Posted on April 26, 2015
Stepping out onto the verandah, a strong feeling of déjà vu sweeps over me. I breathe in the early morning air of the sleepy fishing village of Tai O, the sound of the water inviting me out to explore.
The purity of silence only a pre-dawn sky can provide, accompanies me as I walk down a path toward the shore of the South China Sea.
A restless purr of a yellow cat holding sentry duty catches my attention, she gives me a quick look-over before closing her eyes and nodding approval to pass.
Clearing the path, I continue down along the shore of the Tai O Heritage Hotel.
Sleep last night was worthless. The building kept whispering stories and secrets to me from a century long ago. Words with a personal ring, the whispers of long-lost friends.
My mind races at the possibilities, whether I am a dreamer caught up in a turn-of-the-century drama, or whether the history of this place holds a reality I am now just becoming aware.
Standing on the shore, I expected to see a fleet of Chinese junks flying the flag of a renegade pirate; a flag supposedly designed by myself. To my relief the shore is empty and I chuckle at the thought of what I would have done if it wasn’t.
My dreams of the night, vivid creations of the rich history of this place.
Crouching down, I pick up a stone and toss it out into the water as I hear a faint foghorn of a ship out on the horizon. I have finally made it to one of the oldest and most secluded areas of Hong Kong.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong almost two decades ago I had targeted this fishing village to be one of my first adventures, but time and life got in the way.
She is an old fishing village, one that has definitely seen better days. Today Tai O is more of a hangout for older people in their 70s, desperately holding onto the good life of saltwater and the sea.
Younger souls fresh in their 20s and 30s are also around, looking lost amid a modern world that has little room for the craftsmanship of fishermen.
Above me is the old police station, an outpost of the Hong Kong and British maritime police, where officers actively protected these shores from centuries of pirates and smuggling.
Stories that fueled the dreams from last night, still reverberating in my mind as I begin walking down the road ~ returning to a place I have long forgotten.
Less than twelve hours ago, Tai O was just a figment of my imagination, a chaotic myth of the old days of Hong Kong. I now find myself walking effortlessly under an early morning sky as if I were born on these streets.
I walk with purpose, with an understanding of what I am looking for even though my mind is filled with confusion.
The memories are fresh. The old stilt houses, the planks leading from one neighbor to another and the wild activity that made up a day.
Blurred images of friends laughing and enjoying the serene atmosphere of the night, forgetting the dangers that filled our hearts every evening as we’d head out to sea for work.
Work. Not quite the type of work that would make most families proud, but work nonetheless.
The police station in Tai O is no longer here, having shut down over fifteen years ago, but the building still stands just as it did when built by the British in 1902. Now a beautiful building, fitted out by the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation to become the Tai O Heritage Hotel.
I smile at the thought that at least I have a more comfortable bed than those who spent a night in the holding cell a century ago.
The building was home to one of the territories first colonial police stations guarding the western border between Hong Kong and China, and holding pieces of history that are now all but forgotten.
Reflecting back on the dream that woke me during the night, I wonder if it is a reminder of the role I filled as a noble Hong Kong policeman serving this village more than a century ago?
The answer to this question is obvious to me, as the sense of nostalgia tells me this definitely was not the case. I was living a darker, very different life.
I realized this the minute I arrived at the hotel. The electricity I felt as my fingers brushed over the nine bullet holes embedded into the security shutters on the main floor of the hotel, telling me this was not just a chance meeting in Tai O.
I admire the historians and renovators who kept the original shutters, damaged and scarred but holding a place in time at the police station. Trapping the memories of those days gone by.
Years earlier, there was another piece of violence all but forgotten. A firefight on these shores more than one hundred years ago. Faded shots and screams still echoing in the air. The ghosts, waiting for my return, now stand alongside me as I walk these streets. The voices of my dreams earlier tonight are with me once again.
I weave through the different paths, looking around aimlessly for something I once called home. Familiarity is all around me, but I am very out-of-place.
