Book Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

A thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.

From edelweiss in exchange for a review.

I’ve read several of See’s books before (namely Peony in Love and Shanghai Girls), and this story develops around a small ethnic Akha group in western China. Starting in the 1990s, this has a feel of a group of people very much secluded by their location, traditions etc. Very traditional, there is a lot of superstition, such as the killing of twins and the subsequent shunning of the parents; pre-martial sex is accepted, almost expected, so long as the girl didn’t get pregnant; not having to be under one child rule, due to their ethnicity etc.

Li-Yan (also known as Girl)  is moderately educated, but misses out on going to higher education when a stranger (Mr Huang) arrives in the village, looking for pu’er (a specific type of fermented tea) and she is used as a translator. She is also distracted by San-pa, with who she has regular sex. He’s gone off to Thailand to get a job when she finds out she’s pregnant, still unmarried. She gives birth away from the village, helped by her mother, the local midwife. However, instead of killing the child, as tradition dictates, she is sent to the nearest town in order to find someone to look after her baby. She travels alone, and leaves the baby near an orphanage to be picked up.

She returns home to pick up the pieces and San-pa returns a few years later in order to “claim” Li-Yan. The two get married, and return to Thailand, only for Li-Yan to become disillusioned with everything. She realises that they are in Thailand illegally, San-pa is involved in the drug trade and is addicted to opium. With no money and no friends and no protection, Li-Yan is planning her escape when San-pa is killed by a tiger.

Having made her way back to the village, finally Li-Yan is able to go to tea school with the help of Mr Huang, though she doesn’t know it at the time. She graduates, sets up shop in the city selling pu’er, makes friends, and finally gets married for a second time, this time to a rich Chinese man who splits his time between China and the US. She is thrust into a new world, where she is exposed to new things and realises just how backward her people are. She and her new husband keep looking for Hayley (though they dont know that’s her name), whilst knowing she’s somewhere in the US.

Meanwhile, she sees the effect of money is having on her village – whilst the houses are better, things are changing perhaps too much, and people seem to be ditching much of the traditions, for better or worse.

Interwoven to Li-Yan’s story are letters, adoption notes etc of Hayley being adopted and growing up in the US. It gives some insight into what’s it like to be a foreign adoptee with Western parents and the inherent need to find more whilst feeling a disconnect with your adoptive parents.  It’s only during a group chat later in the book that we actually “hear” Hayley’s voice, and then it’s in a mixed group of people. It’s an interesting way of presenting things, and helps break they story up, but could we have hear more from Hayley as Hayley?

I think See did well in challenging our perceptions with regards to other cultures, and how we shouldn’t judge another group of peoples to be all the same.  Whilst it is an interesting book, I can’t say that I was in love with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane but I’m glad I’ve read it.

Anyway, it was interesting that when I was reading this book I was watching a repeat of Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure (with Ken Hom going around China), that included a stop in this province, and cooking with pu’er. I think reading this book helped me put things in a little more context as it was suddenly a new word I was aware of.

About this Author

Lisa See is a Chinese-American author. Her books include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan(2005), Dragon Bones, and On Gold Mountain. She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles.



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