WHERE ARE ALL THE FLOWERS FROM? UNEARTH TAIPEI FLOWERS AUCTION WITH CHING FLOWERS
Words by: Catherine Shih
Photos by: Samil Kuo, Taipei Flowers Auction
It is 2:30 a.m., but the day is just getting started for flower shop owner Jimmy Ching (景志銘) and his wife Yvonne Tseng (曾郁涵). Tucked away in the hustle and bustle of the Taipei Flowers Auction (台北花卉批發市場) is their family-owned shop, Ching Flowers (永進花卉), which has been in operation in Taipei for over 30 years. As a flower wholesaler, they cater to a wide variety of customers, ranging anywhere from retailers to floral arrangement workshop teachers to studio owners. But who are the people behind Ching Flowers?
BACK TO THE ROOT
It all started in 1983 with a small roadside stall on Taipei’s Jiuquan Street (酒泉街) and Jimmy’s parents. Both are from Houli (后里), a rural township in the central Taiwan, and began their original quest in the flower wholesale business with the hope of representing and improving the lives of local growers from their hometown. Working day in and day out, more and more growers became willing to hand over the flowers they had worked so tirelessly to grow, and eventually the family business expanded.
In the ‘90s, the industry began to expand, allowing Ching Flowers to move from their humble roadside stall to the second floor of Binjiang Market (濱江市場), and then eventually to its current Neihu location. The improvement of hardware and equipment made flower production and marketing more and more complete, thus cementing their place in the wholesale flower market. With Jimmy’s parents’ retirement in 2014, the family business was handed over to Jimmy and Yvonne, with the integrity and values of the shop still unchanged to this day.
THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM
Having had such a jumpstart to the morning, the couple has more than enough time to arrange their stands, roll out their flowers, and prepare for the imported flower auction that begins every day at 3:30 a.m. With the introduction of the Internet and modern technology, all of the bidding is now done online.
“The bidding is basically four conveyor belts grouped by various imported flowers,” Jimmy tells us. “There is a large screen indicating the condition of each flower, and then the bidding begins.” How does the auction process differ from that of other industries? “Normally, a regular auction begins with the lowest price, and then goes up. But with the floral industry, to save time, bidding starts high and then goes down, so the process is actually quite different,” Jimmy exclaims. “But there are still many things to consider when buying, for example the condition of the flowers, the quality, as well as which grower it came from. Some growers are better or more reputable than others,” he explains.
“Including our imported flowers, we usually have roughly 60 to 70 different species of flowers at our shop on any given day or time,” Jimmy says proudly. “For example, one of our most popular flowers, the Chinese bellflower, has ten species alone. But that doesn’t mean we sell out of all of them every day!” he chuckles. “That’s why we have to rearrange our stands every morning,” he adds.
GETTING READY FOR SPRING
With winter passed, Jimmy is currently preparing their stock for the onset of spring, a time when his customers are looking to fill their homes and businesses with floral accents once more. He shares with us, “Actually, most customers have a bunch of flower vases lying around at home and are just looking to fill them with nice flowers. It’s rarer that they’re using other items like floral foam unless they’ve actually taken a specific course on flower arrangement,” he remarks, “So, that means most of our business is centered around flowers that are easy to manage and vase-friendly, too.”
He notes that there are some common players popular all year round, including chrysanthemums, lilies, roses, and orchids. Jimmy exclaims, “They’re considered ‘common,’ since they’re much easier to manage, minus the thorns on roses, of course!”
“In springtime, that is when the Lunar New Year holiday passes, we can expect to roll out local spring flowers such as cornflowers, blue lace flowers, little silverbells, blue dazes, thistles, calla lilies, and dancing-doll orchids — just to name a few. Some of them are already available now.” He points to an area where we see several bunches of blue and purple blossoms. Jimmy walks a bit further down and points to another interesting flower. “When the weather gets warmer in spring, we will also get special imported ones. For example, this one here,” he takes a bundle of white flowers. “This is called sweet pea, imported from Japan,” he says, while bending down to take in the fresh aroma. We take a whiff ourselves. It has just the right touch of a light scent dotted with spring.
