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Pu’er Tea: Worth Its Weight in Silver

Tea fields in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Tea fields in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

“If you bought this in the store, it would cost you hundreds of dollars,” Luo Jie said as he poured out small cups of steaming Pu’er tea. “It has been aged for more than 10 years, and it is some of the most expensive in the world.”

A thin, soft-spoken 40-year-old veteran tea picker, Luo had invited us into his home at the base of Pu’er’s rolling hills where some of China’s most prized tea is grown. With premium varieties of regional tea being worth more than their weight in silver, the fact that Luo was refilling glass after glass of the stuff was an act of generosity not lost on us. The tea was so valuable that armed citizen militias have built checkpoints in certain key areas to police its movement.

But we had not come to Pu’er to buy (or steal, for that matter) tea. We had come only to observe, deviating from the Lancang for a few days to learn how one of the world’s most popular teas was produced.

The Rise of Pu’er

“Pu’er has changed so much,” Luo said, constantly monitoring our tea cups and refilling them whenever they were less than half full. “The buildings used to be small and simple, but now there are high-rises everywhere. But in all that time, the process of picking tea has not changed.”

Luo’s home, provided by the tea company he worked for, was a modest concrete structure and one of many in a long rows of identical units that housed a variety of tea workers from pickers to packers. While not squalid by any means, it was clear from looking around Luo’s home that tea picking was not a particularly lucrative profession.

Luc and a friend prepare to make Pu'er tea.

Luo and a friend prepare to make Pu’er tea.

Yet over the course of the hour we spent talking with him, he offered us nearly every conceivable consumable item he possessed – chilled coconut water, fried pork, cigarettes, sunflower seeds, and, of course, tea – with a hospitality bordering on obsessiveness.

“Because I’ve been working here so long [the company] allows me to take time off to go work another job so I have enough money,” Luo said. After spending for most of his youth as a construction worker in Laos and Myanmar, he returned to China and the tea plantations 10 years ago, and had been picking ever since. Despite his seniority, however, his salary was just 1000 Yuan (roughly $150 USD) per month – a meagre sum with which to support a family in the increasingly expensive economy of modern China. He and his wife (also tea picker) had to work second jobs in order to provide for their children. “My children are teenagers, so they need money. Teenagers always need money.”

Tea pickers wash their clothes from a well provided by the tea company. Despite the great value of Pu'er tea, the workers live with very little modern conveniences.

Tea pickers wash their clothes from a well provided by the tea company. Despite the great value of Pu’er tea, the workers live with very little modern conveniences.

If Luo felt any sense of moral outrage about having to work multiple jobs despite the huge value of the crop he picked, he did not express it. Instead he refilled our glasses, and continued to offer us any and every edible item on hand.

Away from the plantations, in the heart of Pu’er city, the Cha Yuan (tea source) market was mostly empty, with the majority of customers having left the city in the days leading up to the lunar new year. Despite this relative quiet, the booming business conducted around the buying and selling of tea was still apparent.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu'er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu’er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu’er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu'er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Customers visit a vendor in the Pu’er tea market, Yunan, China. Pu’er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Small-scale vendors sat in the open air displaying plastic sacks filled with loose-leaf teas of varying quality. The most expensive tea, however, was sold in larger shops that ringed the market, packaged imperiously in velvet-lined boxes and commanding prices into the thousands of dollars depending on the age of the leaves. Three grams of tea dating back to the Qing dynasty was reportedly sold at auction for around $30 000 USD.

All manner of accessories were also on sale. Entire warehouses were devoted to the selling of tables, presumably intended for tea services, from small ornate squares that were just tall enough to sit cross-legged around, to enormous five meter long varnished slabs of wood hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Delicate porcelain tea pots, decorated with intricate brush work stood on display stands, clashing strangely with counterfeit Nike-branded kettles.

A vendor sits by her wares at the tea market in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

A vendor sits by her wares at the tea market in Pu’er, Yunan province, China. Pu’er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

In Pu’er, tea meant money for those who knew how to capitalize on it.

No Water, Just Tea

There was no denying the scenic beauty of Pu’er’s tea plantations. Whether grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, or Japan, the best teas only flourish at high altitude. Though perhaps not as spectacular as some of these tea growing regions, such as the mountainous foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling, India, Pu’er’s rolling green hills lined with orderly rows of tea bushes were quiet and peaceful, bathed as they were in warm evening light.

