I met Wang Huimin fortuitously back in 2007, and reconnected just as fortuitously in 2012. Wandering into a labyrinthine tea market in the heart of Qingdao and almost turing around to abandon the exploration, it was a welcoming gesture and a sincere invitation to tea from Wang Huimin that brought me in to the market, and as a result, brought me into tea.
I visited Wang Huimin many times more, eventually moving to China and training my palate under her guidance while teaching at Qingdao University and doing grant research on Tea folklore. When my wife Lily and I left China in March of 2010, we weren’t sure when we would be back. Saying goodbye to Wang Huimin was the hardest part.
We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, hoping to all stay in touch, but we also knew that Wang Huimin was moving back to Taiwan to be closer to her family and sell tea that her relatives and friends grew closer to home. For two years we tried calling Wang Huimin, sending messages, and even asking all of our friends to try to track down her new contact info, all to no avail. Not until a month before our November 2012 trip back to Qingdao we we lucky enough to re-establish contact. We found a new phone number through a blog post that mentioned Wang Huimin in a poem about Tieguanyin and sharing tea with friends. With Weiwei’s help we were able to connect the pieces, and luckily the week we called, Wang Huimin just happened to be back in mainland China with access to the phone we were calling.
We were all overjoyed. Wang Huimin is a devout Buddhist and calls it predestined fate that we were able to reconnect. She had been trying to contact us as well to no avail. She never memorized our English names, so she had a real hard time trying to find us. Plans were immediately set to meet up. She was so excited that she offered to drive al the way from Xiamen to Qingdao just to see us for three days while we were there.
Reconnecting With a Tea Master
When the day finally came, it was hard to believe that we were really seeing Wang Huimin walk in to meet us at our favorite seafood restaurant in Qingdao. She had bags full of gifts for us that she carried by hand throughout a 25 hour bus ride, including precious Tieguanyin from her family friends in Anxi. We brought her a monotype print from my mother Lisa Nankivil, an abstract piece whose colors seemed to represent Wang Huimin perfectly.
Wang Huimin is unabashedly proud of southern Chinese culture- born in Taiwan, and living in both Anxi and Nantou. She loves her dim sum, and her Tieguanyin. Originally coming to Qingdao at the urging of a trusted friend to open a tea shop and teach Fujianese tea brewing, what Wang Huimin had missed most about Qingdao was the Laoshan Green, and the wheat-based foods. (The south is all rice). Of course we got a pot of Laoshan Green and ordered up every steamed bun, scallion pancake, and noodle dish on the menu, lingering until the waiters informed us that the restaurant was closing.
In the morning, we met in Qingdao’s old town, walking to the beach where Wang Huimin wanted to take in the ocean air and look for shells in the sand. “Do you have beaches in your home town?”
“Well, we live in Minnesota, so our beaches are a little colder than this. On Lake Superior instead of sand we have beautiful polished pebbles, and if you look closely you can find agates.”
“It sounds beautiful. When are you going to open a tea house so that I can come visit?”
“You don’t have to wait for us to open a teahouse to visit Wang Huimin. Why don’t you come see us in the spring?”
“Maybe I will. I just have to get my two daughters through college. Just another year left for each of them. If you open a teahouse, I want to pour tea and tell stories to your guests.”
“We would love that. You know though, they don’t speak Chinese.”
(Slowly and in English:) “I..speak..English.”
“So good! Your English would improve so quickly if you spent part of the year in America at the teahouse. You know, most of our business is online. I have always wanted a teahouse, not to make money, but just as a physical space to share tea, tell stories. I think in a year or two if business grows, I will use my salary to start a teahouse. I will work twice as hard to open one if I know that I can get you to visit us that way.”
“Then I will work to help you. You know that my friends and family can help to send you Taiwanese teas and Fujianese teas. If you need anything, I am here to help. Don’t be polite.”
“Thank you Wang Huimin.”
Lily, Weiwei, Wang Huimin and I continued to walk the beach finding some beautiful shells along the way. Weiwei even met a snail and gave it a name, building it a little house in the tidepool while we talked. As if no time had passed at all, it was suddenly noon and we were ready for lunch. I had already planned a lunch surprise for Wang Huimin.
When Wang first arrived in Qingdao, she stayed with a kind woman famous throughout the neighborhood for making the best potstickers in the world. Her restaurant had only five tables with stools, and potstickers were ordered by the pound, but there were always lines out the door. Wang Huimin introduced me to her “auntie,” the potsticker (guotie) master back in 2008, and missed her more than almost anyone else she had come to know in Qingdao.
We just “happened” to end our walk a block away from the potsticker restaurant. Wang Huimin was delighted. When she walked through the door, her “auntie” dropped her order notebook and pencil and ran over to give Wang Huimin a hug. She cleared out a table for us and sat down, bringing plate after plate of potstickers. She even remembered Wang and my favorite flavors from so long ago. We ate until we could eat no more, and all had a chance to exchange contact information before taking off.
