Literary Leopards

Why This Story? Why Now?

Award-winning author Lisa See has written some of my favorite books. Her historical fiction novels include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, China Dolls . . . and her latest is the remarkable The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. “A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture and distance.” – Barnes and Noble. The reviews are amazing and the book has top many best-seller lists.
I have been to several events where Lisa has spoken. She is erudite, funny and down to earth. She was gracious enough to blog for our new website. As we leap into summer, grab her book and enjoy.


Why this story? Why now?

I started The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane knowing I wanted to write about China’s One Child Policy and the adoption of Chinese girls by American families. I typically write historical novels, but the description I just wrote doesn’t sound particularly “historical.” I didn’t worry too much about that, though. Instead I started doing the research I could about the One Child Policy and adoption and figured the universe would present me with the right historical backdrop at the right moment. And it did! A few months into my research, I did a very large event near San Diego. It was so big that the organizers had brought in a tea specialist to do a Chinese Pu’er tea demonstration and tasting as the “opening act.” I sat on the stage with him, tasting his wonderful and unique teas and listening to him talk about tea. I learned that tea is the second most popular drink in the world after water. (Pretty amazing!) He talked about the Tea Horse Road, on which tea had been transported from China for over a thousand years. He talked about the differences between tea trees—some of which are well over 1,000 years old—and tea shrubs, which we are more familiar with. Those tea shrubs, no matter where you go in the world, have been manicured, cultivated, and cloned down into that shape, while wild tea trees are unique living organisms. It is from these ancient tea trees that Pu’er comes from, which leads me to your next question.

Tell us about the rare tea in your book?

Most tea comes from leaves grown on shrubs, and most tea should be thrown out after six months, because it loses its flavor. Pu’er is completely different. The tea comes from the original tea trees in Yunnan. For over a thousand years, the different ethnic minorities who live in the mountains would climb the trees, pick the leaves, and form them into cakes. These cakes were then loaded into 150 packs and carried by men on foot out across the Tea Horse Road, which was in many ways similar to the Silk Road. The trip to Tibet, for example, was a 1,000-miles long and could take anywhere from six months to two years, walking on foot. As the men walked through heat, humidity, rain, and snow, the tea in those packs began to change. It began to ferment. It wasn’t alcoholic, but its nature changed. Once the caravan got to Tibet, the tea would be traded for war horses. That’s how valuable it had become. The tea also went to Hong Kong, which is also hot, humid, and rainy. Restaurants would buy large quantities of the tea and store it in their basements. Once again the tea began to ferment and change. People would go to that particular restaurant for the quality of tea that came out of that particular basement, because every basement was different. When China closed in 1949 and people couldn’t get that tea any longer, the value began to climb as the tea continued to age. To make a long story very short, Pu’er is unlike any other tea in the world in the sense that it gains value with age. I’ve tasted different Pu’ers that are thirty and fifty years old. I also tasted one, served to me in a house high in the tea mountains by the women who grew it, that sells in Beijing for 1,000 U.S. dollars for a two-ounce cup! In addition to the connoisseurship that surrounds Pu’er, it is known for its exceptional medicinal attributes.

Can you taste the difference in the teas? You spoke at Chaucer’s about a tea tasting and the price went up.

I would hardly call myself a tea connoisseur, but from the beginning I think I had a pretty good palate, if I do say so myself. I really like raw Pu’er that has merely been processed over three days and then allowed to age naturally. I like the fresh, grassy taste. A ripe Pu’er—one that’s been aged over many years—has a mellow taste. Think of the forest floor or antique wood. You can—and should—think of a tea tasting as being like a wine tasting. Most people can taste the difference between Two-Buck Chuck and a $20 bottle, or between a $20 bottle and a $100 bottle. There are far fewer of us, however, who have the sophistication of taste—or the money—to know the difference in taste between a $100 bottle and a $500 bottle, a $500 bottle and a $1,000 bottle, and so on.

