A tale of origins & renewal

We are “living off the fat of the land,” up here in the High Doganate. The phrase retrieves to mind the shade of a certain Jorges Orgibet, Californian, met in the Far East nearly forty years ago. He was, too, an Old Asia Hand, who seemed to have been everywhere the U.S. Army went, in India, Burma, China and so forth, towards the end of the last World War — slightly ahead of them, by his own accounts.

A dear, gruff and cranky old soul, with a joyfully boyish sense of prank humour, and one arm slightly longer than the other, he was pillar of the Press Club, in Bangkok if not other cities. There he had settled in 1945, and there he was still when I last had sight of him, in the early 1980s. (One might read something of the interval in his memoir, From Thailand to Siam: Backdrop to the Land of Smiles — a work now “uncommon” in book dealer’s parlance.)

Jorges and I were once both Editor, simultaneously, of the same magazine; Big Boss had hired the one, without mentioning it to the other. This led to an unfortunately vexed personal relation, as both Jorges and I had outsized egos. But we did gradually work it out. For it was impossible not to love the man, even if he did countermand one’s every order.

The mark of a great American, in Asia in those days, was refusal to learn a single word of any local language; not even taxi directions. Jorges was extraordinary in this respect: decades of residence without the slightest concession to servants or staff. Old British Imperialists would deny knowledge, not only of the language but of everything else. Yet sneak up, unexpected, and one would find them prattling to the natives — in Hindi, Malay, Cantonese, whatever — with a street fluency that was quite disturbing.

But Americans weren’t hypocrites like that, in the heyday of their own Imperialism. They never told lies.

And so it was that I believed every word of what Jorges ever told me, no matter how implausible on the face of things. His life was larger than life, and he had the anecdotes to prove it. And my favourite of these was how he lived, when still very young in some small town proximate, if I remember correctly, to the Mojave Desert in sunny California.

Newspaper ink was in his blood, from birth apparently, and his first act as a responsible adult (which one became about age fourteen in those days) was to start a local weekly. This involved not only writing the news, but selling the advertisements. For a few years he “lived off the fat of the land,” as retailers and farmers, generally short of cash, paid him handsomely in kind. He found that he didn’t need cash, either. Whatever he required, he would call the appropriate debtor, and soon be swimming in excess supply.

Dear, dear Jorges: dead now for twenty-nine years. And he wasn’t exactly young when he died. He had a faculty for love of his fellow man — for all men, all sorts and conditions — that he kept decently concealed, beneath his reflexively brazen exterior. But put into him some whisky and some soda, and the defences were carried away.

He would perform acts of kindness and reckless, foolhard generosity, with a perfectly saintly self-unawareness. These were acts for which the American Imperialists were generally renowned, among their passing subjects, and secretly — not so much admired, as held in cargo-cult awe.


I thought of him on receipt, yesterday, of a box from Portland, Oregon. It was from a lawyer who has sent me, in lieu of cash subscription, two remarkable Chinese teas. One is a large, pizza-shaped cake of the most sublime, Emperor-grade, Pu-erh tea leaves from Yunnan; the other a more modest sampling of a first-flush Tieguanyin wulong tea, from Anxi county in Fujian. These are the most spectacular Chinese teas to fall into my custody in thirty years.

The Chinese, for millennia the world’s most assiduous tea sippers, have also been among the most reticent exporters. The British had to trick it out of them in return for reliable shipments of opium; the French and others used more devious tactics. Even the Japanese were more obliging, in parting with their teas upon request; and under Dutch ministrations, the Formosans became downright open-handed.

But this changed when the Maoists came to power, and needed every penny of hard currency they could acquire. The export of rubbish tea from China was pioneered by them. Later, under the diminutive commissar Teng Hsiao Ping, it was greatly expanded on quasi-capitalist principles. The Communists had also assured that, except choice specimens for the Party nomenklatura, the great masses of Chinese would also drink rubbish. But with prosperity, some of the old ways return, and the revival of China’s specialist tea trade is a thrilling phenomenon. With this the instinct has returned, as with wine in France, to keep the best production at home, where it will be properly appreciated.

Now, lawyers in Oregon can do anything, apparently, and how this one (a notorious reactionary) got his hands on these teas is a mystery into which I had better not inquire. The Pu-erh cake I have not yet touched, wishing to admire the calligraphy on the wrapper for another fortnight or so, before I break in; but the Tieguanyin I have attacked, already.

The leaves, in dark shades of asparagus green with faint silvery slivering in the folds, are hand-rolled into pellets which unravel and expand beautifully in a white porcelain tea bowl. The taste is a je ne sais quoi of floral and vegetal, of savoury and sweet somehow exhuding each other, while hinting at some deeply recessed memory of lily-of-the-valley. The “mouthfeel” is a most exquisite, knowing velvet, in contrast to the sometimes childish, silk-rope exuberance of other wulong teas.

Perhaps I have some readers who do not know the legend behind the discovery of this tea, by the devout Buddhist peasant, Wei. I shall tell it, the more enthusiastically because I think it provides a moral for contemporary Catholic edification.


Now, Wei was a poor farmer in the Anxi hills, struggling as his neighbours to extract a living from a small plot of uneven land. He was of a philosophical disposition; a walker and a muser. He contrived almost every day to take himself by a ruined Temple of Guanyin — which still contained an iron statue of this female Bodhisattva, who is a Mahayana “goddess of mercy.”

Wei, as already hinted, was devout, and it pained him that the temple was abandoned, and dilapidated. Yet he was poor and could do little about that. He could, however, afford incense and a broom, and often he would go to sweep the temple, and light joss-sticks before the figure of its patroness. He addressed his prayers to her, on his own behalf, and that of his poor family and village. He did this at such length that, very tired on one occasion, he fell asleep at the iron statue’s feet.

In his dream, the Boddhisattva came to him, saying, “There is a treasure in the cave, behind this temple. If you share it with your friends and neighbours, it will bring you prosperity through many generations. Never forget to be generous with it.”

Night had come when Wei awoke, and he stumbled home in the darkness. Early the next morning, however, with the sun now slanting into the mouth of this cave, and the mists now rising with the heat of day, he searched inside. What he found was only a small tea shoot — but that, conspicuous upon bare ground. Cautiously he uprooted this delicate plant, taking it home in an iron pot he had found amid the rubble of the temple, to plant it within his own garden. He cared for it as if for a child, and after a couple of years it had grown into a fine bush — budding before his delighted eyes, and bearing the loveliest tea leaves he had ever seen.

Three of these he plucked, and steeped them in his earthenware zhong. The aroma and the flavour were extraordinary. They filled him with a sense of purity, and calling; and when he boiled his water freshly again, he found that the qualities of the leaves stood through several infusions.

Soon, from the original tree, he had grown hundreds of new bushes. In little time, the reputation of this tea spread, among the connoisseurs and gourmands in ever more distant cities. Wei, as a consequence, grew rich. But he did not forget his spiritual obligations; he gave seeds to all the other planters in the district, so all might share in his prosperity.

And so, with all this money at his command, he returned to the temple. He hired the finest craftsmen, and had both the temple and its statue restored to the highest possible standards, all set within a beautiful garden with walking stones, ponds and fish. And prayed to his patron till his old age; till finally he was buried, in that cave by the temple, where he has lain while the centuries have passed; and is remembered to this day, even up here in the High Doganate, as a gentle beneficiary of mankind.