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The Sound of Fuzhou

By Keelan Bowker O'Brien ( chinadaily.com.cn )

Updated: 2015-07-23

The Fuzhou summers are too stuffy and unforgiving for the likes of man (and woman, for that matter). Sometime in the waning days of May and the early ones of June, the Fujian sky cracks open and a torrent of water cascades down from the heavens, soaking the world beneath. After these early storms subside, a thick humid heat lays itself everywhere the sun touches. People retire from the outdoors in the afternoon as it's impossible to even cross the street without breaking into a sweat.

It was on the tail-end of one of these days that I joined with roughly 20 other travelers for a tour organized by Amazing China Travel to an island off the coast of Minhou, just a short ride from the hustle-and-bustle of Fuzhou's city streets, to experience a tour centered on jasmine tea harvesting and processing. Before departing by bus, our group gathered in front of Fuzhou's international hotel where we met our tour guide, Raph Henkes, a tall Belgian with a mild accent and a strong taste for tea. As we waited for our bus to arrive, Raph explained the complicated process of jasmine tea production to the crowd. As it seems, jasmine tea is bit of a misnomer. "Jasmine tea" is actually green tea which has been repeatedly infused with blossoming jasmine flowers in order to impress the floral fragrance and taste into the tea itself, a process which can take as long as half a year.

The Sound of Fuzhou
Grace Ke, founder of Amazing China Travel, picks jasmine flowers during the tour. Her passion for the preservation of local culture drove her to organize this activity.

According to Raph, while the oven-like conditions of midsummer Fuzhou are the bane of mankind, they’re a paradise for jasmine flowers. Fuzhou, it seems, is the ideal place for growing jasmine flowers.

On the bus ride towards the ferry that would transport us to the island, Raph told me a bit about himself. He had previously worked in a company in Fuzhou designing "edutainment” learning software for toddlers but after a while became burned out by the mundane lifestyle that comes with a desk job. "Before, I was working in this really stable job. Now I’m kind of a tea-hobo" He joked, "I hope that pretty soon I can become a middle man in the tea trade. I love tea, but at the moment I'm just picking up knowledge wherever I can." Raph is beginning an intensive 1-year tea curriculum at the Fuzhou University of Agriculture next semester.

When we arrived on the island we were greeted by Wen Feng, the owner of the tea plantation. Mr. Feng is a local person with deep roots in the community. For 7 generations, his family have been the curators of one of the rarest and most sought after strains of Jasmine tea in China. In fact, as Mr. Feng tells it, Jasmine tea as a category is dying out as the modernization in China has resulted in a push for high-end teas such as the Yunnan’s pu’er tea, which can be produced in greater quantity because its production cycle is far shorter than that of jasmine tea.

The Sound of Fuzhou
The tour group examines a plot of jasmine flowers as they begin to blossom.

I first met Mr. Feng several months ago. Over tea, he and I discussed the effects that China's recent whirlwind of development had had on Fuzhou. You see, these days the jasmine flower isn't the only thing being squeezed out by the rapid modernization of China. Fuzhou’s own local dialect, known as Fuzhou Hua, and all the customs and traditions associated with it, are quickly fading into obscurity. However, Wen Feng is doing his best to maintain the old ways. Every Wednesday afternoon, without fail, he hosts a gathering in his tea shop for Fuzhou residents young and old to learn the language and traditions of their ancestors. It’s at these get-togethers that children and grandparents, Fuzhou-glots and non-speakers can breathe onto the embers of the vanishing ethos.

This weekend's expedition carried with it a similar purpose. Mr. Feng invited our tour group of foreign and local tea enthusiasts to experience the routine of a tea harvester. We began our tour by picking bulbs of jasmine flowers and ended it in his factory, where we watched the entire process take place.

The Sound of Fuzhou
The tour concluded with Wen Feng (right) explaining the history of his family's tea production. His family's process has over 200 individual steps from harvesting to packaging.

On this particular summer evening, the sun set over the beautiful "Five Tigers" Mountain Range in the distance and a cold breeze rolled onto the island. The snow-white bulbs of the jasmine flowers began to blossom, and the process of infusion could begin again. As had happened several nights this summer, jasmine flowers and green tea leaves were layered one on top of the other in a wooden box which resembled a coffin that had been fitted for a giant. This time however, the regular workers enjoyed the company of some very willing volunteers. It was laborious work, but it was made slightly more pleasant by the aroma of jasmine flowers that filled the warehouse.

As the tour drew to a close, our group sat around a table outside of the warehouse and enjoyed an early batch of the jasmine tea. We reflected on our experiences, from the splendor of the island to joyous clamor of the work. From outside the factory, I could hear a distant buzz from the workers. It was a mix of laughter and unfamiliar sounds, of jokes and stories only understood by those whose hands smelled of jasmine.

It was the sound of family; it was the sound of Fuzhou.

The Sound of Fuzhou

The setting sun on the "Five Tigers" Mountain Range was gorgeous, and a perfect punctuation to an enchanting experience.

About the author

The Sound of Fuzhou

Keelan Bowker O'Brien is an American living in Fuzhou. In his free time he enjoys studying economics and learning Chinese. He graduated from University of Delaware's Lerner College of Business in 2007 with degrees in Operation Management and Marketing with a focus in Quantitative Economics.


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