Friday, September 28, 2007

The Story of Tea

I recently recieved an advance copy of the new book The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by my friends Mary Lou and Robert J Heiss. I have to say, I am quite impressed. The heavily illustrated book is organized rather like a textbook, and covers a wide swath of tea knowledge, from history to cultivation to production, culture and accessories. It even has a section with tea-based food recipes. The knowledge in there is spot on, as the Heisses have been travelling around the world and researching the background for a long time. But what makes this book really great, aside from being a solid reference tool, is the writing. The book, though organized like a textbook, reads like a piece of literature. One can see right away how the authors are totally captivated by this great beverage. I've read a lot of books about tea, and most of them tend to mystify the subject, as if the leaf is some holy, esoteric thing that should be romanticized but not approached scientifically. The authors manage to work in a lot of the romance and allure of this leaf without trivializing, mystifying or being condescending. Here's one of my favorite bits, from the opening of Chapter 7:
Imagine the following: a Japanese tea master wishing to teach his student the importance of perception dashes a cup of tea to the ground, breaking the cup and spilling the tea. The tea master wished to illustrate the point that the broken cup was no longer a cup but just a pile of shards, while the tea was still tea, immutable and unchanged. But as the tea could no longer be consumed without the cup to hold it, the true importance of the cup becomes clear. It is the empty space of a teacup that performs the most essential duty, one with greater importance than merely the fleeting beauty of a pleasing shape, fetching design or lustrous glaze.

I first met the Heisses while on the Yunnan Revealed tour in 2005 when we performed at Dartmouth College. They were fawning over our handcrafted Yunnanese instruments, and bought some of our best pieces with little hesitation. I was working the craft table that night, so I moseyed over and introduced myself. We quickly figured out that we were all tea nuts and entranced with Yunnanese culture. Since then we've kept in touch, trading shop talk and stories about China. The Heisses have a shop in Northampton Massachusetts called Cooks Shop Here, which provides high quality cooking products for good cooks. Somewhere along the line they turned their attention to tea, and have since crafted themselves into what NYTimes foodwriter Nina Simonds calls professors of tea. They have amassed over 100 varieties of the leaf for their dedicated customers, and in the process have travelled around the world to learn and source the good stuff, and have brought their culinary approach to ingredients on their investigations of what this stuff is and what you need to know.
This is a great book and a must-read for anyone who is interested in tea. People across the west are beginning to get the idea that there's a lot more to this beverage than bagged black tea and iced tea in the bottle, but taking a peek at this vast world with thousands of tea types and grades of quality from nearly fifty countries can be intimidating. Put a copy of this on your coffee table (sic) and you're set for your new adventure.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mike the Bike

On the afternoon of August 26th, Michael Sutherland – known as Bike Mike to his friends – died in a rafting accident in Mi’le County, south of Kunming. The rafting trip, consisting of six people on a raft and one on a kayak, ran into trouble shortly after embarking on the Nanpanjiang River, which had been swollen by summer rains. Mike’s girlfriend of many years, Li Limei, and a Sichuan man, Guo Zheng, also died in the accident. The other four members of the team survived.

The three bodies were found and identified by one of the survivors who stayed behind for five days to assist the massive search party and liaise with the US Consulate and Mike’s family.

Bike Mike was one of my closest and oldest friends in Yunnan. We met soon after I arrived here in 2000, and his passion for the area and its culture helped shape a lot of what I’ve gone on to do. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered forever. As he often did in life, he has once again brought our ragtag community together, as longtime friends and admirers creep out of the woodwork to offer assistance, pay tribute and share great stories from Mike’s many years in Asia.

Bike Mike arrived in Kunming fourteen years ago after riding his bike from Guangzhou. The adventure that followed became legendary among travelers and kindred spirits everywhere. He hung around Kunming for a while before setting off on an epic journey that covered most of Yunnan Province, continental Southeast Asia and South Asia, all on bicycle. Then he returned to Kunming, all the wiser from his journey, and settled into the community here.

It is hard to find someone in this town who hasn’t been affected by Mike’s life here. He spent many years traveling around the area, and built a business upon the longstanding hemp traditions of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities. His clothing company produced limited edition hemp clothing lines for the likes of Quiksilver and Rip-Curl, as well as his own brand, People’s Hemp. Mike has also assisted various government departments and companies in the promotion of hemp industries and research. Upon his death, he had recently been reelected to the board of directors of the Hemp Industry Association, of which he was a longstanding and highly respected member.

But it was the personal touch that we’ll remember the most. Mike was always eager to take in wayward travelers, offering a place to stay, the run of the town and his unique insights into the people and places of Yunnan. I’m one of the many people he helped into the world of traveling by bike, and one of the many people who crashed on his couch. He always had a passion for this place, and took great joy in bringing others into his world. This is the end of a great chapter in Kunming history, though our city will always bear the mark of his presence, through the scores of people whose lives he touched.

I miss you bro.


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