A Trip to the Teahouse
In the afternoon, we couldn’t think of anything to do except drink tea together. What else does a person do on a day off but drink tea? Wang Huimin had a purse full of Tieguanyin, and couldn’t wait to brew it. Like myself, Wang Huimin feels off, foggy, without doing Chinese tea ceremony every day. We call it an aesthetic addiction. Our friends call it caffeine addiction.
Hailing a cab to the Laozhuancun Arts and Culture Center, we got into a discussion about Wang Huimin’s tea bar concept. “I just want a place for people to get together and chat over tea. These formal teahouses are so stuffy. I would sit everyone at the same table and pour them cup after cup of whatever I feel like brewing. I would tell stories about tea, and share tea that my old friends from Anxi still grow on their family farms.”
“Would you charge them to drink tea with you?”
“Charge them? Of course not. This isn’t about making money. I want to create a community space. Remember my old tea shop? It was always full. People would sit all afternoon and talk about literature and philosophy. I love being a host like that.”
“Do you miss owning your space? Do you miss selling tea?”
“Ah… It has been a hard year. I had to sell the tea business to pay for my family’s medical expenses. Seeing you and Lily and Weiwei is the most joy I have had for a long time…Yes, I miss it.”
“Then let’s help you get started again. You know Lily and I will support your tea bar.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m old. You’re young. I will help you first. I have already shared tea with so many people. You still have so many people you need to share tea with.”
“Don’t say that. We’ll find a way to make this all happen. You’ll see. By the time we visit you in Xiamen next spring, we will be talking about your tea business, not mine.”
We arrived at the teahouse reflecting on the months ahead, on my goals of helping farmers in Laoshan, Xishuangbanna, and Anxi find an audience and be respected, on Wang Huimin’s goal to again be the gracious host that she has always been.
Wang Huimin called the woman welcoming us at the teahouse “sister,”to create a familiarity. She wanted to do the brewing and use her own tea. Wang Huimin simply doesn’t know how to be the guest and have tea brewed for her. The attendant looked worried. “You have to pick a tea from the menu.” I explained that we would of course still pay full price to drink tea. We just wanted a space to do it. “But which tea should I write down for your order?” We ended up buying a tin of their Tieguanyin just so that the paperwork would be easier for our attendant, who looked supremely relieved and told us we could sit anywhere we wanted. She brought out water, cups and a gaiwan for Wang Huimin and left us alone.
When Wang Huimin picked up the gaiwan her eyes lit up and she moved with sudden grace. If she told us that she was born with a gaiwan in her hand, I would believe her. She tore open a seven gram sealed packet of an incredibly fragrant Benshan Tieguanyin just picked about a week earlier. The smell and taste was so nostalgic- instantly like being back in 2008, doing taste training in tea and learning the nuances of Fujianese tea culture. Every tea expert I know brings a clear aesthetic to the table, so much so that when I taste a tea with Lily, we will both say on the first sip “This is a Wang Huimin tea,” or “This is a Master Bi tea.”
The Story of Oolong Tea
We sipped tea after tea until the sun had set. Wang Huimin couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell us a few stories. We were talking about the word “oolong,” pronounced wu-long in Chinese, and literally translated to dark dragon. “So, there are lot’s of stories to explain the dragon of oolong tea. The one most people agree on involves a farmer from Fujian who would pick his tea every day in the mountains and let it wilt for an hour in the sun before returning to collect it and dry it. One day, on his way to collect the wilted tea leaves he came upon a particularly vicious looking poisonous snake on the road. He didn’t dare disturb the snake by picking up the leaves along the path so he went home and waited all day for the snake to leave. By the time he could collect the leaves, they had already turned dark in color.”
Since a snake is just a little Dragon, and the leaves had turned dark, the name wulong describes tea “made dark by a dragon.”
“That’s just one story. My friends in Taiwan say that because the mountains where tea grows are so steep, you have to climb barefoot. Tea farmers would have to grasp the rocks with their feet and hands, bending their fingers and toes to look like dragon claws. The mountain rocks are called ‘wu,’ and you grasp them like a dragon or ‘long’ so the name for the tea became wulong to emphasize how difficult it is to pick tea.”
Wang Huimin loves telling three or four stories to explain the same thing. Like me, she revels in the diversity of folklore and takes it upon herself to learn as many stories as possible. We talked late into the night about Wu Long, Da Hong Pao, and more.
Since this short visit with Wang Huimin, we have been able to raise enough money to help her realize her dream of opening a tea bar. Lily and I go back to China in April to spend two weeks with Wang Huimin sorting out all the details, and getting her help in working with more farmers in Anxi and Taiwan. It is exciting beyond belief to have the privilege to work with people as honest, and genuinely devoted to tea culture as Wang Huimin.