There is an urge for me to call out names and shout good morning in a strange Chinese dialect I have never heard before, much less spoken.
The strong smell of shrimp paste, dried fish and scallops fill the air and tell me a story I cannot quite remember.
I am trapped in a time and place, where there isn’t a clear definition between good and bad. Where answering the question of how to make a living was never considered. Just one path, one fate.
A life, where evolution of the soul and mind did not come easy, if at all, unlike the freedoms I have today.
Caught up in the spirit of adventure on the South China Sea; a pirate’s life. A fantasy of many young kids growing up in those days. Romanticizing life in way only a child can, inevitably to be disappointed in its reality.
Decisions made from necessity, poorly thought out and running with a band of marauders between Tai O and Mainland China, a life of survival with no way out.
The excitement of the chase, the beauty of the culture and memories of her many smiles, all combine to justify the clash between lifestyle and philosophy. The stories and secrets whisper to me yet again.
Words that did not make much sense back then, even less so now.
The ending of this dream is not a surprising one. Over a century ago on these very shores, violence ended my story. The image strong in my mind. Of myself, a dying man.
My final thoughts questioning if somewhere, somehow in another time or place I could have travelled down another road.
History is this great mirror able to show us a different time, different place and different potential in us all as we find our way in life.
I see a faint image of a wife and child standing alone. A twinge of sorrow fills my heart, my eyes moving to a basket of dried shrimp she’s holding, igniting another memory from so long ago. Their whispers silently fading away as they bid me adieu.
We are all more alike than we could ever understand. Rich or poor, young or old, the vast differences we see on the surface means nothing.
Build a life worth living, so when the inevitable day of death arrives, we know our life was one fully lived ~ a life worth dying for.
Posted on October 5, 2014
Upon first glance, the sight of demonstrations in Hong Kong is enough to take the breath away: another crystallizing moment in the territory’s rich history. It is a beautiful thing to see; young and old united for a cause…especially one important as democracy and freedom.
Yet like Hong Kong history, the protests are just one of many layers of complexity.
There is a very symbiotic relationship between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong is, and will continue to be, the Jewel of China. Both sides have prospered and both sides have benefitted, at times, in spite of each other.
With passions riding high in the territory, both sides can ill afford to miscalculate. Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung and the Chief of Police found that out early Monday morning (29-Sep), with their infamous use of tear gas.
Hong Kong has never had a true democracy. Under British rule, Hong Kong was far away from a democracy.
One of the lesser-known stories about the handover is that the Chinese government were the ones to initially introduced the idea of democracy to Hong Kong. This is where the complexities arise.
In 1990 when democracy became part of the Basic Law (The HK Constitution), spelling out that the Chief Executive would be elected by universal suffrage – it also contained the slightly ambiguous statement “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
There is a very fine line being walked on both sides right now.
The issue in Hong Kong is that as China’s power and wealth has grown; there is this slight feeling that Hong Kong’s freedoms and liberties are slowly being compromised. This is a major concern. Yes, the strings being pulled originates from Beijing, but is this why Hong Kong should be worried?
Beijing is not the enemy; the enemies are the Hong Kong leaders who are willing sell out the soul of the city for the right price, forgetting their roots.
C.Y. Leung this is on you and your team.
Amid the passion and fear within the protest, it is possible for Hong Kong and China to have a tenuous but harmonious relationship. Basically the same one it has had for almost two centuries.
But to have this, Hong Kong needs true leaders. In the hearts of the majority in Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung has done irreparable damage and can no longer lead effectively.
It is also time for Hong Kong leaders to look in the mirror. Do you see in yourself the disgrace of the Chief of Police who reverted to the use of tear gas and riot police on that fateful Sunday night on 28-Sep? The night that tore at the hearts of the people of Hong Kong? If so, please leave.
For the people who built Hong Kong and through their sweat, tears and toil to make it into the greatest city in the WORLD, they deserve better.
