Director Seo Young-Soo at the 2014 auction
On November 3, 2014, Taetea Group, the world’s largest pu’er tea company, held a live charity auction celebrating the 10th year of privatization. The event attracted more than 3,000 pu’er tea enthusiasts to bid on Taetea-certified handcrafted 1kg stones made from pressed pu’er tea leaves made for the anniversary. Soon after the tea cake went under the hammer, roaring noises from those wanting to buy the products filled the auditorium. A Korean man named Seo Young-Soo surprised everyone and offered a whopping 50,000 yuan (about $ 7,650). Seo Young-Soo further surprised people by returning the tea to Taetea’s museum.
Seo explains to us the reason for returning the tea cake to the Taetea Group. “I believe that the tea cake as a souvenir of the growth of the Pu’er tea culture will do more good. I hope that the Taetea Group will use the donation to further promote Pu’er tea in Korea.” He adds, “Korea is one of the largest consumers of Pu’er tea outside of China, but this fact is little known, so I made every effort to leave a mark.”
So who is Seo Young-Soo? For most of his life he was called “Director Seo”. Seo Young-Soo was born in 1956 and is a film director who made a name for himself in the young Korean film industry in the 1980s. His directorial debut is the classic Korean film “The Unnoticed,” which was released in 1984. In the film, Seo made headlines as the youngest film director in the history of South Korean film. He went on to write and direct major films such as “Rose Motel” and “Seoul Emmanuelle”. He later continued his work as a director and producer on television as well as in advertising.
His first encounter with Pu’er Tee was on the set with Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1980s. Seo recalls how Hong Kong crew members carried thermoses of pu’er tea. A few years later, Seo was given the role of director for a documentary film about diplomatic relations between Korea and China. At the time when a Chinese government official presented him with a pu’er tea cake, Seo Young Soo was truly intrigued. Seo mentions that he loves the lingering warm feel as well as the exquisite taste and aromas. Seo then decided to take his fascination with Pu’er to another level.
Seo Young-Soo began using his free time between films to travel to the origins of Pu’er tea in China. “There are over 100 known places where pu’er tea is grown in Yunnan Province. I’ve been to at least 80 of them.” says Seo. With just a backpack, the tea lover hiked through the deep valleys of the old southern Silk Road (Tea-Horse Road) and the snow-covered trails around Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Yulong Snow Mountain) looking for Pu’er. Seo recalls that he only called himself a researcher of Pu’er tea when he knew the exact routes to many Pu’er tea farms by heart.
A sprouting Pu’er tea leaf
Seo Young-Soo says there are too many stories from his many journeys to tell that it would take days to describe. He says the most memorable moment was meeting Jinxiu Ancient Tea Tree King – a 3,200 year old tea tree in Yunnan. He recalls that the tree can only be reached after a strenuous crossing of Xiaowan Dam and a cave with no light. About eight hours into the journey, he almost felt like giving up. But eventually the tunnel led to open fields with tea trees that he could only describe as mostly peaceful. When he finally found the old tree, he was amazed at its beauty and living history.
The Xiongda Tea Wholesale Market in Kunming
Some of his trips to Kunming also remain some of his fondest memories during his quest. His experience in Spring City was mostly about searching local markets for tea. Seo mentions some hotspots when looking for good tea in Kunming. He says Jinshi and Xiongda tea markets are worth visiting as they are right next to each other. Between these two, the Xiongda Market was established more recently. Thus, it has the convenience of better parking and a more spacious shopping area that sells all kinds of Chinese tea. The kangle market is also an attractive destination for tea lovers. It has a lively atmosphere with larger crowds and has been developed more recently than the other markets.
As for most people in the world, Seo Young-Soo’s expeditions stalled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Even so, he doesn’t stop practicing Cha Dao, the art of making tea. “Instead of worrying about myself and my inability to travel, I worry more about those who are suffering in this age of isolation.” he says. Seo Young-Soo would like to communicate with those emotionally affected by the current pandemic that the process of making and drinking tea can help. Opening a glass of tea, boiling water to just the right temperature, and brewing the dried leaves in the familiar drink with that soft green color can be very therapeutic – especially for those who are cut off from their normal lives, explains Seo. He also insists that drinking pu’er tea can help boost immunity by increasing body temperature and providing antioxidants.
When asked what he would like to do first after the current pandemic, Seo says he wants to bring together the two greatest passions of his life: Pu’er tea and film. “If I have the right opportunity, I would like to make a film about pu’er tea in Yunnan. I want to share my passion and experience with pu’er tea.”
The auctioned Pu’er tea cake
Seo Young-Soo says his two passions are lifelong pursuits. Seo explains why. “Pu’er tea and film have this in common – it is the art of patience. Pu’er tea takes time to grow, ferment and brew, as does the production of a film. A masterpiece is never made overnight. “
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