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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part Five

Expree Delivery Service

By Cynthia Muak

Wonders 5 - Express Delivery Service

The Summer of 1991:
It's almost June, and this year my friends and I decided we would do something different. Instead of our usual pursuits of food and sights, when spending a long weekend in southern Guangdong, we would make 'lychees' our top priority this trip. Timing was perfect - 20 of us had planned to take a 10-day summer break and spend the time together: lychees and mah-jong - awesome combination!

Our regular tour guide, Mr. Lee, from the Zhongshan Travel Service was tasked to plan for us a lychee trail, starting from Zhongshan for their Sanyuehong (March Red), then Nuomici (Glutinous Rice Ball) at Conghua. After which we should be in Zengcheng in time to enjoy their famous 'Qualu' (Hanging Green) lychees. The lychee quest would end at Dongguan Chashan to sample their Feizixiao (Imperial Concubine's Smile) lychees, after which, each of us would pack in our suitcases with a few kg of lychees to bring back to Hong Kong. AND to make sure to check us into hotels with large enough game rooms to hold five mah-jong tables!

The itinerary from our Zhongshan guide met with our approval. Food, lychees, mah-jong, and hot spring soaks. A week before our departure from HK, all 20 of us met up for dinner. I explained to the girls that when we stopped over at Guangzhou, I wanted to go see Uncle Chan at Yuexiu. All agreed it was good idea. For the trip, apart from our old summery clothes, which we would discard after each wear so on final day of our trip we would only have the clothes we were wearing. No other luggage except our vanity bag and lychees to bring back to HK. I told the girls to each bring along a large glass bottle for Uncle Chan.

The quest proceeded as planned until we reached Guangzhou where we were supposed to spend Day One at 3 Star Medical Centre for massage; Day Two at White Cloud Mountain, which we had never visited before, and Day Three after lunch to continue to Conghua.

Our massage sessions at 3 Star were divided into 2 groups; ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. We returned to Dong Fang Hotel to relax by the pool before dinner. A group of Chinese American tourists were by the poolside too. We began talking and soon they offered us some of their lychees. Meat was thick and juicy. In reply to our query, they told us they had just arrived from Gaozhou, the place famous for Yang Guifei"s lychees. They were there for two days and the lychees were from the day before, because they had left Gaozhou very early that morning. I was very surprised. I had never heard of Gaozhou lychees.

That evening when we met up with Guide Lee for dinner, I asked him why he had not included Gaozhou on our lychee itinerary. "All hotel rooms fully booked. Also the hotels had no game rooms."

"No hotel room so what's to stop us from going to Gaozhou for a day trip? I think Yang Guifei lychees more appealing than White Cloud Mountain."

"Don't say I didn't warn you. The drive is arduous and long. The roads are bumpy in some sections. The roadside toilets are smelly and deplorable."

No arguments. The next morning we left the hotel at 5.30 a.m. We did not eat anything. Each of us brought along a bottle of water and some plain breakfast rolls from the hotel bakery. Gaozhou is located towards the southwest end of Guangdong province. Guide Lee was not wrong. The 465 km drive was not smooth. But the surrounding scenery was interesting. We passed through some hilly limestone and wooded territory. By the time we arrived in Gaozhou at around 12.30 pm, our mouths were almost drooling, thinking of the Gaozhou lychees we had yesterday. Guide Lee directed our driver to a small lychee orchard. The owner, Mr. Ko, was there to meet us and very pleasantly told us we could pick lychees from any tree. Wow! we thought - we were luckier than Lady Yang.

"These lychees are the superior lychees, the Genzi Gui, not easily available to outsiders. Only to a selected few."

"Yang Guifei?"
Guide Lee replied, "No. Her tree is national treasure protected at Gong Yuen (Garden). When you finish here, you are each allowed to take 1 kg with you, no more. Please don't argue with the people. We had a hard time arranging for this visit with the owner in view of extremely short notice. After this, we will visit Gong Yuen. Mr. Ko will go with us. He is a clan member of the people who runs the garden."