People like C.Y. Leung and business leaders who are pro-Beijing for the sole/soul purpose of making obscene profits are our real enemy. I use the word “our” with pride, as a decade ago when I collected my Permanent Resident HK ID Card it was an amazing feeling; a feeling similar with the pride I feel today wearing my black shirt and yellow ribbon signifying voices need to be heard.
PEACE is the word. It is what the protesters want, it is what the people want.
To the student leader, Joshua Wong: from all accounts, you are brave and brilliant as a co-leader of this movement. It is important to listen to all voices in Hong Kong. Change needs to happen in peace.
You showed your age of seventeen when suggesting breaking into and occupying the Government Offices. I am grateful you stopped, listened to those with experience.
My hope is the people around C.Y. Leung can talk similar sense into him, and he will be a true leader and listen…and understand he needs to bravely vanquish his office.
World governments will continue their politics as usual, with satirist Stephen Colbert of the USA perhaps making the most astute political comment about the protests:“Think hard, China. You can either crush these protesters under your heel, or you can give them the rights you promised them, because whichever choice you make, America will still do business with you.” ~ Stephen Colbert
This is the harsh reality, even with the people of the world taking heart in the message, the spirit and voices of Hong Kong.
In the end, the outcome is up to the people of this territory. It is up to the leaders of Hong Kong to find their courage, to be the True Patriots they signed up to be. It is up to the protesters on the streets, and the people who are shaken by what is developing here.
For the leaders of Hong Kong, it is time to be the brave heroes that you can be. To follow your Hong Kong ancestors: be authentic like your Hong Kong sons/brothers & daughters/sisters who look to you for guidance.Hong Kong is united, The People’s voice has spoken… Voices will be heard, Their hearts remain unbroken.
For all leaders of Hong Kong, it should not be a secret now: Hong Kong needs democratic realists not dreamers. Leaders who understand the situation, and not those who spew rhetoric. Extremists on both sides do nothing but hurt Hong Kong.
Do not fight with Beijing just because “they are Beijing.” Instead fight for the betterment of Hong Kong, this is our problem, let’s resolve it.
It is true that protesters are on edge right now. Increased skirmishes and frustrated residents along with typical political tactics on both sides will continue to test these protesters.
Have heart. We are with you.
The greatest hope for all: the only tears to be shed will be those of happiness.
Posted on July 31, 2014
There is an old saying I think about every now and then: “the grass is always greener on the other side.”
Not so much for its meaning of someone desiring something they believe would improve his or her life, yet in reality would not. Instead, it is because I think about where I am now, and the possibilities of what could be.
To dream of being in a totally different situation, wondering how great life would be compared to the current situation is intriguing. The mind is unrealistically focused on what could be gained, with little attention to what would be lost.
A poor example of this: my memory as a kid on a family vacation sitting at a restaurant for breakfast. I would always order the French toast and upon the arrival of the food, look on in envy as my twin sister’s stack of blueberry pancakes taunted me…those pancakes topped with whipped cream looked so much better than my wimpy French toast.
Didn’t matter that I loved French toast and it always tasted great, for I couldn’t think of anything else except my stomach growling with envy.
Fortunately, it never failed that my little sister would give me a small bite of her pancakes to make me happy (and also get a laugh at the whipped cream that would inevitably find its way to the tip of my nose), and life would be good again.
Such a simple memory, but one of many that demonstrates to me the endless possibilities the mind creates. Hammering home the moral of being happy with what you have and how ridiculous it is to have petty envy.
When positive thinking fuels the mind, things tend to work themselves out.
Over the years, I think most people come to understand it never pays to feel or act on petty-envy or the negatives that “the grass is always greener…” may inspire. However, I think envy in itself is not bad, as there is still a piece of this feeling that is worth exploring further: “positive envy.”
Comparing a situation with one that is perceived to be better can create a sense of hope; triggering a new dream to inspire. I find inspiration in stories, movies and photographs from all over the world, where I have this feeling of “the grass is always greener…” but understand I can create something similar in my life.
Positive Envy is the excitement at discovering something new from another source and creating a drive to move people up to a higher level (no matter how small).
