Open Letter from Don Mei

I respond to recent Reddit/Twitter accusations

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I am writing this late in the night from China so apologies if this letter is short and to the point. We are sourcing tea in the mountains. We do this multiple times each year to find our clients the best tea possible and make videos to enhance the enjoyment of tea to anyone and everyone who would like to learn with us. This is what we do, this is our passion.

However, I have heard news from London of another little Reddit storm about us, regarding our free stickers. Specifically the forum is accusing us of racism and plagiarism. I say ‘another’ because we have heard of a few of these in the past few years but more on that after I address the recent accusations.

We have been accused of racism against Native-Americans and with such a serious accusation I felt I needed to write a public reply. This criticism comes from a Reddit post created by a ‘temporary account’ and was followed up on twitter.

Anyone who takes 2 minutes to scratch the surface of Mei Leaf and our history would know that it is a pretty big leap to call us racists. For over 45 years, my family business has been working on integrating cultures. From the arts to medicine to education and to tea, this has been our driving goal – the relinquishing of tribalism and separatism and the building of bridges through exchange.

Listen to my recent podcast on Mixed Mental Arts, take a look at our company history, investigate my background (there is a video on YouTube to make it even easier), read and watch our blogs and speeches, learn about all of the cultural exchange work that we have done over the past 45 years, and, if possible, visit us in London (with over 15 staff nationalities you will never see a more multi-cultural Chinese Medical Clinic and teahouse anywhere!).

Anyone with a semblance of objectivity and even a basic amount of research would realise that making claims of racism against us is a pretty wild accusation.

Let’s quickly address the accusation. We give away free stickers with our orders (they are not sold). One of these stickers (no longer being printed) shows a drawing of a Chinese man wearing a traditional Native American headdress made from tea leaves (rather than feathers). The criticism is that we should not use the headdress iconography as:

  1. The headdress symbol has been used by imperialists and colonialists as stereotypical representation of Native-Americans (often in negative connotations).
  2. The headdress is earned in Native-American culture and therefore should be treated with respect and not imitated.

Let me say categorically that I am sorry if I caused any genuine offence to anyone with this sticker. I clearly did not appreciate the level of feeling surrounding the headdress and had no intention to stir up negative connotations. I meant absolutely no disrespect to the Native-American community.

The idea behind the design was very simple – the headdress is a symbol of distinction and respect, let’s replace the feathers with tea leaves and put them on the head of a Chinese tea master and hey presto: a symbolic representation of a ‘Teahead’. This was a case where the original idea and intention clearly got lost in translation for some people.

I accept any criticism that we may have been a bit clumsy in our handling of emotional iconography but to claim that this makes us racists is mind-blowing. It demonstrates an intention to use sensationalism to tarnish Mei Leaf rather than any reasoned or constructive arguments on the important subject of racism.

The other criticism on Reddit regarding our stickers is one of plagiarism. Our GagaForGushu sticker takes an old Chinese poster design of a baby holding fruits and replaces them with PuErh cakes. This is totally meant to reference that era of Chinese design and was therefore hand drawn by Celine based on these posters. So, sure, we took an existing piece of artwork and used it as reference to make a fun ‘tea’ remix version for a free sticker. Our intention was to obviously mimic this artistic style in the same way as the ‘Stay Loose’ sticker is a riff on the Rolling Stone’s lips.

As I said, these designs were two out of many designs for free stickers. They were not used for any products and we did not make money from these stickers but, of course, they are part of our promotional designs and therefore we are responsible. So, I would again like to apologise for any offence caused by the Teahead sticker. I trust that most of you understand that our intention for both sticker designs was to produce some fun, free stickers to show off your love of tea and nothing else.

Whilst I am addressing criticisms I think that it is worth looking at some of the context of the criticisms.

We do not follow Reddit and I have not posted on it for a long while, but we know that there is a small group of people who like to use it to spread hate about Mei Leaf. We have heard that people have created multiple fake accounts to write negative posts about Mei Leaf which is totally baffling to us. There are people who seem to be perennially scanning the Reddit threads to find an opportunity to criticise us when other users are genuinely asking questions about our tea.

This is the nature of public forums and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have no problem accepting this as par-for-the-course for anyone putting themselves out there. In the same way, I am entitled to my opinions about what drives this small group of critics.

I am sure that some of the criticism is driven by pure competition – this is weird because I know for a fact that all of the work that we do to introduce people into ‘True Tea’ is bringing more business to other tea sellers and more viewers to other tea blogs/channels. Surely they should embrace our efforts to expand the reach of tea and collaborate rather than criticise?

Some of the critics are doing it for the protection of their egos and a repressed dislike that we are trying to popularise their speciality (the tribalistic ‘I liked that band before they were big’ syndrome). For others, they may simply dislike our style or approach – that’s cool, we can’t please everyone.

A lot of this started with the ‘Tiger Spirit’/’Sacred Owl’ PuErh cakes. The claims being that we had grossly over-estimated the age of the tea trees. I addressed this on our website and agreed that the information that we were given for ‘Tiger Spirit’, despite as much fact checking as we could, may have been inaccurate. This tea was definitely old Gushu judging from the trunk circumference measurements and research into the mountain, although the year estimates were probably off. This is a possibility for practically any ‘Gushu’ tea tree ageing from any supplier and we have been working really hard to establish better ageing practices (more on this to follow in future videos).

What I find inappropriate is that the critics (as far as I am aware) never actually tried the tea. If they had they would have known that it was really old Gushu. They did not write to us for comment or request a review sample but instead used public forums and blogs to bash us. Anyone who has written to us will know that we always try to reply and engage in conversation but from these ‘critics’ there was not a single email or message. In my opinion, that speaks volumes as to their intentions.

The ‘Tiger Spirit’ cake was released nearly 3 years ago and we have released a multitude of teas since and yet the ‘controversy’ over this tea seems to be regurgitated on forums to this day, by the same people, as ‘proof’ that we are fakers.

Anyone who has had any dealings in tea will know that finding the truth in tea is a long and winding rabbit hole – this is one of the main reasons why we release free, weekly videos to try to disseminate what we have learned and stimulate conversation. We are all learning and along the way there will be things we get wrong but, any neutral person without any vested interests should see that Mei Leaf is continuously trying to spread the best information possible and put it out there, for free, for public commentary. These are not the actions of fakers.

It may seem from what I have written above that these critics have consumed my attention. This is genuinely not the case. I understand that these public criticisms are the nature of any business and I know the truth in our efforts and intentions. I have been focussed on much more important work in tea and Chinese Medicine.

I am writing all of this because I believe that as a tea community we can be such a positive force in a time of excessive tribalism, sensationalism and division. I am saddened when I see people in the tea world using divisive tactics and trolling behaviour – it seems so ‘un-tea’ to us. On the other hand, I am absolutely happy to listen to criticisms and I know that we can always improve. This is not about silencing debate but making the debate constructive rather than destructive.

OK, I have to be up early tomorrow in the search for Gushu PuErh so I will get some sleep and move onwards. I have no intention of getting into a long winded, ego driven, twitter/reddit debate over all of this but if you would like to know anything more then you are welcome to write to us through any of our platforms. As always, we will try to reply as quickly as possible but bear in mind that I am in China’s mountains with very little internet so please be patient with us.

Wishing love and positivity to everyone (especially the critics) and a life filled with the Good Stuff (isn’t that why we are all here in the first place?).

Don

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