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The Tea Man made whole

By 19 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Kelly West

From Fujian with love: Ye Huabin reunites with his son in Beijing | Photo by Kelly West

“My family arrives today!” said a beaming Ye Huabin, as he excitedly served customers at his gourmet tea shop tucked behind Beijing’s Forbidden City.

As Ye talked about his wife and two children who were traveling by train from Fujian Province southeastern China, he gently poured steaming thimble-sized cups of fragrant tea with the dexterity of a shell-game artist.

It’s been a year since a UT student introduced Ye’s story to our Reporting China audience – his entrepreneur’s zeal for selling upscale teas to the city’s nouveau riche as well as his painful decision to trek from Fujian Province two long years ago to open his tiny shop on one of Beijing’s labyrinthine back alleys. Up to now, the missing piece in Ye’s odyssey has been his family, who he had to leave behind to chase his dream to China’s capital.

Finally the moment arrived when Ye’s wife, Chen Fuxiu, 37, son Ye Fenglong, 6, and daughter Ye Fengyuan, 9, tramped down the dusty alleyway on this day of blue skies and climbing temperatures, dragging a single suitcase toward the Tea Man’s shop/home after the 20-hour train trip. Fenglong brought just one toy along for the journey – an action figure that his father had bought him before he left home two years ago. The toy has been his favorite ever since.

“I’m not sure how the children will adapt” to their new living quarters, Chen said, adding, with some resignation in her voice,”We will see.” The family has downsized from a modest two-bedroom home in Fujian to a kitchenless 20-square-meter room behind Ye’s shop.

According to 2004 data from China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, roughly 140 million migrating rural workers moved from poor central and western provinces to look for opportunities in China’s larger urban areas like Beijing. The typical image is of a poor rural worker toiling on an assembly line, churning out trinkets that ship overseas and keep China’s economy steadily climbing. It’s difficult enough for migrants, often undereducated and poor, to make enough money to sustain themselves and their families, let alone to rise through the socioeconomic ranks. Although Ye shyly rejects the notion that his story is one of great success, it’s a significant achievement to travel to a new city and start a successful business in a high-end market like gourmet tea.

During Ye’s long separation from his family, he spoke to them over the phone, sent them money every month and saved up so they could join him in Beijing. For financial reasons and because he needed to stay at his shop and run his business, Ye was never able to travel back home to visit them.

It’s the first time Ye’s family has ever been to Beijing, so he plans to take them to see some of the city’s famous sights. His children have already asked to go to Tiananmen Square, but it won’t happen right away. Ye is going to have to figure out how to make time for his family while continuing to grow his business.

Ye is pleased that both his children will be able to attend public school in Beijing, the large capitol city offering better educational options than Fujian. He also thinks the city is safer and friendlier than his hometown, and rich with culture. “Beijing is the center of political and economic China,” he said.

Like his father and grandfather, Ye has worked in the tea industry all his life. It’s a business that he loves, but would he want his son to follow in his footsteps?

“I want my son to choose what he wants,” Ye said. “I only want my family’s life to get better and better.”

Photo by Kelly West

Hutong ledgerdemain: The Teaman shows off his technique | Photo by Kelly West

Photo by Kelly West

Teaman and wife: Ye and Chen Fuxiu refresh communications | Photo by Kelly West

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