My favorite definition of this feeling is this clip from the movie Vision Quest: seeing and experiencing something so spectacular, that it lifts the spirit to a higher level of existence. Once this emotion is felt, it is impossible not to develop a drive and try to achieve such a moment yourself.
There are many such vision quests in life, and for me seeing places I may never visit ~ but through photographs, videos and stories, it becomes easy to imagine myself creating a life there. Positive envy of someone experiencing such a different way of life brings adventure into my day.
As mentioned in an earlier writing, Let The Show Begin…, photography, music and sports are just two examples where inspiration thrives.
Recently, I traveled to Dongchuan, Yunnan in SW China and arranged a home stay; a perfect way to get a glimpse into the life of locals. There were a few older people I met who shared their stories, their struggles and mostly their simple brilliance of happiness that they had collected over their lifetime.
Sharing a part of their history, through their words I could imagine the very time/place/emotions to a point where it felt as if I had lived that life alongside them.
A very powerful feeling, and while I imagined how great it would be to experience such a place in time; what I appreciated most was the glimpse at the scope of possibilities of people everywhere.
Humans have a pretty incredible stretch of capabilities, and while the ideal of accumulating great material wealth is an overriding dream for many…it is usually those who seek a simpler route that find a greater sense of happiness.
A controlled environment tends to pull us all in one direction: “nose to the grindstone” seems to be its mantra, and it is usually led by a group of elitists restricting our freedoms.
To avoid this lunatic fringe that permeates politics and many parts of society, listen to the words of Joseph Campbell and enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Avoid the well-worn path as the road often traveled tends to entice and then subdue the spirit.
In all, I figure that while the “grass may seem greener elsewhere” we attach ourselves to where we are most comfortable. It is good to explore, to get out and see what is out there…but in the end, it is tough to beat home.
Even when things may look bleak, there is always a smile to brighten the day. I sat one late afternoon watching the energy of this old man, amid a group of locals sharing his stories. “I can’t afford to be sad because right now is all I may have…and I’ve been saying this for more than 10 years!” and he laughed which made everyone laugh.
If the time ever comes when I am missing all my teeth, I’ll accept it…but until then I will make sure to enjoy the feel of biting into a crisp apple during a hot day.
“The grass is always greener…” It is a difficult proverb to dissect, because there are so many ways to look at it. Here in Dongchuan, most of the people in this village dream of their children being able to live in Hong Kong (or any Chinese metropolis), as these cities have a higher standard of living.
I can understand this. These are significant dreams to have, and it can fuel positive envy: a flow of ideas that lead to a realm of unimaginable successes. Wherever the dream flows, a happy child is the real goal.
I suppose that is the magic of life. At some point in time, it is necessary for the soul to search and begin its own Vision Quest. To lift those around you to a higher level of happiness. What that quest is and where it flows varies greatly among us all.
With that said, sometimes the grass is actually greener, and if possible, worth checking out for yourself.
Posted on November 6, 2013
Sitting in my comfortable chair with a nice cup of coffee in my hand, I can’t help but wonder “what lies around the corner?”
Curiosity cannot help but push us towards this unknown. It may be a quick look or it may be the beginning of a long, new adventure… The one thing I am sure of, we cannot help but take a look. Humans by nature are curious creatures and the desire to learn and obtain wisdom in life lies deep within everyone’s heart.
This desire to learn is a gift children have in abundance. Differences (be it culture, language, food, religion, etc…) can be eerie for the young; frightening if not so compelling. There are times when children cannot help but to stare at someone, often with mouth agape, as they try to register what it is they are now experiencing.
Often a turn towards their parents to understand how they should proceed follows.
In my experiences, parents let children explore differences with “the mind of a child”, open and questioning. When that something strange is someone, all it takes is a glint in the eye, break of a smile, warm laughter or something similarly simple to cross all boundaries and all cultures. We are one.
The ability of children to focus on the newness that triggers questions is what fascinates. A child’s mind pursues answers to understand how “differences” fits into their world, and they grow.
