Many tea lovers read about tea, including a lot of non-fiction, to augment our tea knowledge. Fiction, however, serves a different purpose. We read fiction to lose ourselves in other worlds. But when we approach a novel based on a subject we know a lot about, that sense of immersion can be lost as we shift to a more analytical mode. There is nothing more jarring for the expert than an obvious mistake or myth situated right in the middle of a story, so that instead of believing in the character and caring about their struggles, you are pulled up short by the author’s mistakes. That won’t happen in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.
In The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, the research is thorough, the many perspectives are given full treatment and equal prominence, and the story is long and winding. Nuanced cultural sensitivity is born of the author’s dedication to her own Chinese-American heritage. While Lisa See is only one-eighth Chinese, her great-grandfather, Fong See, was a patriarch of Chinatown in Los Angeles. He married a white woman when such marriages were illegal and was the first Chinese American to own a Ford, an American symbol of his prosperity and status.
More influential than this incredible history, however, was the Chinese family that surrounded See as she grew up. Just as the Chinese adoptees in her novel blend into the cultural milieu of their adoptive white American families, See is seemingly a white woman who grew up around her Chinese family and felt very much part of that culture. Not content to rely only upon her own experience, See interviewed many Asian adoptees when researching this book. I can only imagine, however, that she too identifies with this response from her character Haley, the Chinese American adoptee, upon being asked whether she is Chinese or American:
“One hundred percent American,
and one hundred percent Chinese…
I’m not half and half.
I’m fully both.”
Haley is in fact Akha, a once nomadic tribe that lives in several countries across Asia, but the point here is not accuracy but feeling. As Haley and her mother search for each other, and seek to establish themselves in the world, they are accompanied by tea every step of the way. “…every sip…opens our hearts to remember family, love and hardships that have been overcome.” Lisa See definitely wants us to be as moved by her characters as she wants us to understand the nuances of tea, especially pu’erh.
So when I approach a piece of fiction that focusses on tea, I want to know three things: Did the author get the tea information right? Is the tea information woven into the story seamlessly? Is the story interesting, compelling and touching without the heavy-duty tea research? In the case of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, the answer is a resounding yes, with a minor qualification or two.
This beautiful novel is far-ranging, covering many aspects of the life of one woman and her family, taking the reader from the mountains of rural China to downtown Los Angeles, all the while using tea as the thread that ties each leg of the journey together. Tea and family, actually. It’s almost as if the author is suggesting that tea runs in the veins of this family along with the blood that ties them together.
Li-yan is a young woman born in rural Yunnan to the Akha people. The story is of her education, the loss of her first husband and daughter, who is adopted to an American family in Los Angeles. Li-yan is the only member of her tribe to receive an advanced education, which results in her entry into the tea trade and Chinese society. The two women find love and acceptance in their new families, as Li-yan remarries and Haley makes her adoptive family proud. But they never stop looking for each other, and so in order to accommodate such a difficult search, the author asks us to set aside our skepticism and makes heavy use of many coincidences to weave the several threads of this story together.
With this pronouncement at the beginning of the novel, Lisa See sets us up for a series of coincidences that allow for her story to come full circle in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.
Yet See is nothing if not self-aware. Where she feels her story depends too much on this obvious literary device, she addresses the practice, almost as if asking the reader: well, what would you do? She has a teacher comment on a short story written by Haley:
This was my experience, too, as a reader. No matter how long, varied and jam-packed with facts, the plotlines meet up a little too neatly, as if the characters were all given bits of the same map to follow. Which they were, essentially. “No coincidence, no story,” is the oft repeated phrase throughout the book.
For the most part, the constant coincidences are overshadowed by the rich detail, the believable characters, and the intense research into every aspect of the story: international adoption, pue’rh tea, the lives of the Akha hill tribe, the hybrid lifestyles of Chinese-American immigrants, and the changing roles of women in a society that had long kept them in a very strict and narrow set of roles.
There’s another fault in the writing, though: the pacing is at times jarringly inconsistent. At times, the story rapidly picks up pace, seemingly skimming through certain episodes as if they are necessary but not of interest to the author. Oddly, it’s the parts that are harder to believe, the classic fairy-tale elements, that seem to evoke the least proof of lived experience: the dream wedding, the California mansion, the designer clothes, dinners in famous restaurants hosted by celebrity chefs. I suppose it all seems unreal to the narrator, but also so to the reader, almost more like a quick summary before re-launching into the main part of the story. It’s telling that tea is barely mentioned as they settle in this frivolous, materialistic new world. But as they settle down and start a family, tea becomes the grounding factor of their lives once again.
Incongruous as some of the more bare-bones scenes are, they do not ruin the otherwise skillful and deliberate way the story unfolds. When the story is good, it is so good as to be completely absorbing. But it is not only a good story that we are looking for, of course. As tea lovers, we want to see tea represented accurately when it’s incorporated into a work of art. And Lisa See does this incredibly well.
See has researched tea, especially pu’erh, from every aspect. After sending time in China among those who harvest tea for a living, her appreciation for tea has grown. She integrates the lived experience of picking and selling tea, of processing it by hand, and the day-to-day experience of drinking it, with the more western interests: the science of the health benefits, changing consumer attitudes and tea’s presence on the international stock market. This information is never placed in a ham-handed or obvious way. There is always a reason for the exposition, a character and a situation that requires the tea knowledge, and a nuanced reaction from a narrator’s internal monologue. I learned more than I expected to from a story so focussed on family and culture. But of course, tea is integral to both.
“If you don’t love tea, you can’t make good tea,” our heroine quotes her teacher, Tea Master Sun. It follows, then, if you don’t love tea, and the people who make it, you can’t write about it convincingly. Lisa See loves pue’rh, cherishes the bonds between mothers and daughters, and loves her Chinese and her American heritage. This book is the perfect homage to all: to China, to America, to family, and to the tea that unites them all. If you want your friends and family to learn to love tea as much as we tea professionals do, give them The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. I promise they’ll come to you and say “I had no idea there was so much to it!” And you can smile knowingly and pour them a cup of your favourite tea.
Reviewed by Theresa Lemieux
Certified TAC Tea Sommelier Professional
Originally review for the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada in their autumn issue of Sip: https://issuu.com/canadatea/docs/sip_-_issue_14 Reprinted with permission of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada for Lady Baker's Tea