story by Willa Jane Tanabe
photos by Jack Wolford
In 2001, Big Island potter Chiu Leong was preparing to ship a few of his stunning ceramic creations. He pulled out a stack of old newspapers and began wrapping his pots when a headline caught his eye and, curious, he began to read. The article detailed a then-novel idea: that the tea plant could take root in Hawai‘i as one of the Islands’ most significant
Leong showed the article to his wife, performance artist Eva Lee. Lee, whose father was from the ancient birthplace of tea, Yunnan, China, was as intrigued as her husband. The couple decided to approach the article’s author, Dr. Francis Zee, a horticulturalist for the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (PBARC).
Leong and Lee were not the only ones whose imaginations were captured by Zee’s article. Volcano farmer Eliah Halpenny, who was looking for a sustainable crop to grow organically, also read it. As she recalls, “It was like someone had a great big bell over my head and was ringing it.”
The idea of tea continued to steep and to seep through the community. At about the same time that the article appeared, Volcano woodworker Mike Riley stopped by PBARC and ran into Zee. The horticulturalist, who was busily testing the viability of small-scale tea growing and processing in Hawai‘i, excitedly told Riley that he had just realized that the facility had an old tea hedge. In no time he’d brewed a pot of tea to share with Riley and given him some seeds to plant. Riley, hooked, became a part-time tea farmer even before he understood what was involved. “If I’d known in the beginning how difficult it was,” Riley says as he proudly brews a pot of his own tea, “I might not have started.”
But he did—and he is now at the forefront of a burgeoning agricultural movement. Joining him there is Halpenny, who today has more than 6,000 tea plants growing in her gently sloping field, and Leong and Lee, who now both grow tea and host tea ceremonies. As for Zee, seven years after his article appeared, he is known as the godfather of tea in Hawai‘i.