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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Review

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Lisa See takes us on a journey to the remote heart of Asia to Spring Well Village, home of the minority hill people of the Akha tribe. They subsist on the meager income from tea leaves grown in their ancient groves. The story begins in the late 1980s at the end of the Mao regime during which the tiny minority tribe has been largely overlooked by the outside world. 

Li-yan is the daughter of the most powerful woman tribal elder, the midwife, training to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but is saddened by ancient and cruel rituals for marriages and child bearing. A bright student in the local school, she speaks English and serves as translator for the first stranger to visit the village from the outside. In search of the rarest teas in the world, he seeks the health-giving Pu’erh tea leaves. Certain that he has found the source, he tries to coax her to disclose the location of what he believes is a prized tea grove, Li-yan’s legacy from her ancestors. Li-yan keeps her secret grove hidden, but follows her teacher’s advice and tests for admittance to the upper level school.

"We follow the parallel lives of Li-yan and Haley through See’s unparalleled storytelling gifts. At the same time, we learn a great deal about rare teas, how they are grown, harvested and aged for a growing world market of tea lovers."

“No coincidence, no story,” her wise mother’s favorite saying about predicting the future, guides the narrative as a tragic turn of events several years later finds Li-yan pregnant after her promised husband leaves the village to seek work in Thailand. When he doesn’t return, she is faced with the abhorrent tribal custom of taking the fatherless newborn girl’s life. At her mother’s urging, Li-yan flees the village on a treacherous and lonely journey through the jungle to a nearby city to find the orphanage that accepts abandoned baby girls. Subject to possible arrest, she places her daughter in a cardboard box near the orphanage door, tucking in a precious Pu’erh tea cake as her gift to the baby, and then hides to watch until someone retrieves the box.

There the story shifts as an American couple travels to China to adopt one of the thousands of abandoned babies. Li-yan’s daughter is adopted through a California agency specializing in Chinese adoptions. She becomes Haley Davis, the privileged daughter of a well-to-do American couple. Despite her loving parents, Haley grows up wondering why her birth mother didn’t want her and yearns to discover who and where she is. Li-yan seeks answers to the same questions, and although both have moved on to better lives than they could have hoped for, each never stops wondering about the other.

Li-yan, now a young woman, moves to the city to learn the tea trade and help make a better life for her family as China enters the international world of commerce. There she meets and falls in love with a wealthy Hong Kong tea connoisseur and eventually moves to California, never abandoning her family or her dream of finding her daughter.

We follow the parallel lives of Li-yan and Haley through See’s unparalleled storytelling gifts. At the same time, we learn a great deal about rare teas, how they are grown, harvested and aged for a growing world market of tea lovers.

This heartwarming and sometimes terrifying story paints a portrait of deep mother-daughter ties. Chinese-American organizations have made efforts to introduce these children to their roots by taking tours of China. A rare number were lucky enough to track down their birth mothers, and Haley hopes to be one of those lucky few. “No coincidence, no story” guides this nearly impossible dream to its conclusion.  

My husband and I spent three weeks in China in 2000 when news stories of abandoned Chinese girl infants were common. My practice when visiting foreign countries is to read everything I can get my hands on --- fiction, history, politics --- and I came across the tragic plight of tens of thousands of unwanted babies. Before we left, my eldest daughter, who was unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, asked, “Mom, can you bring me back a baby from China?” We both knew that was impossible, given the stringent regulations, so I thought nothing of it until my husband and I were boarding our bus to leave for the Shanghai airport. I noticed a young woman with a bundle in her arms trying to get our attention. As she caught my eye, she pulled back the blanket, pushing it toward me to expose a tiny baby’s face. In what had to be less than a minute, a moment really, mad thoughts raced through my mind: Could I find diapers at the airport, and formula, and smuggle a baby through customs for that 15-hour flight from Shanghai to LAX? My saner self said of course not, but that scene haunted me for years.

Lisa See’s heartrending story about Li-yan brought it all tumbling back, and for the umpteenth time I still wonder what became of that tragic girl and her baby.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on March 24, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
by Lisa See

  • Publication Date: March 21, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501154826
  • ISBN-13: 9781501154829