A Chinese Tea Tale

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane     Lisa See     (2017)

“’No coincidence, no story.’” With this quote from her mother, the first-person narrator of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Li-Yan, begins. Remember that line as you read Lisa See’s moving tale of the collision of a traditional culture with the modern world.

In the mountainous Yunnan province in the far southwest of China live the Akha people, one of China’s tiny ethnic minorities. The Akha speak a distinctive language and practice a kind of animistic religion, involving many taboos and ritual sacrifices, guided by patriarchal village shamans. When this novel opens, in 1988, the province was even more isolated than it is today, and because of its inaccessibility the Akha people were not touched very much by such Chinese political movements as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. They were also exempt from China’s One Child policy because of their minority status.

Li-Yan is the daughter of a tea-growing Akha family, but she yearns for an education and an escape from her isolated village. When she has a baby out of wedlock, she refuses to allow the baby to be killed, as is the Akha tradition. Instead she makes a grueling journey on foot to an orphanage in the closest town to relinquish her daughter, who is wrapped up with a tea cake (a block of compressed tea leaves). Without revealing spoilers, I can tell you that Li-Yan’s adventures over the next twenty years bring her considerable success, mostly because her mountain’s rare tea leaves, called Pu’er, become international best sellers. But Li-Yan constantly misses the daughter she gave up and wishes she could find her.

Interspersed with the story that Li-Yan narrates are varied documents, such as letters and transcripts, relating to this daughter of Li-Yan, who is adopted as an infant by a Caucasian American couple from California and named Haley. Haley has a privileged upbringing, but she never feels fully part of American culture and longs to find her Chinese birth mother. Coincidence comes in here, as Li-Yan and Haley almost meet more than once.

Some reviewers of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane found the lengthy disquisitions on the cultivation of tea trees and the processing of tea leaves onerous to read. I liked these sections, which build the background for the role of tea trading in the novel. Besides, I’m a great fan of tea. And tea is, as you might guess, part of the final coincidence that ties this novel up.

Some reviewers also criticized the author’s extensive descriptions of Akha culture. I liked these sections, too, especially the accounts of religious rituals and of the distinctive clothing of the Akha, which is rich with indigo-dyed fabrics, embroidery, and elaborate women’s headdresses. Late in the book, a character describes the Akha: “’In the West, you think the individual is supreme, but the Akha see themselves as one link in the long chain of life, adjacent to all the other links and cultures.’” (352) The contrast of the tribal Akha ways with the lifestyles in large Chinese cities and in California, where some of the action takes place, appealed to me, as did watching Li-Yan’s adaptation to totally different cultural norms. Here is Li-Yan in a large Chinese city: “I take a deep breath to fortify myself, mortar into place another brick to hide my secrets, and settle my face into what I hope is a pleasant expression.” (222)

Lisa See is a talented writer with nine published novels about Chinese and Chinese American characters. If you like The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, try her 2009 novel, Shanghai Girls, next.