Natalie Hsieh used to work in finance before becoming Chinatown’s “Tea Lady.” She worked in downtown Manhattan throughout her youth and was working only a few blocks away from the Twin Towers when the 9/11 attack happened. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the air quality in Lower Manhattan was good, she went back to work. For a long time, she didn’t see any health effects that might’ve stemmed from 9/11, however, over the years she began experiencing some issues. Hsieh wanted to learn how to holistically improve her health when she discovered Sun’s Organic Garden, a tea shop.
Back then, Sun’s Organic Garden was owned by a first-generation Chinese woman who loved tea and brought her family’s homegrown herbal health recipes to the United States and later opened Sun’s Organic Garden. Throughout the years, Hsieh cherished the teas, herbs and advice given to her by the owner. In late 2018, the owner planned to retire and Hsieh couldn’t bear to see the shop close, so she embarked on a massive career change and took over ownership of the shop.
“It was a very different lifestyle and at times stressful and quite different from what I do now. [Working in a corporate environment] helped me learn discipline,” she says. “Like running meetings and having an agenda, you have to have somebody to take notes and to assign [actions and deadlines]. I realized later when I would have meetings with vendors you just sort of have to do it all. They sound like small things but it actually helps keep you organized.”
It all came full circle. Hsieh was grateful that her expertise in the financial world could help her as a small business owner. She created her own method of doing things like letting customers smell tea samples and even launching a website for the store. For her, the career change was worth it, as Sun’s Organic Garden was much more than just a shop, it embodied the importance of tea and herbs to Chinese people.
“Chinese people are very proud of their heritage in tea. It’s a very important product that came out of China thousands of years ago. In fact, tea is the cause of several major wars in world history, and it’s been a very coveted product,” she says. “It requires a lot of skill both to make and brew, so I think [tea] has an important place both in history and Chinese culture. For that reason, it’s nice to have a tea store in Chinatown.”
Hsieh didn’t know a lot about teas when she took over the business, but over the years she has become an expert. Sun’s Organic Garden doesn’t sell your typical Earl Greys and Chamomiles; it sells teas that come straight from China and Taiwan.
“Our most popular tea is the Organic Milky Oolong from Taiwan, we have a couple others like our Pistachio Pu’erh tea or our Dragon Eye Black tea, which is used for milk tea,” she says. “Then some of the more unique teas we have are some really nice High Mountain Oolongs as well as some direct from the farm: the Phoenix Dancong Oolong. These are oolongs that are single bush and from a very particular region in China. They are really good quality oolongs that have a lot of intrinsic flavor and taste.”
Hsieh has a hard time narrowing down her favorite teas, but one of her favorites is the White Premium Peony made up of the first harvest buds and leaves of the flower. The tea is considered a treasure in China and is often gifted in small quantities. She also loves the Dragon Eye Black tea which is already a customer favorite, and tastes great when paired with milk. It doesn’t need any sugar because the tea is naturally very sweet.
However, being the owner of Sun’s Organic Garden has not been easy. Hsieh became the owner right before the pandemic began and she felt its effects way before Covid-19 officially locked the city down.
“It was tough, I’m not going to lie,” says Hsieh. “When it started in Asia, it was obvious. During a couple of weekends in February, business was really slow, you could see that there were no people on the streets and then things came to a grinding halt in March.”
It’s been slow for all of Chinatown, as businesses are noticing a big decline in tourists — tourists who were a big part of Hsieh’s customer base. There have been times over the course of the pandemic where barely any customers actually visited the store. The rise in Anti-Asian hate has not helped either. Hsieh is often afraid, knowing that as a single woman closing up the store she can be a target if she is all alone.
“That is one of the reasons why [we stopped] opening later — we used to have longer and more extended hours,” she says. “Covid and the slowdown in business reduced our hours, and the knowledge of Anti-Asian sentiment out there also makes me nervous. I am especially cautious when it gets dark, and then hearing about ‘smash and grabs’ doesn’t make me feel more comfortable.”
As the slowdown of tourism continues, the store is currently open only two days a week: Friday and Saturday from 12-5 p.m.
“We’ve had to keep costs low, especially in a very unstable business environment. There’s talks of a recession, the Covid alert is now going back to high, electricity and energy prices are going up, the supply chain is unstable. There’s a lot of factors that go into running a business,” she says.
Even though business has been slow, Hsieh has seen an influx of customers due to the support from organizations like Welcome to Chinatown and Chinatown Love. She hopes the business continues to grow and hopes more New Yorkers are able to get a taste of Sun’s Organic Garden’s unique teas.
“I hope we keep growing and expanding, but we want to keep it a local neighborhood place,” she says. “I have no grand visions of this becoming some huge business with multiple outlets. I love the customer contact so what we are going to do is keep it local and friendly and continue to service our customers in Chinatown. We love it here.”
Sun’s Organic Garden is located at 79 Bayard St. in Chinatown. Get 10% off your purchase (minimum $50) by using code EPICENTER10 on its website or mentioning Epicenter-10 when you shop in-person. Discount does not apply to items on sale, kits or bundles. Offer valid through June 30.