I was ahead of a trend. It will probably be the only time in my life that I will ever be ahead of a trend. I am claiming it. I was first introduced to the author Lisa See’s books, of “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane”, several years ago by a dear friend. She passed along a wonderful book titled “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” I enjoyed that book immensely. When it came time for my book club to pick a book in the early Fall of 2020, I suggested “The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane.” I explained that if we picked the book, I could host the club (outside with six people in attendance) and hold an impromptu tea class regarding Pu’erh tea. They took the bait; although none was really needed. This book can stand alone without having to bribe a book club to read it. What an intense, hard to put down book. I was lost in the book within the first few pages.
A Book Report
The book is a fictitious novel set in the famous tea growing region of Yunnan, China. The story follows the Western world’s growing appreciation of Dark Tea, the production of Pu’erh and the history of Mother Tea trees.
I was caught up in the characters' lives immediately. This was a book that I wanted to know what happens next. I had to have a strong will and discipline NOT to read the last chapter first to find out how the book ends. The book is about two main characters who are related but are a generation and continents apart. It is about a mother’s unending love for her child. It is about feeling lost, or not belonging. The novel is about making difficult and painful decisions in the face of adversity. The novel is also about redemption, hope, undying love, the tapestry of family history and of being found.
The first section of the story takes place in the late 1980’s in the countryside of China, in the Yunnan Province. This area of China is famous for Pu’erh Tea. The first main character the reader is introduced to is named “Girl”. She is on the cusp of puberty, and lives with her family and the Akha people of her village. Her mother has several old mother tea trees that have been passed down through several generations from mother to daughter. “Girl” learns how to tend to the trees, and make the dark tea that her village depends upon for holistic medicinal purposes.
The second part of the story takes place in Yunnan China starting in November 1995, and continues in the United States from August 1996 to modern day. The secondary main character who was put up for adoption, was first referred to as Baby Girl #78. After her adoption in the United States, she was re-named Haley Davis. She was left at an orphanage with a Pu’Erh cake from her village, that is passed along to her adoptive parents in San Francisco, California. Haley grows up with knowledge of the tea cake and eventually decided to try to locate her birth mother.
These two central characters are mother and daughter. Their two lives overlap and they nearly run into each other throughout the latter part of the book. The end of the story nicely brings about closure, and a full circle theme. There is a lovely crescendo of the two characters actually meeting, against all odds, and all the emotions that ensue.
Pu’ Erh tea is also referred to as Dark Tea or Heicha. It has its origins in the Yunnan Province of China. Zhuge Liang (220-280 AD) was in government during the Three Kingdoms Period. Legend states that he wanted a cash crop that could bring agricultural development, and economic independence to his region of Yunnan. He was the catalyst for Pu’erh tea being the marketable, and drinkable commodity of today. The southwest region of Yunnan still refers to Liang as their “Tea Forefather.” This area of Yunnan was included on a map of an old trading route called The Old Tea Horse Road. Supplies, necessities, tea and war horses were carried along this trading route. There are tea trees in this region of Yunnan that are estimated to be over two thousand years old. The story of “Girl” and Haley is set in this region of China; in the Yunnan Province, renowned for Pu’Erh. Only tea made exclusively in Yunnan can be called Pu’Erh tea. All other fermented black teas made outside of Yunnan, China, are called Dark Teas.
Pu’erh is similar to a black tea because it has been oxidized. The first stage of the processing of Pu’erh tea ends with what is called a rough tea or “Mao Cha”. What will distinguish this tea from any other black tea is the next stage, the fermentation process. After oxidation has occurred, the tea is sorted for processing into one of two types of Pu’erh; Sheng or Shu Pu’erh. Sheng Pu’Erh is known as green, uncooked, or raw Pu’Erh. It is Mao Cha that has been shaped into tea cakes, dried, and stored in an area where it can ferment naturally. Shu Pu’ Erh is also known as cooked, black or ripe Pu’Erh. Processing Shu Pu’Erh consists of additional heat to quickly accelerate the fermention of the leaves. The tea is placed in piles, and allowed to ferment for a specific amount of time. The special processing is also referred to as “wo dui” which means wet and piled in layers.
There is an intentional vagueness about the time the tea is left in fermentation piles due to several reasons. The first reason is level of ambient humidity in the surrounding air and moisture levels in the fermenting pile of tea. Too much moisture in the fermenting pile and the leaves will be ruined. Moisture level is closely watched.
The other reason fermentation time can vary is due to the amount of heat the piles of fermenting leaves create. The heat created off the fermenting pile does affect the speed the fermenting process occurs. Too much heat, and too much moisture can ruin the fermenting pile tea leaves. The piles of leaves are closely watched daily for moisture and heat levels.
When the tea master or experienced tea producer feels the Shu Pu’erh tea has successfully fermented, the leaves go through a final firing to decrease the moisture content. These leaves can be sold loose leaf or can be pressed into various sized cakes and then sold. Pu’erh tea has a wonderfully rich, elemental, and earthy flavor profile.
The Drinkable Antique
Pu’erh tea is the only tea that is valued for its age. The tea, if stored in a cool, dry and dark place, can continue to age. It becomes more mellow and smooth in flavor, and more earthy in aroma as it ages. There is supposedly Pu’erh tea in the forbidden City that is over one hundred years old. In fact, some Pu’erh are sold as “drinkable antiques” and can garner hundreds of dollars for several grams at auctions.
Go ahead and fix a cup of Pu’erh tea, find a comfortable and cozy chair, and enjoy the book!
About the Author
Leslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea. No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!