Not a bad lesson to learn from little ones: never cease expanding the mind for if we do not grow with all the changes the world brings every day, we’ll be lost.
It is crazy to think of all the opportunities that lie around in today’s world. Places to explore right around the corner: a neighbor, friends or a new restaurant with an exotic menu that opens an opportunity to jump into a new world.
What is most beautiful to see are parents who push their children forward with curiosity instead of pulling them back with fear.
“Pushing forward with curiosity instead of pulling back with fear”
It was this last sentence that caught my attention while staying in a small home on top of the Hallelujah Mountains in Hunan province, China. Huddled around a small stove with a couple in their mid-30s from Beijing, they told me they grew up restricted by fear, in part due to the chaos of China in the 60s and 70s that lingered in the minds of the people through the 80s.
The couple contrasted those fears of the past with what has replaced it in today’s society: healthy curiosity. Civilizations thrive when the people are pushing forward with confidence instead of pulling back in fear. Chasing after the answer, pursuing curiosity, can lead to places that never before have been envisioned.
How we found ourselves together in this small cabin was a result of curiosity. As the family whose house we were staying were members of the Tu-Jia minority (土家族), the couple from Beijing enjoyed Tujia food very much, and wanted to experience it on the mountain, while I came for the photography…a perfect match.
As our conversation ended, the lady from Beijing asked me to join her along with the old couple, to go out back to their smokehouse. There I witnessed a 30-minute discussion over what piece of smoked meat would be used for our meal.
It was amid questions, stories, more questions interspersed with laughter that “the best piece of meat” was found and preparation of a traditional Tu-Jia meal was confirmed. We would have 土家腊肉 (Tujia Bacon with Wild Vegetables).
Wild vegetables, tofu, rice and A LOT of Hunan spices made for a great meal. Standard for all such meals is a glass of their homemade ‘moonshine’ which after a long day of hiking went down smoothly.
The experience of Hunan and Hallelujah Mountain was unforgettable. The photography ended up being a bit of a disappointment, as the weather did not cooperate on top of the mountain… after one clear night, the cold rolled in along with a light rain, which meant a bland, grey fog blanketing the area.
I had hoped for heavy rain, followed by small weather breaks, which would have given perfect conditions to record the rare “peaks above a sea of clouds” scene, but instead Lady Fate gave me a another great reason to return here again and search for that elusive shot.
Getting the urge to explore, to let the curiosity get the best of us is a good thing. Whether it is taking a small trip, or listening to a story from someone next door that contains wisdom that people would normally have to travel around the globe to collect.
Some of the best memories I have, are of growing up and learning about things: wheat, cattle, sports and nature from people around my home town. Yet, I also learned about China, the Middle East and the world from those very same people…as I was curious and they were eager to tell me a story and share with me the mystery.
As an American, it excites me to see such diversity around the world and in our communities. Opportunities right next door just waiting to be tapped for the wealth of experience and wisdom to be shared.
It impresses me to no end how easy it can be to invite yourself into a new culture, a new life just by following your curiosity and allowing yourself to be swept away into mystery.
Posted on August 10, 2013
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
This ancient wisdom by Lao-zi is one of the most famous pieces of advice from the Dao de Jing. No matter where you are in life or what difficulties you face, the philosophy is simple: begin resolving the issue by taking that first step.
The smallest of efforts, if consistently taken over time, can have unimaginable results, just as a tiny seed of rice can one day become a great field of grain able to feed a village.
As someone who would rather stay at home and read a good book versus going out to a club or party, I could easily spend my days sitting back over a cup of coffee to contemplate and dream.
Taking that first ‘single step’ is easy in dreams. To actually make an effort is another story. It is easier to keep the dreams internalized, until one day they vanish and are replaced by regret. That is the danger.
Not fun. I’m guessing everyone has experienced such moments to some extent.
Prior to my first trip to China, I received a journal from my sister that had a quote from Joseph Campbell:
“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.”
