Published by Scribner
Publication date: March 21st 2017
I have always enjoyed Lisa See’s novels for their intimate portrayals of women in China at various points in its history. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is her latest and, once again, See brings to life the stories about people and places about which I knew nothing. The novel is set in the 1980s in the Yunnan province, an area known for its tea. Li-Yan’s family, like every other family in their small village grows and sells tea leaves and has done so for generations. Li-Yan’s path is to become a midwife and healer like her mother, get married and have children of her own. By age twelve, although she is well on her way to these goals, she dreams of leaving their village, going to college and living in the city. She also believes she can do all this with San-pa, the boy she loves.
Of course, neither life or fiction is that straightforward. Li-Yan and her family are Akha, one of many ethnic minorities in China. Chinese, but always viewed as culturally inferior because they have their own language, dress and customs. Li-Yan’s family lives as subsistence farmers without electricity or indoor plumbing and their lives are largely untouched by the Communist regime. They hold many beliefs that are little more than age-old superstitions. San-pa is not deemed suitable so he decides to go to Thailand and earn enough money to convince her parents that they can marry. He leaves, not knowing Li-Yan is pregnant, but when he returns she has already had a child without her family’s knowledge and secretly left the infant at a state-run orphanage. From there the novel moves between the United States where their daughter has been adopted by a couple in San Francisco and China where Li-Yan continues to live.
The Tea Girl is steeped in traditional romance storytelling despite its exotic setting. There is young, forbidden love, unexpected pregnancy, a child lost, and a husband with secrets who is not what he appears to be. All of this before Li-Yan turns eighteen. The drama continues to mount. Li-Yan perseveres, gets an education, starts her own business and never stops looking for her daughter. If this sounds like a lot, it is. See is marvelous with details, but in The Tea Girl the embellishments overshadow the key elements of the story, especially those about the world of tea. The Yunnan province is known for a variety of tea called Pu’er which is fermented, aged, pressed and sold in round discs. This becomes Li-Yan’s passion and its realities are more than enough to sustain the novel’s tension without additional, unnecessary dramatics.
See’s ability to write of the hardships unique to the women of China and their individual journeys makes her the kind of author I rely on. She takes times and experiences that are utterly foreign to most of us and makes them feel universal. Her characters struggle, but come out stronger in the end. Unfortunately, Li-Yan’s trials often feel implausible, with man-eating tigers and near death escapes. The life of the Akhas and their tea is fascinating enough. And while an uplifting ending is often welcome, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane will only be a perfect cup if you like your tea more sweet than strong.