a little about what is considered to be oolong in India, but it's probably as well just setting that aside, since use of terms and actually different character products tend to mix in such a discussion.  If Indian oolong is ever a lot like Taiwanese or Fujian oolong then I've not tried that yet, but I've definitely tried some exceptional teas presented as Indian oolong, that were just something else.  One other part about plantation worker issues stood out as worth a short description.

It seems as well to add a comment clarifying this directly from him, from later message discussion:

Darjeeling for a specialty tea region is plucking 4 seasons. It is rare because it is a plantation model. Those dependent on the plantation don't do anything else. This is challenging and explains a lot of the reasons why things are structured the way they are. 

Rishi didn't really map out all of that part, or suggest how to resolve staff related concerns that remain problematic.  Tea plantation worker pay is a concern, and other worker welfare and security issues.  He said that standard pay rates, and what they can afford to pay to their harvest and processing staff, are on the low side, in relation to what would provide a high standard of living.  And work demands and conditions are challenging, not ideal.  He mentioned ways they were trying offset and resolve those concerns, which don't all relate to increasing worker pay.  They are also focusing on employee welfare and benefit issues, trying to make sure that health care is available, and retirement support.

Both Suzana and Rishi mentioned regional factors and cultural issues that keep it all from being simple, competing broad forms of employment by regions, and patterns in work preferences that all employers need to work around.  Since this was a shorter discussion, not explored in depth in terms of causes or potential resolution, it seems as well to just set it aside here.

It's interesting to consider how those issues went in relation to covid changing things, but we didn't get to that.  Assuring worker safety must have been a nightmare, a complete impossibility to fully accomplish.  Throughout all the discussion more focus was on tea though, especially on what Gopaldhara and Rohini are trying to do that's a bit different and challenging, which really seemed to work out well.