Words that are a perfect complement to Lao-zi’s advice at the beginning of this post.
Forging your way through a dense, dark forest has many similarities with forging your way through life: bugs and mosquitoes buzzing around all the time, the occasional leech taking more than they give, but the reward of the adventure is the discovery of beauties that unfold and make life shine.
Creating a path will bring fear and uncertainty, but without those spices of life, is life really worth living?
These quotes of Lao-zi and Campbell rang true during my continued travel in Guilin, where I met people who lived life through those very words.
The previous days along the Li River, reliving the past with the mystical ‘Chinese Fisherman of Folklore’ had me in a reflective mood of the past and the present. Entering the Li River valley and agricultural lands, I began to see people who looked as though they were simply making it day-by-day.
Part of the population left behind during China’s rapid ascension to modernity and wealth. Hearing their stories was the highlight of the trip.
The stories all involved some description of their hardships in one manner or another and all ended with some variation of “we all must keep moving forward – each day, life’s journey begins with the first step.”
While I enjoyed these discussions, as with most older Chinese, it was impossible not to see in their eyes something they were holding back: dark times of the Cultural Revolution. Times I have never heard discussed.
Today is where they are, and in their control.
One strength of people I admire, is the ability to react and thrive in a crisis. No false bravado or panic, but their ability to find the opportunity imbedded in the crisis and move forward.
When John F. Kennedy was asked about his heroism in World War II, he simply said: “It was involuntary, they sank my boat.” He had to find a way to save both himself and his crew; to understand the crisis and take the necessary action to achieve the best resolution possible.
Every crisis brings stress and danger and, while cliché, it also provides opportunity.
As my friends have told me, focus only on ‘wei’ (危), and you will miss the ‘ji’ (机), and the crisis can begin a downward spiral.
The people I met in the Guilin countryside seem to understand this concept of crisis quite well, and adhere to its philosophy. They can control “the now”, and therefore shut-off the worry of what has happened so they can take that fresh first step in their journey through life.
Often it is fear of this first step that is hardest to conquer. To forge ahead knowing you are facing the unknown. Much like finding a place in the forest, where it is most mysterious and dark, but the perfect spot to forge your own path.
There will be danger, yet take that first step and find the opportunities.
Posted on July 29, 2013
Prior to the break of dawn, there is the pure ‘silence of nature’ as a man begins his day. There are no beeping alarm clocks, no blare of traffic and it is the noticeable absence of the incessant sounds of technology ~ a staple of our every day existence ~ that creates greater peace to this calm.
The silence of nature, with only faint sounds of the water lapping along the skiff and soft squawks of cormorants as the fisherman prepares himself for the day. Such scenes were common centuries ago, but today are just rare hints of a glorious past.
Nothing captures my interest more than mystical stories of the past. Stories of folklore that can provide an adventurous path to archaic ideas and faraway cultures: sanctuaries to contemplate what was, what is and what could be.
Tales from the past, part myth and part tradition, containing so much excitement that we are never sure “what to and not to believe.” So we take it all in and churn these ideas around in our heads. Folklore, a hint of our creative past pushing to remind us not to take our present so seriously.
When a piece of folklore shows itself in modern times, it draws out the calm and romantic emotions of days gone by.
Amid the talk of terabytes and the latest sound bites from twitter, a piece of folklore can instantly transport us back centuries and silence the screams of modernity.
Today, when met with such folkloric sights as Cormorant fishing, it is hard not to believe it is authentic…as it is all based on cultural traditions.
The fishermen on the picturesque Li River in Southern China still exist, but not as their forefathers would have envisioned. Like their kin, their livelihood and to some extent their culture dictates them to carry-on with their ancient traditions, but instead of fishing as a craft, they fish to exploit their craft for tourism, strongly supported by the local government .
Does this act take away from the magic of viewing these last practitioners of ancient cormorant fishing? At some level yes, as it is impossible to see it for anything but what it is today…however, inside it does strike a chord as it takes little imagination to see such a scene unfold as it took place centuries ago.
