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Coffee on the Border

on
August 27, 2018

“Coffee is a great power in my life; I have observed its effects on an epic scale. Coffee roasts your insides.” — Balzac

Coffee estate in Menglian

“Menglian is China’s border, and going to such a remote region, I didn’t know what to expect. To my surprise, I found a mentor and someone I am now honored to call a friend, the owner of the Mangzhang Coffee Farm, Hu Zong (Zong 总 is a playful & respectful way to refer to a leader).” MJ Engel expresses her sentiment in Mandarin and laughs.LC_180819_4089

Hu Zong climbing the jackfruit tree

MJ Engel is of mixed-racial descent; half of her family immigrated to Chinatown in San Francisco in the 1950s. After graduating from Columbia University, she became an American Fulbright Scholar for the 2017-2018 year, and took the opportunity to come to Yunnan..jpg

MJ Engel catching a great view at coffee estate

Engel is thankful for this kind of opportunity, which allows her to make connections to a broader world. China is her second homeland; despite the fact that she did not use Chinese to talk to her grandmother when growing up, this cannot change the fact that half of her is made up of Han Chinese blood.180819_02411

MJ Engel chatting with a local lady

After her China experience, Engel finally feels confident in her language skills: “when I return to America, I can use Mandarin to speak to my grandmother. She will be proud of me.”
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For the past year, Engel has been at the Kunming Academy of Social Sciences School of Botany recording the history of the Yunnan coffee industry. She also conducted investigations in the sustainability of the industry, and researched the interests of coffee growers, farm workers, coffee farm owners, traders and other industry stakeholders. Engel believes, any problems arising in the coffee industry, from production to processing to sales, can be solved with time and science..jpg.jpg

The lives of the farmers tell a different story; hard work, daily toil, and low wages are the reality of the farmers. Are these living condition really sustainable to the future of the coffee industry?
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“The farmers there are very warm and inviting, they are so good to me. They know I am of mixed-race and helped me gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and history.” When she speaks about Menglian’s farmers, MJ cannot help but smile with eyes full of happiness..jpg

“I worked alongside them, picked fresh fruit, picked and roasted the beans together. They invited me into their homes to eat meals, and I especially loved their Pu’er tea.”180819_0236

Engel was invited to attend “Po Shui Jie” (the Water-Splashing festival) which celebrates the New Year and the dousing of friends, families and even strangers with clean water. By this time Engel’s original teacher-student relationship was evolving into one of friendship, and even of a relative.180819_4070When asked if anything left her with a deep impression, she laughed and said locals are teaching her how to drive a tractor in the mountains. This process made her both extremely nervous and happy beyond measure. This was her first time learning how to drive a tractor, but after some practice she was able to drive off on her own..jpgWhen Engel mentions Mr. Hu (Hu Zong), she cannot contain her excitement. From her expressions, it is easy to surmise her impression of Mr. Hu. According to Engel, Mr. Hu already owns seven coffee plantations, but he lives an even more low-key life than a farmer.2In these recent years, he has introduced new techniques to coffee farmers and is frequently participating in exhibitions on how to improve the coffee market. He wants to help increase the income for the workers and has their best interests in mind..jpgIt’s not hard to see the Mr. Hu that Engel holds in great esteem is an ideal representative of the coffee farmers’ dreams. Mr. Hu’s dream is to help farmers improve their lives. He does not do this just for himself, but for the lives of those who work and toil in the same industry..jpgIn addition to Menglian, Engel has visited Pu’er, Dehong, Baoshan, and other major coffee growing areas to better understand the holistic methods of planting, picking, and processing coffee in Yunnan. The environmental impact of the industry has also been part of her studies.LC_180819_4044LC_180819_4162The capstone of all of her research has been made into the form of a short film. We invite you to see the film, “Stories from the Fields” and to join MJ Engel in a lively discussion. coffee on the border


Well-known Chinese publisher Zhan Hongzhi says in The Way Coffee Should Be: “take my spirit in exchange for a cup of coffee: black as betrayal, hot as a scorned lover, bitter like cancer, scorched like a battlefield, and into an opium-like stupor, I will be just fine”.

What does coffee mean to you? How do you see it in your everyday life? 
Where did you imagine it came from?.jpg


Article written by: Kitty Huang

Translation by: May Braverman & Jeanee Linden

Photos by: Long Ge

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