When asked if there is any particular flower that can only be found in Taiwan, Jimmy grasps a bunch of flowers which have brown dots on their yellow- greenish petals. “This is a kind of spider lily, which is cultivated in Taiwan in recent years. It is usually exported to other places such as Europe or the U.S. But with the COVID-19 pandemic going on right now, they have turned to the local market instead,” Jimmy shares. The variety is very special and is responsible for one of the trophies Jimmy won at the auction in the morning. At the time we finish the interview, all of them are sold out.
Once known as “Orchid Capital of the World,” Taiwan has developed and cultivated many special orchids, including the spider lily. Taipei Flowers Auction is where you might have the opportunity to get a glimpse of them.
LOYAL CUSTOMER BASE
“Many of our customers are long-time, loyal clients who keep coming back because they know we never compromise on quality,” Jimmy says proudly. “This is also why customer service is such an important component of the business, and also the most difficult,” he chuckles.
What are some other difficult parts on the job? “I’d say waking up early — definitely!” he smiles. “Also, the floral industry is different from others because there is the factor of freshness involved. So, it’s an issue of maintaining the flowers’ freshness while also accommodating fluctuations in the market and price. Also, there is often a shortage in supply, so sometimes we really have to fight for certain types, especially imported or rare flowers. Lastly, there is some physical labor involved as well since we’re constantly moving heavy boxes and pots filled with water.” Jimmy then goes on and chuckles, “But then again, when is any work considered easy?”
When asked about his biggest achievement in the business, Jimmy proudly introduces the website of the shop. “It is the first wholesale fresh flower website in all of Taiwan, and it only began when I took over,” he remarks. “It’s a feat in and of itself because it had never been done before by anyone else, since selling flowers on the internet is very challenging,” he explains. “The prices of the flowers vary every day based on the auction and the market, therefore, running an online flower shop means that we have to keep the price updated all the time to make sure clients buy the flowers with the correct price. The online business also offers new access for people who cannot visit the flower market in person.”
TAKING A STROLL AROUND TAIPEI FLOWERS AUCTION
As the biggest and most diverse flower market in all of Taiwan, the Taipei Flowers Auction has plenty to offer for everyone. “It’s quite easy to get around,” Jimmy tells us. “There are clear, distinct signs everywhere that will point you in the right direction. For example, the building next door sells potted plants,” he says while pointing in a different direction. “So, if customers ask us why we don’t sell potted plants, we just point to the signs,” he laughs slightly. “All of our stands are actually quite different, yet similar. For example, some shops sell only leaves, while others sell mostly imported varieties. The biggest difference lies in the customer service and quality of the flowers.”
Jimmy goes on to add, “Additionally, every shop has a different target audience. The kind of flowers you would expect to find at a stall in a department store would be different from the flowers you would find at a wholesale market, and vice versa.” What about the target audience for Ching Flowers? “Our customers are usually a bit younger, and mostly consist of flower shops or studio owners,” he shares. “A lot of the young generation nowadays are quite adventurous, opening up their own flower arrangement workshops and taking their own orders.”
POWER OF THE FLOWERS
As one of the longstanding sellers in, Jimmy explains the way trades are made at Taipei Flowers Auction. “Usually, most flowers at the market are sold by the bundle or bunch unless it’s a particularly expensive or exotic flower. For example, the hydrangea or orchid is usually sold individually, and both aren’t cheap.” He also notes that some flowers, such as baby’s breath and Gypsophila, are sold by weight since they’re too difficult to count by the stem.
Speaking of the most interesting flower that Jimmy has ever bought in his flower trading business, “It’d have to be a Christmas tree!” he recalls, laughing. “It was a special order for a client and had to be imported. It even measured around 200 centimeters!” As we look around and take in all the variety and uniqueness of Ching Flowers, it seems no task is too difficult for these determined owners.
Actually, it might take superpowers to be flower wholesalers. Starting a day by waking up at midnight, and carrying the heavy loads of flowers in and out of the market after the early morning bidding, Jimmy and Yvonne enable us to enjoy a floral spring in Taipei.