That is the beauty.
The magic of photography can pull these mystical, ancient stories out from the attic and bring them to life today. Is it necessary to describe the modern scene of today’s logic? Or just let the imagination flow and take us back…to feel the romance of history and culture, to dream of a time where mortals and gods mingled daily. Stories of folklore make this possible.
Ancient cultures are vanishing as societies modernize. While globalization brings people closer, there is no doubt that it also distills and homogenizes cultures.
The romantics of the world will always long for the ideals and spirit of the past, be it the Cowboys of the American West or Ancient Fishermen of Folklore in China.
Often, the enemy is the incessant din of technology, and the narcissistic pursuit to be heard (ahem, this blog for instance). The hum of computers and ring-tones of cell phones all which drive a wedge between ancient folklore and modern reality.
Yet, tech can be the savior as well. Our job, as either artists or as those who appreciate great art, is to educate and pass-on the folklore to the next generation. To ensure the spirit never dies. Whether in stories, poetry, paintings or photography to name a few mediums, it is the respect and preservation of the past that helps fulfill the dreams of tomorrow.
Posted on May 29, 2013
The sweat of migrant workers is essential to bring the famous West Lake Dragon-Well Tea (西湖龙井茶) to tea mugs around the world. It is in the village of Meijiawu, the heart of Longjing tea production, where the workers proudly offer us these roasted green tea leaves, and do so with smiles on their faces and laughter in their hearts.
Today, as I sit back and watch the dancing tea leaves swirl in rhythm with the spring water in my mug, my mind drifts back to the hills surrounding a village outside of Hangzhou city, the origin of the green tea I am enjoying. This tea is commonly known as Longjing tea, the most famous green tea in China and therefore, I believe, the most famous in the world: a true delicacy among tea connoisseurs.
The West Lake Longjing green tea I am now enjoying is special: one of the first lots of Longjing tea picked in the West Lake area this year, and with only 168 square kilometers making up the West Lake Longjing tea area there is a limited supply. Through a farmer (Mr. Yang) in the village of Meijiawu (梅家坞), I was able to explore and experience this region for a few days and accompany a group of migrant workers into the hills. Every morning, after a breakfast of steamed buns and pickled vegetables, we would make our way into the hills and pick the highest quality tea leaves available (or in my case, just photographing the picking…a much easier task!).
For me, this trip was completion of a decade long dream and one I almost failed to make as both exhaustion of travel and travel delays left me stranded elsewhere. The small harvest window for these special tea leaves (perhaps a week or so depending on the weather), made getting to Meijiawu a priority and I ended up putting together a 48-hour trek to arrive in time.
Arrival at my room at Mr. Yang’s guesthouse was pleasant enough, a place to lay down and hot water is all I need, but one surprise my first night was that Mrs. Yang was also hosting a small group of Shanghainese women for the night… and there was only a paper-thin wall separating me from a very energetic mahjong game that went strong until 3am. The ladies were very polite and hoped that I would play, but I have had many expensive mahjong lessons in China, so while it is a beautiful game, it is best to stay away from the pros!
The long night did make the 5 a.m. start a bit difficult, but the hilarious and upbeat group of peasant ladies that took me in during my time there made the mornings wonderful. One of the women, Ms. Li, provided many of the details: they were all from the same town in Anhui and have an annual contract with Mr. Yang. Every year they return to work his fields for they admire his tea (they describe it as more beautiful than the rest) and since his tea is known to be one of the best, it gives them face as well as better pay. Laughter did erupt after this explanation, as the other ladies joked “she put pay last, but actually it is our first reason!”
I have found that the migrant tea leaf pickers come to Meijiawu and the surrounding area for about one month for the tea harvest season, generally Mid-March thru Mid-April. And as in the States, when harvest season arrives all available sunlight means time in the fields. The premium tea is picked the first week, followed by later picks (and lesser quality tea leaves).