Whoa, all 20 of us walked around this orchard ever so quietly and politely, afraid to step on even a twig. Whenever we wanted a bunch from a tree, we simply pointed it out to the two men following us around. We were there for about 45 minutes. When we left, we were each given a basket packed with lychees, plus five extra baskets; a precious commodity indeed.

Guide Lee explained, Mr. Ko told him for the price we were paying per head, we ate very little and behaved very well; not like some people he had seen visiting his orchard. Not satisfied with eating and getting a basket to go, they tried to hide extra fruits in their pockets, in their big tote bags, etc. As soon as we were back in our bus, we wrote our names on our baskets, including Guide Lee's and the driver's. The extras we labelled 'FREE'; one basket to be shared between Lee and driver, the remaining four to be shared among us. Up to that point, we did not know what we were paying for the privilege of enjoying Gaozhou's Genzi Gui lychees. Who cared anyway? If we did not befriend those tourists, we would not have known of this gem of a place. All along, I was under the misconception that Qualu - Hanging Green - was Yang Guifei's lychee.

When we arrived at Gong Yuen, we were still in 'entranced' mode, so we behaved ourselves rather well. We were taken to see the almost 1,300-year-old tree. It had a thick metal railing around it to stop people from getting too close. The only people who ever got near were its carers. We were told there was a whole team of them. By the time we left Gaozhou, it was 2.30. We did not look forward to the return trip. It would be another long drive of nothingness. The traffic on the road was heavier. In fact, the trucks on the road mostly transported lychees: large baskets stacked high.

To help us pass the time while we were snacking on our superior Genzi Gui lychees, Guide Lee gave us some interesting information of the lychee. "Knowing more about the lychee will make you appreciate and enjoy the fruit better."

"Well said Mr. Lee," we chorused.

Lychee originated in the western tropical and southern sub-tropical region of South China. As the original home of lychee, China was the first country to cultivate the fruit. The recorded history of lychee cultivation is more than 2,100 years. Gaozhou began delivering lychees to the imperial courts more than 2,000 years ago. In 111 BC, during the Han dynasty, royal records described a trial of planting lychee trees in the palace on the order of Emperor Hanwu. The trial ended in failure, as lychee trees could not survive the northern climate. The delicious but rare lychee fruit was highly appreciated by later emperors, who sent express horsemen to the south in order to carry lychees back to the palace.

Yang Guifei of the Tang dynasty, loved to eat lychees. When Lady Yang showed a preference for Gaozhou lychees, Emperor Xuanzong ordered that Gaozhou lychees be delivered fresh every day to Lady Yang, without fail during the lychee season. Gaozhou lychee growers thereafter named this variety Genzi Guifei lychee.

A court official, Gao Li Shi, a native of Gaozhou, was sent to Gaozhou by Lady Yang, to arrange for deliveries to the palace. His residence is still in Gaozhou. Gong Yuen, the lychee garden we visited earlier is a part of Gao Li Shi's residence. Some of the trees are over 1,000 years old. These trees appear fragile but they are still producing fruits.

Thus, it is recognised that Gaozhou is home to the Genzi Gui lychee, the most delicious lychees in China. When demands outstrip supplies, these lychees are never sold outside of Guangdong. No wonder Gaozhou is hailed as the No. 1 Municipality of Lychee in the World.

It was almost dark when the driver stopped at a small clean looking hotel at Zhaoqing where we could visit the restrooms and sit down for some dinner. Guide Lee told us this place was famous for its lotus root soup. We really needed the break to stretch our legs and relieve ourselves.

As we continued our journey back to Guangzhou, the roads seemed to get better and better, the traffic heavier and heavier, with huge tour buses coming and going in all directions. By the time we got back to the hotel, it was way past 1 am.
We were so tired we slept through the morning and only got up because we had to check out of the hotel by noon. After lunch, we couldn't wait to get going. We were looking forward to a hot spring mineral soak at our hotel in Conghua. The hot springs were supposed to be the best in the whole of accessible China.