Tea fields in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

Tea fields in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

Small groups of pickers moved between the rows, woven baskets slung across their backs that they filled with one handful of tea leaves at a time. They chatted and joked as they worked; like Luo Jie they exhibited no signs of discontentment at the hard labour they were required to perform in exchange for nominal pay. There was work to be done year round, they told us, and only in December did the picking stop for a month when the bushes needed to be trimmed. The rows were weeded and pruned constantly to ensure that the maximum amount of nutrients reached the vibrant green leaves.

Despite being almost 100km from the main channel of the Lancang, Pu’er was still connected to the river. The Simao river flowed along the western edge of the city, which linked to the Pu’er river to the north, which in turn connected to the Xiaohei river, which was a tributary of the Lancang. But as we spoke to the pickers, trying to establish a connection between the Lancang and the world-famous tea, we learned that the hardy plants did not need much help from rivers to survive.

A worker picks tea in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

A worker picks tea in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

A worker shows some harvested tea leaves in Pu'er, Yunan province, China. Pu'er tea is some of the most sought after and expensive tea in the world, with the best varieties being worth more than their weight in silver.

A worker shows some harvested tea leaves in Pu’er, Yunan province, China.

 

“Only young plants need irrigation,” 56-year-old tea picker Li Guang Fu told us. Resplendent in a spectacular fur hat, Li had been working in the tea fields for more than 20 years. When he first moved to Pu’er there were only two types of tea grown, but now, he said, there were eight varieties – none of which needed much help in the way of water. “We pipe in water from an underground reservoir for the young plants during the dry season [in February and March], but the old plants are fine without it. We get enough rainfall here.”

The water from this reservoir was not safe for human consumption, Li said, and instead drinking water came from mountain springs, pure enough to be drunk directly from the tap. But the freshness of the mountain water didn’t matter to him, Li said with a grin.

“I don’t drink water. Only tea.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

Bananas on the Lancang

Passengers board a small ferry that moves between Simaogangzhen and Mengkwang villages.

Passengers board a small ferry that moves between Simaogangzhen and Mengkwang villages.

When we piled into the tiny boat that shuttled passengers across the Lancang between Simaogang and Mengkwang villages, we thought we were setting out for a walk in the mountains. But as had happened so often on this journey, the day had other plans for us.

“We’re all going to pick bananas,” one of the other passengers said, “why don’t you join us?”

We’d seen the vast plantations lining the river banks during the several days we’d spend documenting the process of dredging sand from the Lancang, and had already decided to have a look at them eventually, but the unexpected invitation changed our timeline.

We could see lengths of pipe running from the rows of banana trees to the river below, so we knew that there was a connection between the water and fruit. And since we’d decided at the project’s inception that we would remain flexible to whatever opportunities presented themselves and not adhere too rigidly to any sort of schedule, accepting the invitation seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

Picking Season

“We can only pick for half the year,” a worker said as we walked through the outskirts of the plantation, “so you came at a good time.”

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

After another 10 minutes of walking, the trees parted to reveal a sheet metal shed that served as a bunk house for workers that had no homes in the nearby village. The sun was still not yet fully above the horizon, and once the sleepy workers had gotten over their surprise at seeing two foreigners emerge out of the gloom, they returned to their morning routines. Some brushed their teeth in silence using water from a tap that gushed fresh mountain spring water (water from the Lancang was good for watering crops, they said, but too dirty for human consumption) while others sat wrapped in blankets sipping tea and eating steamed dumplings. The atmosphere was more like a large extended family waking in their shared house than a job site, and it seemed as though this group had been together for some time.

“This is collective work,” said a young manager named Wang Jing. “We move between plantations when there is picking [to be done], and we get paid based on how many trucks we can fill in a day. The price per truck is 100 Yuan (around $15 USD at current rates), and in a good day we can do 1.5 trucks.”

By 8 a.m. the morning’s eating and grooming had finished. A large open topped transport truck reversed into the clearing and the whole team sprang into action, loading it with tightly wrapped bundles of straw from a storage building attached to their living quarters.

Workers load bundles of insulation into a truck in Magkwang village, Yunan, China. The insulation will be used to keep picked bananas warm during transportation.

Workers load bundles of insulation into a truck in Magkwang village, Yunan, China. The insulation will be used to keep picked bananas warm during transportation.

“It’s cold now, so we have to cover the bananas when they are transported,” Wang said in explanation.

