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Springtime Means Teatime

Spring is coming early this year as a result of the unusually warm winter. For the millions of Chinese tea drinkers, it's time to go for the freshest tea.

For the tea growers south of the Yangtze River from East China's Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces to Central China's Hubei Province, it is time to harvest the best tea leaves, bake them, package them as quickly as possible and send them to urban centres.

Quite a number of tea growers have ventured into the major urban centres of Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, to show off their baking skills.

This is because the freshest tea brings the highest prices there.

Unlike the farmers in East and Central China who grow mostly green tea, the local tea growers in Hainan Province produce black tea.

In the Wuzhishan Mountains, the Tongshi Tea Plantation is one of the most famous producers of black tea in the island province.

The farmers there don't go to the cities to show off their skills, because producing black tea involves complicated traditional processes that require that they stay at home.

Years of hard work have left wrinkles on the face of Wang Rencui, 46, who has worked on the plantation for over 20 years.

Like many of her contemporaries, Wang left her hometown in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and went to Hainan 26 years ago to receive "re-education in a rural area" during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Over 1,000 young people like Wang from all over the country devoted their youthful years to building the Tongshi Plantation in the 1960s.

"We've matured with the plantation," recalled Wang. "Now I regard this place as my hometown."

Ten years of hard work made the plantation the largest one in Hainan by the 1970s, and its brand name, Jinding Black Tea, became known throughout the country in the 1980s.

"Things seem to be just the same as decades ago," Wang said.

As the Qingming Festival on April 5 draws near, the workers of the plantation are busy preparing the best seasonal tea. To maintain the quality and natural taste of tea, the work is done partly by machine and partly by hand. Generally, it may take several hours for the fresh leaves to be processed and packaged ready for the market.

With an annual output of 350 tons, the plantation has become one of the world's major producers of black tea.

However, like many other tea planters in China, the people of Tongshi Tea Plantation are searching for ways to improve their efficiency and their product.

"The cost of production is too high nowadays," said Sun Zhongbang, one of the managers of the plantation.

The five ovens used to dry the tea were once fueled with wood. With the prohibition of logging, the plantation has to rely on coal, which is much more expensive.

The average annual salary of the workers is about 6,000 to 7,000 yuan (US$722-843). After working for a few years, many young people leave for better jobs. Yet, the plantation has always been an attraction for new-comers to the island province.

Workers on the plantation are now thinking more about the future of the plantation.

"We hope that China's entry into the WTO will bring us new opportunities," said Zheng Yaren, vice-director of the Plantation. "We're sure that the future will be bright. But it will be a long steep before we are ready for the final perfect pour."

(China Daily March 29, 2002)

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