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How I discovered the TEA THIEF

One chilly night in Ireland 10 years ago, I happened to see a grainy documentary about a Scottish gardener who was sent to China with a secret mission by the Royal Horticultural Society after the Opium War in 1843. Rigid and taciturn, he despised the Chinese and couldn't wait to leave after he fulfilled his year there. But the flowers and mystery of China, called the Flowery Land by the British, seduced him. Although he was tall and blond, he disguised himself with a queue and Chinese robe and, as a 'Chinese from Beyond the Great Wall,' stole into the inland areas that were forbidden by Treaties signed by his government. He found China's tea plants and discovered their secrets of production.

This brazen act of industrial espionage led to the collapse of China's tea monopoly. This economic failure, fueled by civil unrest, brought about the downfall of the Chinese Emperor.

I was astonished by this discovery. How had I never known or read about it? When we went to London, I wandered the glass houses of Kew Gardens where exotics from China would have been kept. Despite the 2007 global economic collapse, we leapt at the opportunity to see the great gardens of Soochow and the tea farms of Hangzhou with expert guides and professors. I returned to Shanghai, that bustling cosmopolitan port, saddened by how much it had changed since I had first been there in 1981. My desk piled high with books about sailing ships, Chinese flowers, tea, Chinese art and architecture, and China's devastating history during the 1800s.

THE PERFECT TEA THIEF emerged 10 years later. Imperfect and flawed, his naive perseverance led him to success.