Eva Lee: Hawaii’s Leading Light

VOLCANO, Hawaii

When you meet Eva Lee for the first time, the qualities that are immediately evident are those that make her a great dancer and choreographer – creativity, focus, balance, determination, clarity of vision and an intuitive understanding of the world around her. She brings the same strength, energy and tenacity to her role as tea planter and tireless pioneer of Hawaii’s newest industry. She constantly pushes the boundaries, stretching out beyond the limits to find new ways of working, taking new steps to achieve higher standards and greater success.

Eva LeeLife’s haphazard forces seem to have choreographed Lee’s dance towards tea.

“When I was very young, my Chinese father told me stories of his early childhood in his native land. All his tales of ancestors, family history and the place where he grew up were connected to tea drinking. I felt a longing to be involved,” she says.

“I’ve always worked in the arts, in the community and I’ve always felt a deep interest in the natural world. With my husband, Chiu, who is also Chinese and a potter, we found that we were curious to work with plants, to grow something, but in a way that was more than simply as a commercial enterprise.”

Chiu, she says, has a deep interest in tea rituals and his first ceramic pieces were tea bowls and vases for exhibition and decorative use in tea houses.

So when they read the first reports in local newspapers about early research into tea cultivation on Hawaii Island, they were immediately fascinated. In 2001, they contacted Frances Zee, Research Leader at the USDA station near Hilo, and by the end of the year, they were growing their first plants. Excited by their progress, Lee took some of the first tea to show her father, who was then living in Connecticut, and so her connections to him and to his Chinese family from Yunnan province were enriched by the sharing of more stories, more cups of tea.

Eva LeeDuring those early days of planting the baby bushes along the contours of their forest garden in Volcano Village, new seedlings were scarce but Lee found she and Chiu had a talent for propagating new leaf cuttings. They have subsequently become known for their ready supply of cloned plants grown from cuttings of particular varietals. Today, Lee no longer propagates new plants purely as a speculative activity; she grows to order for customers who, like her, are committed to this nascent commercial enterprise. She recently sold several hundred seedlings to a new Danish resident who has just moved to the state and plans to become a tea farmer.  Like others, he is keen to see if the wave of interest in growing tea in Hawaii will become a wider movement that captures the attention of tea drinkers around the world.

If Lee has her way, it will!  But the road to success is by no means a straight and easy route.  She has led the marketing of the teas in Hawaii and on the mainland but has to battle for funding; she is currently seeking a way, against importation regulations and endless bureaucracy, to bring in harvesting machines to help growers keep on top of the plucking rounds; she has inspired and encouraged others to recognize the potential to build a sustainable industry that is so much more than just a business; she has introduced vermiculture to her own cultivation technique and now recycles household food waste to feed the tea plants; and she and Chiu are constantly trying new methods, new approaches in order to increase yields, make better teas, and help other new growers to succeed.

Lee is tireless in all that she is doing for tea in Hawaii.  She reads every research paper, writes the reports that are needed for funding applications, organizes events and training seminars, and attends all the relevant meetings.

Eva LeeShe liaises constantly with her American southern-born mother who, she says, “kept me anchored during the hard times and encouraged me to keep going. She gave me courage that can only be had by example – an example given me by my parents’ interracial marriage in the late 1940s, risky during those times yet in part instilling a confidence to embrace my passion in tea today.”

But what else keeps her focused on her tea mission? “My aim at the beginning was very personal. I saw the tea plant as a sort of ‘nectar of the gods’, something that connected me to my ancestors, to my parents, to nature, to my home on the slopes of Kilauea Volcano. It was a perfect fit for Chiu and me. Growing tea is an ancient art form that demands commitment and patience that keeps you focused.”

“Gradually, our own tea activities have connected us to the wider community, to a growing movement among our neighbors. Today more and more people are embracing the idea of tea not simply as commerce but as a craft, as an art form, and as something that enriches their lives. I know deep in my heart that my work in tea is the right thing for me to be doing! I love processing tea! It engages all the senses and while working with the plants, gathering the crop, rolling the fresh leaves, I feel I am involved in something that is going to last for ever! That’s such a powerful feeling. It inspires me to know that I am involved in something that will bring joy to many other people and I think it inspires them too.”

Lee explains that, as the tea industry in Hawaii grows, the University sees a greater need than simply research into cultivation techniques and processing. Related activities including sales and marketing, finance and business planning are critical.   Lee brought Hawaii Grown teas to World Tea Expo for the past three years and pushed local government for funding to showcase her own and other Hawaii growers’ teas. Lee has helped them to understand that Hawaiian tea has growing significance in the international arena and that is raising the profile of the island state.

Eva LeeThe volcano too plays a crucial role in Lee’s tea activities. “I can’t imagine growing tea anywhere else,” she says. “Both the volcano and the forest are hugely powerful and help to nurture the tea. And when Pele, goddess of fire, wind, lightning and volcanoes, is active, the tea absorbs her energy. The character of the tea can magically change when she gives the earth a little shake!”

If Pele is driving her energy into the roots of the forest trees and the tea plants that grow beneath their canopy, Lee is creating the vibrations that spread her influence further.