During my time in Thailand, I met many Chinese-Thai people: Descendants of various migrations from China to Thailand generations ago. Similar to my grandfather's move to Hong Kong from India, they moved in search of better opportunity.
There is one particular Chinese-Thai group, however, with a much different migration history that is crucial to the story of tea in Thailand, and left an especially deep impression on me: The Yunnan-Thai people.
To understand and appreciate tea from Thailand, we must first understand their story.
Wall mural of Yunnan KMT soldier in Mae Salong village.
Soldiers Turned Tea Makers
I think back to one memorable evening in Bangkok. One of the tea makers I had met, P’ Yee, invited me back to her hotel room for tea. She brewed her brother’s award winning black tea and recounted the history of their people.
P' Yee brewing her family's Khiri Gold tea.
She asked me if I had heard about the Kuo Min Tang (KMT) party in China, to which I nodded yes. They withdrew from China during the Cultural Revolution in 1949 and now form the majority of Taiwan. What I didn’t know was that a handful of their divisions based in Yunnan were instructed to travel south to Myanmar (then known as Burma). These soldiers uprooted their lives, and began the long and difficult journey south, whilst the rest of their group withdrew to Taiwan.
The journey from Yunnan to northern Thailand via Burma, Martyr's Memorial Museum.
Many lost their lives to illnesses, difficult terrain and weather, and bloody battles. Once they arrived in Myanmar, they weren’t welcome. They continued further south hoping to find a place to settle. In the decade-long journey on foot, filled with physical challenges as well as uncertainty and the longing for a home, they finally reached the northern hills of Thailand in 1961.
Wall mural at the Martyr's Memorial Museum.
P’ Yee and I were sharing green mango dipped in chilli shrimp paste (a typical Thai snack) at the time, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the struggles and sacrifices her grandfather went through. She explained that, after settling in what is known today as Mae Salong village and fighting many battles to protect the northern Thai border, the Thai King granted the Yunnan KMT soldiers Thai citizenship in reward for their loyalty and efforts. A breakthrough in their journey: They now had a place to call home. There is a beautiful photograph of this exchange, where a Yunnan soldier presents the Thai King with earth from the battlegrounds, and in return he announced that they were now Thai people.
Photo of former Thai King (King Rama 9) and Yunnan KMT soldier displayed at the Martyr's Memorial Museum.
The soldiers who survived this journey settled down in what is now known as Mae Salong and turned to tea as their way of life. Originally the village was known as Santikhiri, meaning mountain of peace in Thai. The soldiers worked together with the Thai government, Taiwanese government, Taiwanese tea makers, and hilltribe populations to bring Taiwanese oolong tea cultivars to the lush hills of Mae Salong, cultivate, harvest and craft it into fine tea. Prior to this, the region had been part of the Golden Triangle, notorious for producing opium and drug trafficking, and the Thai King wanted to eradicate this and bring agricultural and economic development through the Royal Thailand Project. And that is the birth of Thailand’s tea industry as we know it.
My sketch of Santikhiri temple at the top of Mae Salong.
The soldier-turned tea makers married and had children, who then eventually had children too, with each generation feeling more and more Thai, yet still remembering their Yunnan heritage.
I asked P’ Yee if she felt more Thai or Yunnan-ese, and she said both. She grew up speaking Yunnan dialect at home, Thai in school, as well as learning Mandarin Chinese and English. She explained that her appreciation for her Yunnan heritage and history deepened when her family went to Yunnan to visit their ancestors’ graves. When I eventually went to Mae Salong to stay with her family on the tea farm, I immediately felt the blend of the two cultures, and it was wonderful.
Yunnan pork leg and baozi meal in Wang Put Tan, Mae Salong.
Handmade noodle shop in Mae Salong village.
The entrance of Wang Put Tan in Mae Salong.
Many of the tea friends I made on this trip are the grandchildren of the Yunnan KMT soldiers. I was so moved by their kindness and tenacity. The Buddhist symbol of the lotus flower comes to mind. As is said, the lotus grows in incredibly rough conditions of murky water, and yet is still able to emerge and blossom the most beautifully.
When I brew their tea, I think back to this heritage story and my appreciation for the people behind the tea is greatly deepened.
While our ancestries are unique, I bonded with P’ Yee over being 3rd generation immigrants with multicultural influences, and what it means to grow up with a mixed background.
Me and P' Yee above her family's tea gardens in Wang Put Tan, Mae Salong.
My visit to the Martyr's Memorial Hall to learn about the Yunnan KMT history.
*Note: All photos in this article were taken by me, Mona Jhunjhnuwala, during my trip to Thailand in April & May 2022.
For further understanding of the Yunnan-Thai lineage, I recommend watching this seven minute documentary, A Soldier Remembers Doi Maesalong, which P’ Yee helped organize and translate. There is also a museum in Mae Salong, The Martyr’s Memorial Hall, which was helpful in my understanding of their journey, as well as this article.
To taste our favorite teas from Thailand, see our new collection here.
How does understanding the heritage behind your tea change or shape the connection you form with it?
Feel free to comment and ask questions below. ♥