Once the truck had been filled with enough straw, the workers jumped on board for the ride to the plantation. A few minutes later, no one seeming to mind being tossed around violently as the vehicle bounced over holes in the narrow dirt road, the truck arrived at the plantation’s central packing house and the team spread out to their various stations.

The pickers, exclusively men who wore military style camouflage jackets, fanned out into the tree line and we struggled to keep up, stumbling repeatedly on the uneven ground. The trees were heavy with bananas, the bunches wrapped in layers of insulation and plastic to keep them protected from the cold and hungry insects. The fruits inside were perfect looking (albeit not yet ripe), the text book image of what a banana should be shaped like.

By contrast, those few bunches that were not wrapped in the plastic had been ruined by the winter air. Shrivelled and pathetic looking, mottled with black spots, and a fraction of the size, they did not look fit for the shelves of the world’s supermarkets and the demanding preferences of the modern shopper.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village.

Though the mechanics of getting the bananas from the trees were simple, the strength and stamina of the pickers was impressive. For every 10 men, one was equipped with long shaft of wood tipped with a dangerous looking curved blade. The men readied themselves under the low-hanging bunches, testing the weight on their shoulders, and then called out for a cutter who would appear instantly to hack deftly at the tree until the fruit fell free. Pausing only for a moment to get their balance, the men sped away with the 25kg loads, showing no outward signs of strain.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker chops a bunch of bananas from a tree using a curved blade attached to a pole.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker slides bunches of bananas along a rail that leads to a nearby packhorse.

A network of metal arches joined by a greased rail snaked through the plantation, and the senior man on the crew stood by with inverted hooks mounted to a base of small wheels that fitted onto the track. One by one the men attached the heavy bunches to the hooks and after hearing a monosyllabic bark from their foreman, let their burdens drop to sway beneath the rail. Periodically the bunches were pushed forwards along the track, which wound its way through the rows of trees until eventually reaching the packing shed.

Stopping once an hour for a five minute cigarette break, and for an hour at lunch, the team otherwise worked without interruption from sunrise to sunset. As we rarely lifted anything heavier than a camera for any length of time, we were more than a little impressed by their endurance.

Artificial Perfection and the Cycle of Trade

As the bananas arrived at the pack house, the place buzzed with activity. In one corner a group of young women worked robotically to assemble cardboard boxes that would hold the bananas for their trip to market, wielding their industrial tape guns with practiced speed. The bulk of people, however, had formed into an assembly line to process and pack the fruit before loading it onto a waiting truck.

Workers unload bunches of bananas to be divided and given a chemical ripening bath.

Workers unload bunches of bananas to be divided and given a chemical ripening bath.

As soon as the bananas were pulled from the track, they were set upon by knife-wielding workers who hacked the bunches into manageable sections. These were passed down the line to others who had donned thick rubber gloves before submerging them in a noxious grey-tinted chemical bath.

“It makes them turn yellow,” Gao Yanhong, the owner of the factory had told us after seeing our confusion. We’d watched several men that morning empty packets of an unknown powder into the tubs, but hadn’t understood their purpose until now. As with most fruit destined for far away consumption, the bananas were picked prematurely and were still a deep green colour. But green bananas are harder to sell than vibrant yellow ones, and the chemicals ensured that by the time they reached the urban supermarkets near Beijing they would have transformed to meet the taste of buyers.

Workers add a chemical mixture to water on a plantation near Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. The mixture causes freshly picked bananas to ripen unaturally quickly so they are ready for sale by the time they reach market.

Workers add a chemical mixture to water on a plantation near Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. The mixture causes freshly picked bananas to ripen unaturally quickly so they are ready for sale by the time they reach market.

Bananas are given a chemical bath to speed up the ripening process on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Bananas are given a chemical bath to speed up the ripening process.

While we too were guilty of preferring yellow bananas to green ones, and had come to expect near perfection from the produce we bought, this was a part of the agricultural process that we wished we had not seen. We had no idea what chemicals were being used, but we resolved wash our fruit more carefully in the future.

Shining and wet from their ripening bath, the bananas were then placed into boxes bearing the elephant logo of the fruit company and stacked in the bed of the truck. When full, five or six hours later, the truck would depart for the megacities of the east.

Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas at a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas at a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas.

Workers load collapsed cardboard banana boxes on to a truck in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. They will be assembled and packed at a nearby fruit processing facility.