On the bus while snacking on Genzi Gui lychees, we wondered what the world at large thought of this Han dynasty pony express thing; more seriously, the Tang dynasty express-express pony delivery service??!!??

Nowadays when something needs to be delivered by express service, DHL, Fedex, TNT, or Speedpost comes to mind. Americans would no doubt think that these few express delivery services a vast improvement on their famous Paul Revere's 15-mile Midnight Ride of 1775 from Boston to Lexington, to warn the residents the British were marching in!

Leads me to question how a 1,500-mile, 36-hour (max time as lychees deteriorate rapidly) ride in 746 AD (more than 1,000 years before Revere's ride) would compare? If you think it impossible, then let history confirm that it did happen! Not once but almost daily for two months each year, until the year 756 AD.

Why two-months? Usually the fruiting season of each variety of lychee lasts one month. So, if you are lucky to have a few different varieties, you will most likely be harvesting lychees from May right through to July.

And why the year 756 AD specifically? Because Lady Yang died that year, so no more lychee deliveries required by the express-express pony relay team. Perhaps, ordinary express pony deliveries maybe, during other periods in later years.
I like to refer to this Lady Yang service as express-express, because to ensure this pony relay service could deliver the lychees without fail. I was sure Gao Li Shi selected the most proficient imperial riders to take shifts, to ride the swiftest horses, to ensure the fresh lychees once plucked from the trees, would arrive in Chang'An within thirty-six-hours. Lychees once plucked from their trees cannot keep fresh beyond three days. By the 3rd day, the peel starts brown staining, and the fruit can no longer be considered fresh.

This type of express pony relay service had been in play during previous dynasties, but during Emperor Xuanzong's time, the horses had to go faster, steadier, the riders more expert, the outpost stables better equipped, the fruits packaged more efficiently. It was not just a matter of endurance and efficiency, but of life; if Lady Yang did not find the lychees deliciously fresh enough, then it was 'off with their heads', for both riders and horses. When a man is in love or besotted to the point of no return, there is no way of knowing what lengths he will go through to win his lady's heart, be he emperor, knight, or a commoner!

After Conghua, we made our way to Zengcheng. Upon arrival we rushed off to admire the very rare and delicious Qualu - Hanging Green - lychee tree and fruit. The Qualu lychees we have are 'now don't know what generation' of grafted trees. Nevertheless, they are so very delicious. Historical records show that this lychee variety was so rare and delicious that the entire yearly harvests were sent to the imperial court as a tribute. The growers became so frustrated that one year they chopped down all the trees except one! (There is now standing in Zengcheng, one Qualu tree more than 500 years old.) Good for them. The Cantonese were always gutsy people!

After Zengcheng, our final lychee town of call was Chashan in Dongguan. I loved their Feizixiao lychees, because these fruits were large with very small seeds, and could keep quite fresh for four-days if left attached to their stems, and packed carefully with lotus or yam leaves.

I remembered Guide Lee once telling me that lychees plucked from the tree after 4 pm tasted the best. Because of this, I wanted our lychees for Hong Kong to be picked as close to 4 pm as possible. After an early lunch we played mah-jong waiting for 3 pm to roll by. We gave instructions to the growers to gather the lychees at 3, pack them properly into our suitcases, then have our bus come by the hotel to pick us up.

Guide Lee and driver then drove us straight to Lowu, where after we passed through immigration on the Hong Kong side, we boarded the KCR light rail back to Kowloon. Twenty of us could not fill a 1st class compartment, so we talked loudly and laughed obnoxiously, hoping that this disgusting behaviour would deter anyone from joining our compartment. Old timers used to tell us not to eat more than five lychees at one time. It is a very 'heaty' fruit and we can easily lose our voice. Well, my dears, we have been each eating almost one kilogram of lychees each day for the past nine days, and judging by the ruckus we were making on the train, we surely put this 'old wives' tale to rest.