My friend Linda Louie, the owner of the Bana Tea Company, has taught me a lot about tea in general and Pu’er in particular. One of the stories she told me about the value of Pu’er had to do with one of her products that she sold to Whole Foods. By the end of the year, it had gone up in value so much that people who were visiting from China would buy it. (Whole Foods hadn’t changed their price to reflect the increase in value, because either they didn’t know about it or they felt they couldn’t charge their customers a much larger price.) But there are other Pu’ers far from what you might find on a Whole Foods’ shelf that gain in serious value. For example, there was a single cake of aged Pu’er weighing a little less than a pound that sold at international auction three years ago for the equivalent of 150,000 U.S. dollars!

Is there significance to the humming bird in Chinese culture?

I don’t know of any specific significance of the hummingbird in China. But please remember two things. The title of the book is not as clear cut as it looks at first glance. There is a deeper hidden meaning. And second, I didn’t write about Chinese culture in this book. I wrote about the Akha, who have a very different culture from the Han majority.

Do you have a tea ritual now?

I wish I could say that I pull out my gaiwan (a special type of covered cup used for making tea) and then brew it and drink it as the ancients did. I do this sometimes with friends, but mostly I make a nice cup of tea and plain old drink it. It’s still Pu’er that I’m drinking but without all the ceremony. My two concessions to ritual are to always use spring water and to heat the water to the proper, not too hot, temperature.

What is your beverage of choice when writing?

Tea, absolutely. But that isn’t something new with this book. I’ve always sipped tea when I’m writing.

How does tea change Li-Yan in unexpected ways?

This is such a great question! In my mind, Li-yan, the main character in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, rides the wave of what happened to Pu’er in real life as it left the tea mountains of Yunnan, went into China, and then out into the world. As you know, at the beginning of the novel, Li-yan is living in a very isolated mountain village, without electricity or running water, and without any sense of the outside world. A jeep—the first automobile that anyone has seen—brings a man in search of this special tea. With Li-yan’s help, he makes it. After he leaves, a pretty bad series of events happen to Li-yan and now she has no choice but to leave her mountain home. I don’t want to give away the entire plot of the book, but as people read it, they will see that the her choices and moments of fate—being accepted into the new Pu’er College, working in the Fangcun Tea Market, the so-called bursting of the Pu’er bubble, and all that happens after that—do indeed parallel what happened to Pu’er in real life.

Is being a mother always about sacrifice?

Gosh, I hope not! It’s true that there are times when you need to have a lot of courage. There are other times that you need to be brave. But hopefully you can also have fun, laugh, and play.

What did you miss most about your mother on your first Mother’s Day without her?

The first Mother’s Day without my mother had the potential to be devastatingly sad, but as the day approached I thought about what she might have liked. Would she have wanted to see us moping and crying or would she have liked to see us eating, drinking, and laughing? My sister and I went for the latter. We had a nice party at our house. My daughter-in-law cooked the main meal and I made dessert. We had quite a few mothers here, as well as kids and grandkids. I thought the whole thing would be over in a couple of hours, but people really hung out, talking and laughing. We all missed my mother, but it was easy to imagine her there with us. My mother was the quintessential party doll, and she was definitely there in spirit.

You write unique women’s stories is it because of your unique upbringing?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a couple of weeks, and I really don’t know the answer. I could say yes, because I lived with my mom—a single mother, who supported herself and us through her writing, who loved to have a good time but had struggled to find it after having a hard childhood. She was, of course, a huge influence on me as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. But I could also answer yes because of the time I spent with my father’s side of the family. I think of my Grandmother Stella—who was on her own basically from the time she was six—and all my aunties, many of whom came from China in arranged marriages and didn’t live very happy lives. I guess I’ve always had a curiosity about women—whether in my own family or not—who struggled and failed, struggled and triumphed. Those women carry us on their backs. It is because of them that all of us get to have the lives we have today—for good and bad.

What is your favorite saying about tea?

“In drinking the best tea, we are having a conversation with the wind and the rain that the ancient Daoists had above the mountain clouds. Through the tea liquor, across streams, and under moon shadows we can understand that the separation between Man and Nature is not real.”

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