The first evening I arrived, I took a long walk up through the hills to check out the area so I could have an idea of what to shoot, with some apprehension on how open the workers would be with me photographing them. As some of the workers were preparing to return home I politely asked them if I could take a few photos of them, expecting a shake of the head or wave of the hand…but was met with laughter and teasing among the women about their future stardom. Every group I talked with enjoyed discussing their work, explaining their ideas about tea and their history in harvesting the famous Longjing. Seamlessly, photography would work into our discussions and, without a pause, the words would continue to flow as the shutter started clicking. Extreme pride in their work and their role in the industry.
The group of ladies from Anhui on my first morning were no different. After our morning introduction at breakfast there was endless joking and laughter with not too many hints of shyness or discomfort that many migrant workers have. It surprised me. Perhaps this is linked to the knowledge that:
1. They are here for only a month, and while the work is hard, they are all here with a family member or friend from their home town.
2. They know their contribution to this fascinating niche of the 龙井茶 tea industry is invaluable… A billion RMB industry annually, and without experienced migrant workers – the local plantation owners could not efficiently harvest more than a fraction of what they do now.
The spirit of these women is absolutely inspiring. The commitment to their work and the harvest reminds me of the farmers in Eastern Oregon, breaking their backs to make a living and provide for the rest of the country (and world). Being reflective and considering my work and salary (quite a bit higher than these great ladies), and I am not just humbled, but a little embarrassed… especially when after a couple hours of shooting the first small plot of land, I excused myself to go back to the guesthouse to get a few more zzzzzz’s.
Above photo: preparing the leaves prior to roasting (Longjing tea does not “ferment” as other types of teas such as Oolong, Black Tea and Pu’er).
Above photo: roasting of the tea leaves is done after picking, and while there are electronic roasters most of the high quality tea leaves are done by hand.
Above photo: sorting after roasting is an important step, making sure that only the top quality leaves are kept especially since the tea culture in China is so advanced that buyers (large tea companies or individuals) will look at the leaves presented in front of them and immediately be able to tell the quality. This makes presentation of the tea outside individual stores important as well (below photo).
There is always something special about drinking or eating a product fresh from the source, at the source. A Guinness at St. James Gate outside of Dublin, fresh oysters or salmon while sitting along side the shore on Hood Canal in the Puget Sound, or sitting in the fresh air with a glass of fresh 龙井茶 (LongJing tea) brewed with local spring water…nothing, it seems, could ever taste better.
One of the first lessons anyone will ever learn about drinking tea: water quality can be just as important as the tea itself. This is why, as it was explained to me, that almost 400 years ago, Longjing tea was declared an Imperial Tea for its exquisite flavor and appearance, and because it was brewed with the sweet Meijiawu spring water, it became historic. It is great to see how much pride there is with the locals and their tea.
Over my first cup of this year’s harvest, Mr. Yang made clear that from the tea pickers to the roasting and sorting (which him and his wife control), there is a pride knowing they are contributing to a very ancient and important craft that remains vibrant both culturally and economically in China. Along with this cultural significance, he added, the long friendships and camaraderie that is created and shared every season makes this a wonderful life. Pretty cool.
The final day ended on a fun note. As we were returning to the house, we ran into a good friend of the ladies who for the past three days was too shy to have her photo taken…but finally through the determination of the team we got the shot. I told them I would e-mail them a copy of the photo, and Ms. Li said “no, we have decided that you must also come next year and you give us all a copy of your photos…and this time, you will actually pick your own tea leaves” which ended up in laughter as we learned earlier in the day that my tea leaf picking skills are atrocious.
The immediate impact this trip has had on me is pretty obvious, and that is I have a huge affair going on with my Longjing tea right now. Granted, nothing will replace that first cup of coffee in the morning (the influence of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest), but recently putting a couple healthy pinches of those roasted tea leaves into my mug after lunch has been invigorating. Endlessly refilling my tea mug throughout the afternoon, as Longjing tea holds its flavor for a very long time, I not only get to enjoy the dancing tea leaves but I also get to reminisce about the wonderful journey of my tea from the hills of Meijiawu to my glass.