No one was brave enough to join us in our compartment. Once the train started moving and we had settled down, we began checking the goodies in our suitcases. Happy giggles and faces all around.

Nothing can beat Guangdong when it comes to lychees. I mean, I have tasted lychees from Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, and America, and if we are talking of grading scales from 1 to 10, Guangdong will easily win hands down with a 10, while I would be too embarrassed to mention any grade for the other countries except say 'inedible'.

As more information about Guangdong's lychees became available in English on the internet, tourists from near and far began flooding into China to sample the fruit first hand at lychee farms. Income from tourism increased substantially year after year. Lychee began to be organised into a provincial industry (that means getting financial backing from Guangdong central government to develop mass cultivation) in the late '90s, when exports out of Guangdong reached dizzying heights, thus earning Guangdong Provincial government serious major foreign currency.

Lychee is now Guangdong's biggest fruit industry in terms of cultivated land area, occupying almost 40% of total fruit cultivation. Many lychee towns hold annual lychee festivals to tap into this tourism market, and they are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. No sophisticated marketing tool or ploy is necessary. The lychee sells itself. Just a picture like this:
and visitors will flock to the place for a taste, and a buy of the real thing.

When before, we were not aware of Gaozhou and her lychees, since 2004, the provincial government not only provided funds, but helped Gaozhou's and Maoming's individual growers to cooperate together so that by their combined efforts, they can all share in the huge income derived from tourism and export trade. The local government is also funding and assisting other lychee towns in the province, so much so that Guangdong now earns more than US$ 100 billion p.a. from lychee tourism and exports alone.

1) A Xiyuangualu lychee from a 400-year-old tree was sold for 555,000 yuan (US$ 67,050). This tree yields only a few dozen lychees a year and is known as the 'King of Fruit', when its fruits were served as imperial tributes in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). A local textile firm called Xintang International Jeans bought the lychee at an action in June 2002.
2) 36 from an old tree believed to be 1,300 years old (from Gong Yuan, Gaozhou) fetched 40,772 yuan (US$ 6,539) at an online auction held in May 2014 in China. It is also believed that the Tang dynasty Lady Yang Guifei, got her lychees from the same tree. This was the first time lychees were auctioned online.

I know we are talking of express delivery service in this missive but without lychees from Guangdong, there would be no need for express pony relay delivery, and without Yang Guifei, the following bit of snippet would not generate any interest at all.

Momoe Yamaguchi (my favourite Japanese actress who retired in 1980 when she was only 20) believes she is related to Yang Guifei. Both the Yamaguchi and Yang family history books show that the Yang family line came from Xitouyang Village in Sanmen County, Zhejiang Province. The 1690 record showed Momoe was descended from Yang Mingzhou. Yang was from Yang Village, located near a stream in Zhejiang. One day on his way to Ningbo, his ship was hit by typhoon and blown off course. The ship drifted for 28 days at sea, and finally drifted ashore at Okinawa, where he settled down.
Xitouyang Village had a large community surnamed Yang. The Yang family historical records showed that Anlei (literary name Mingzhou) was lost on his way to Ningbo.

In the late '80s when China opened her doors to foreign visitors, some members of the Yamaguchi family went to Zhejiang in 1990 to begin looking for their origin. In February 1998, the Yamaguchi family finally were written into the Zhejiang Xitouyang Yang family ancestral record book.

Yang Mingzhou was well educated and became a Chinese Language professor of the then Japanese Government. Yang got married in Okinawa and had two sons. His second son was widely acknowledged as the ancestor of the Yamaguchi line. (The Yamaguchi name is supposedly one of the most powerful components of the Japanese Yakusa).

Watch out for the next installment of 'Wonders': Gunpowder.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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