Workers load collapsed cardboard banana boxes on to a truck in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. They will be assembled and packed at a nearby fruit processing facility.

A worker loads packed boxes of bananas on a truck to be shipped to market in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker loads packed boxes of bananas on a truck to be shipped to markets.

In fact, the cycle of transport was surprisingly complex. These bananas, which began their life in the small village of Mengkwang, watered by the blue-grey water of the Lancang, were destined for Shanxi province, located just to the west of Beijing, nearly 3000 km away. Once the bananas were offloaded in Shanxi, the truck was refilled with apples, which do not grow well in the hotter provinces to the southwest. Then, 1200km to the south, the apples were sold in Hunan province and the truck loaded once again, this time with oranges. The oranges then travelled more than 1300km to Kunming, the largest city in Yunnan province, where the cold winters prevented the large-scale growing of citrus fruits. With this cargo safely offloaded, the truck drivers would then collect local mail from the post offices of Kunming before returning once again to Mengkwang to start the cycle over again.

The Banana plantations of Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

The Banana plantations of Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Though perhaps this process was nothing out of the ordinary in the modern age of globalization and international trade, as we sat under the shade of a banana tree on the banks of the Lancang, it seemed incredible nevertheless.

Moving into the future, we resolved, we needed to be more cognizant of the incredible journeys our food underwent before reaching our tables. That, and to always wash our fruit.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , |

How A River Builds Houses

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec's brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A girl rides her bicylce past one of Sa Dec’s brick kilns. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

With less than a week left on the Vietnam leg of the A River’s Tail project, we left the Mekong delta’s urban heart of Can Tho for the much smaller town of Sa Dec to the northwest. We had no real idea of what we would find there, but decided that its reputation as an industrial and agricultural trading centre made it an ideal choice for further exploring the relationship between the river and its people. We were on the lookout for unexpected ways that people were able to support themselves from water, and Sa Dec did not disappoint.

As we drove into the city, brick factories defined the landscape. Stretching one after the other along the river banks, their orange kilns perpetually venting smoke, they were impossible to miss. Both Gareth and I had photographed brick factories in the past and we knew them to be highly visual places to shoot, but what we found in Sa Dec was an industry more deeply connected to the river than we could have imagined.

Houses Made from Water

Walking into the factory grounds just after sunrise, it was clear that we were too early. This had been a constant problem throughout our travels in Vietnam. Our photo-centric world view caused us to constantly chase the best light (early morning and late afternoon), but it meant that we often arrived in locations before the majority of locals were out of bed. The brick factory was no exception; other than a family of dogs who barked suspiciously at our presence, sensing that we were somehow strange or different than the people they were accustomed to seeing, there was no sign of movement.

We walked slowly among the neatly stacked rows of drying clay bricks, moving with exaggerated quietness as one might do when sneaking around a creaky house, all the while listening for the angry shout of a security guard or wary factory owner. When we did manage to find people inside the gloomy structure, however, we were met with kindly smiles and warm handshakes from an elderly man and his wife. Sa Dec’s brick making techniques, it seemed, were not top secret.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Locals socialize outside one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A family of dogs stretch in the early morning before workers arrive at the brick factory.

The man, who did not volunteer his name, confirmed our suspicions that we were were in fact too early by over an hour. He and his wife, who slept on a bare wooden bed frame inside the factory, were preparing to stoke the kilns – but we would have to wait if we wanted to see the actual manufacturing process. As we watched him pour basket after basket of rice husks into an elevated hopper that fed the kiln fires, we took the opportunity to glean some background information from him. What we discovered was a manufacturing process that quite literally turned the Mekong’s water into houses.

It all began with water and rice, he said, hoisting a 25kg basket onto his shoulder with a strength that belied his age and slight frame. First came the rice, grown throughout the delta in some of the highest quantities in the world, all of which owed its survival to diverted river water that was diverted to farmland via Vietnam’s staggeringly complex network of manmade canals.

Once the crops were harvested, the rice grains were separated from their nutritionally useless husks before being transported to large wholesalers, who then sold it throughout the country and to the world beyond. The discarded husks were then loaded onto transport ships and delivered to Sa Dec’s brick factories which burned up to six tonnes of the material every day. With each kiln roughly 30 000 square metres in size and holding roughly 150 000 bricks each, it was easy to see how fuel was needed on such a large scale.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg load of rice husks from a delivery boat to the factory.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers carry 50kg loads of rice husks to one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The husks will be used to fuel kilns that will harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a 50kg loads of rice husks to a storage room in one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory's birkc kilns. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time and consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers fill baskets with rice husks which she will use to fuel the factory’s birkc kilns.

