by Phil on June 27th, 2014
Canton Tea Club Week 91: Bai Yai Assamica Oolong
In the Tea Club this week we feature a third tea from Doi Mae Salong in North Thailand, but it is in a different category to the others. The previous examples – Dong Ding and Oriental Beauty – were produced from small leaf Taiwanese cultivars planted in the 1990s, but this week’s is made using large ‘Assamica’ variety leaves. The name ‘Bai Yai’ means large leaf in the local Thai language. These are indigenous to Northern Thailand, growing in the mountain forests bordering Burma, and just south of Yunnan. Farmers still collect some leaves from the wild growing trees, but also started cultivating the plant in tea gardens. It is common today to let the trees grow to a height of only 2m, cutting them back on an annual basis, in order make them easy to harvest.
Last week Thomas described the tea culture in Doi Mae Salong as very similar to Yunnan, very Chinese. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the hill tribes in this region, the forested mountains of Yunnan, Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Thailand are not defined or confined by national boundaries. The Dai culture seen in Yunnan is almost indistinguishable from northern Thailand, and in southern Yunnan around Xishuangbanna city it is normal to see street names and other signs in both Mandarin Chinese characters and Thai characters, which are very different. The Dai/Thai dress is very distinctive and colourful, and later in the blog I will describe a memorable personal experience of one of their traditional festivals.
The second reason is the movement into Burma and then Thailand of Kuomintang soldiers fleeing Mao Zedong. Mao’s Cultural Revolution had achieved victory and the counter-revolutionary troops local to Yunnan under General Chiang Kai Shek were forced back across the Chinese-Burma border, where they initially held out in order to resume their struggle. Mao and his Communist Party, however, very quickly managed to cement their power in all parts of China. Any military action against the revolutionary army was doomed to failure, and a return to China impossible. From Burma then, splinter groups of these Chinese Kuomintang soldiers soon migrated further to Thailand and Taiwan, where they formed typical Yunnanese communities. The most important of these communities in Thailand is Doi Mae Salong. (This historical information from Thomas Kasper’s Siam Tea website, with thanks).
The indigenous hill tribes had been using tea for centuries, in the same way as local tribes in Yunnan, and the arrival of Yunnanese soldiers will have added impetus to this. However, commercial cultivation is much more recent, with the planting of Taiwan cultivars and setting up of tea processing units to provide a source of income to replace that derived from opium. As Thomas describes, this initiative ‘fell on very fertile soil’ due to the already existing tea culture and traditions in Doi Mae Salong.
This week’s tea
Although it didn’t have the style and elegance of the previous DMS teas, I find this week’s tea very interesting, as it provides a window into traditional tea making rather than tea and skills transplanted from Taiwan. Local people have been collecting the leaves for centuries, and various different processing methods have grown up over that time. It is slightly coarse in appearance but the flavour is deep and satisfying. It is a highly-oxidised oolong and has some black tea notes alongside the expected floral aroma.
Teas from these leaves are considered inferior locally to the Taiwan varieties, and known as ‘everyday teas’. This does not really do the teas justice, and Thomas Kasper prefers to call them ‘good honest teas’. I would go along with that description.
The Dai Water Festival
I visited Yunnan with Jennifer and Ali from Canton last April. There were many highlights, and most were tea-related, but one that lives in the memory is our experience of the traditional Dai festival of Water Splashing.
The first inkling of a holiday mood was the first night in Menghai. We were staying in a small hotel overlooking the town square, on a hot humid evening with windows wide open to allow some air movement. I don’t think the sound of mopeds, of people gathering, laughing and shouting stopped all night, but it was probably too humid to get much sleep anyway.
The Dai are elegant people, and dress in bright and colourful clothes. The women dress particularly stylishly on festival days. The Water Splashing festival is a four day holiday for the Dai, celebrating their deliverance from the Demon King by twelve brave women. In gratitude the local people splashed water over them to wash the blood off their clothes.
Showdown in Old Jinggu Town
We were asked if we would like to experience the festival, and were keen to do so. I had memories of being greeted in Darjeeling by being presented with a garland round my neck and a bindi on my forehead by a graceful woman in traditional dress. My expectation in this case was something similar, maybe to have drops of water gently flicked over me by the graceful fingertips of women in local costume. Not exactly.
When walking round the markets I had been vaguely curious to see water pistols on sale amongst the fruits and spices, but didn’t think any more of it. We arrived in Jinggu town to find families in the streets tooled up with all manner of water fighting weaponry – buckets, water bombs, water pistols, turbo-charged back pack water guns. In the street, on balconies and on roofs. And of course when we arrived we immediately became VERY popular. Three of us ended up walking down the street like gunslingers, outnumbered several hundred to one. I felt that I attracted special attention due to my size – an easy target and a good scalp. Word soon got around, and attacks were often accompanied by cheerful shouts of “Pleased to meet you!!”. I don’t think I have ever been so wet.
In the end we needed to retreat and were offered sanctuary in the back yard of a restaurant, where we sat in the sun and gradually dried out. As per usual I attracted some attention, with one old gentleman fascinated by my general size and particularly my tummy, revealed in all its glory when I had to strip off my shirt. He demonstrated his general disapproval by flicking his hand at me with the index and little fingers pointing outwards, in a “down with the kids” kind of way. I’m sure it was a bit ruder than that. Despite this minor irritation, it was a happy time sitting with the family and sharing some food. And the gentleman and I shared some of his rice wine.
The weather has been so glorious and hot here for the last few weeks that I feel we should instigate some kind of Water Splashing Festival, finished off with food and rice wine or something similar.
Any excuse really.