The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is such a beautifully evocative novel that will make you long to savour pu-erh tea. I’ve never tasted pu-erh myself, but the way See describes it makes it sound like such a precious, earthy and rich beverage, and I love the image of the leaves aging naturally in the sun then being packed into cakes for transport. I also love the way See describes the tea cakes being so precious that Chinese women in ancient times would take them along on long journeys to hand down to their children.
The story revolves around Li-yan and her family, Akha people in a remote Yunnan mountain village, who produce tea. Their world changes when a man in an automobile arrives in their village and offers them riches in return for their tea leaves and labour in producing high quality pu-erh tea. As one of the few educated women in her village, Li-yan is tasked with translating for the stranger, and is dazzled by the potential of the life he offers. When Li-yan gives birth out of wedlock, she wraps her daughter in a blanket with a tea cake and leaves her at a nearby orphanage.
Fast forward several years into the future, where Li-yan moves out of her village and pursues a career in tea connoisseurship, and her daughter Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl who is nonetheless curious about where she came from and what the tea cake means.
Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is such a beautiful story about family and tradition, and about uncovering one’s roots and finding one’s home. But what I love most about it is the glimpse See gives into Akha culture and the history of pu-erh tea. I love the depiction of the traditions around tea making and tea drinking, and the history of how appreciation for this tradition has diluted over time. I highly recommend reading this book, preferably with a cup of tea in hand.
And if you’re curious, here’s a video on how to brew pu-erh tea.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.