Once the husks had given all their remaining energy to the hungry flames of the massive kilns, the charred remnants were shovelled into wooden carts and dumped in great black mounds behind the factory. I had already noticed the piles earlier that morning, but had wrongly assumed (perhaps because I hailed from a western country with where materialism and disposability reigned supreme, everything discarded once it ceased to be bright and shiny) that the material was useless. As it turned out, the burnt husks were destined for gardens and farmland throughout the delta where they were used enrich the soil that would give birth to the next crop of rice.

As ingenious as this organic recycling process seemed, the kiln’s fires would have been meaningless without bricks to fill them. Though there are many complex methods for creating bricks, the simplest and most economical process requires just two ingredients – water and clay, both of which were sourced from the Mekong. The soft mixture was hydraulically pressed and cut into the appropriate shape and length before being sent to the furnaces.

After a month of hardening inside the immense kilns, the fired bricks were stacked into interlocking towers before once more returning to the river in the holds of transport ships that carried them to regional construction sites. From raw materials to fuel to transportation, everything in the brick factories of Sa Dec was tied to water. In an alchemically roundabout way, we learned, it was possible to build a house out of water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker pulls a cart full of burnt rice husks to be piled behind the factory. The burnt husks will be resold to local farmers to enrich their farmlands.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory's brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A worker carries a load of rice husks to a hopper which feeds into one of the factory’s brick kilns. A single kiln can hold up to 150 000 bricks and the facility will consume up to 6 tonnes of husks per day.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers move freshly cut bricks onto a cart before moving them into the sun to dry. Once dried, the bricks will be moved into kilns where up to 150 000 bricks will be hardened by fire at a time.

 

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

A brick factory worker stands in front of rows of drying clay bricks.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Workers load finished bricks onto waiting trucks so they can be transported to local construction sites.

 

 

 

 

Rice Pockets

An hour later, our foundational knowledge of brick making greatly expanded, the rice arrived. Predictably, it came by boat. Two sagging barges, their holds impossibly full of rice husks, pulled up to the factory’s concrete pier and extended wooden gangplanks to the shore. Teams of men then set about the Atlas-like task of offloading three tonnes of rice husks using nothing but woven baskets and a yoke stick. From their boats to the factory’s cavernous room that served as the fuel storage area was less than 200 metres, but within a few minutes they were all sweating profusely.

With a touch of hubris, Gareth and I decided to try and impress upon the labourers that, photographers though we were, we could still do a hard day’s work. Almost immediately after hefting the 50kg load onto my shoulder I knew that I had dramatically overestimated my physical abilities. The suspended baskets swung wildly as I took the first few steps causing me to stagger drunkenly, much to the satisfaction of the watching workers. Determined to save as much face as possible under the circumstances I tried (badly) to affect a look of relaxed confidence, when in reality my shoulder was screaming for respite and I was powerless to stop my own forward momentum. Pride, however, proved to be a powerful motivator and somehow I made it to the top of the husk pile where I gratefully dropped my load.

Vietnam - Brick Factories on the Mekong

Pretending not to notice the smirks from rest of the workers, whose faces showed none of the signs of extreme strain I was sure mine had, I walked back towards the dock to retrieve my camera. Gareth had just hefted his own baskets for the first and looked to have realized, as I had, how weak we were compared to these men despite our substantial height and weight advantages. “Did you carry yours all the way?” he asked. As I nodded my head I empathized with the look of dread that settled over his face.

By the end of the morning, the rice husks had worked there way into every possible area of our clothing. Had there been actual rice grains rather than the empty husks, I would have been able to feed a very hungry man from the quantity gathered in my shoes alone.

Though the day may have deflated our manly egos, we left the factory with a newfound respect for the ingenious ways delta residents were able to harness the Mekong’s resources.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec's brick factories. The kilns can harden up to 150 000 bricks at a time. The brick factories of Sa Dec pump clay and water from the Mekong river, which they form into molds before firing them in kilns fueled by rice husks grown from river water.

Smoke billows from the brick kilns at one of Sa Dec’s brick factories.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , |