Expanding ties between China and the United States form the backdrop of Lisa See’s latest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, a book about China’s growing prosperity, cross-cultural adoption and, the author says, the enduring bond between mothers and daughters.
See chronicled the Chinese experience in California in a 1995 book, On Gold Mountain, and she says the West Coast state remains a cultural crossroads. It is also the source of ideas for fictional stories like that in her new novel.
“My husband and I were walking to the movies,” See said, “and we saw ahead of us an older white couple with their teenaged Chinese adopted daughter walking between them.”
The image of a carefree family, with the daughter’s long pony tail swaying back and forth, would lead to a tale of inter-cultural adoption amid growing commercial ties between the United States and China.
See is the author of such best-selling novels as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.
Her books are all based on on-the-ground research. A tea-tasting demonstration in the United States would inspire her to visit Yunnan Province, China, a tea-growing region near the Burmese border, which also led to the writing of this novel.
“They have more varieties of plant life in that one province of China than all together in the rest of the northern hemisphere,” she said. “They have more species of animals in that one province of China, which is only 4 percent of China’s overall land mass.”
The biodiversity also applies to human beings: Yunnan is home of half of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, and includes a tea-growing hill tribe called the Akha. See met an Akha family whose daughter collected stories from village elders, and the writer was fascinated.
“She just told us these unbelievable stories about her family, about the neighbors, about her own experience,” See said. By the end of one day, she knew that she wanted to write about the Akha.
Not ‘precious enough’
See’s novel concerns an Akha woman named Li-yan who gives birth to a daughter out of wedlock. Defying a local custom that calls for the child’s death, she takes the infant to an orphanage, and the girl, renamed Haley, is adopted and raised by an American family. Over time, Haley questions her identity, as do the real-life adoptees that See met in her research.
“There was one girl who summed it up for me when she said, ‘I know I’m lucky and I know my parents love me and I know I’m the most precious person in our family, but I wasn’t precious enough for my birth parents to keep.’”
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores this tension as the story unfolds in both America and China, where Haley’s birth mother rides a wave of prosperity when Chinese products, including a rare local tea, find a worldwide market.
The separate paths of mother and daughter bring both to Los Angeles, where See says she is inspired in her writing by her own family connections and her partial Chinese background.
“I have red hair and freckles,” she said, “but I actually grew up in a very large Chinese American family here in Los Angeles. I have about 400 relatives here,” she said, “about a dozen that look like me. The majority are still full Chinese.”
See’s books tell the stories of Chinese and Chinese Americans, and her fiction focuses on women. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane follows these themes as it looks at changes that prosperity has brought to one ethnic community in China.