It is a warm summer day, and Shiu-Ying Hu is wearing several layers of sweaters, topped with a quilted-silk vest. The desk in her office at the Harvard University Herbaria, where she is a botanist emeritus, is covered with books bearing titles such as Flora of China. As she talks, her aged fingers, soft and wrinkled as dates, commandeer my pen so she can write words – the name of her hometown, names of plants – in English and Chinese on my notepad. Hanging around her neck is a magnifying glass, which she sometimes uses to squint at her writing. Hu leans forward. She can’t hear my question and impatiently shakes her head. “I am 97 years old. My hearing has lost its power,” she practically shouts. “If you don’t speak louder, we will have to say goodbye.”
She may be petite and gray-haired, but her feistiness still crackles, much as I remember from the first time we met, in 1997, in the stairwell of a faculty dormitory at Chinese University of Hong Kong, where I was staying with a friend for a few days. I had asked if she needed help carrying some bags. She declined, of course, but a conversation ensued, and we discovered some remarkable coincidences: that she had received her bachelor’s degree from Ginling College in Nanjing, China, where I had just finished teaching a year of English; and that she lived in Brookline, five minutes from where I grew up.
Given her spirit, it is not so hard, then, to envision this woman, shortly after receiving her master’s degree in biology from Lingnan University in Guangzhou, helping to lead six mountain expeditions from 1939 to 1942 to study the habitat of the giant panda, walking as much as 25 miles a day. She tilts her head and beams when recalling the rugged mountains of southwestern China and her first sighting of an alpine meadow replete with orchids. “It was beautiful,” she recalls. She was the only woman on the team, but Hu waves that fact aside. Instead, she tells a story: One evening at camp, she suddenly felt a prickling sensation that she attributed to the heat. In the morning, she discovered the source of the itch. “There were 59 fleas,” she hoots.
Today, Hu revels in her longstanding role as intrepid pioneer and relentless scholar. She attended one of the first women’s colleges in China, was one of the first Chinese women to earn a doctorate from Harvard, and she helped establish the School of Chinese Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She has roamed the mountains, valleys, and shores of Hong Kong and China to collect thousands of plant specimens. After receiving her PhD in botany from Harvard in 1949, Hu worked as a researcher at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, and in 1968, she joined Chinese University’s biology department to help start its herbarium (she is an honorary professor of Chinese medicine at the Hong Kong university).
So much has changed since she entered her field, when there was little scientific study of Chinese plants and herbal medicine. Worldwide interest in Chinese medicine has accelerated in the decades since the country was reopened to the West, and the Chinese herbal-medicine industry has mushroomed, with global sales reaching $23 billion in 2002, according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
All of this has made Hu’s work even more significant. The botanist still commutes by subway from her Brookline home to the Harvard Herbaria in Cambridge. Her routine, whether in Boston or Hong Kong (where she now spends most of her time), is the same. She wakes at 5:30 a.m. and after a bit of work and breakfast, heads to her office, where she works until 5 p.m. “I drink my `health tea’ every day,” she says, then she grabs my pen, unbidden, to write down the tea’s ingredients: honeysuckle, ginseng, ganoderma, chrysanthemum, and carthamus. “I eat fish for dinner and three kinds of vegetables.” She ticks them off on her fingers: “Carrot, celery, and cabbage; I cook it myself.”
Back in 1997, when our paths first crossed, Hu had invited me to dinner in her apartment. I showed her a 1955 book on the history of Ginling College that was packed in my suitcase. She bent over the pages and paused at a black-and-white photograph of the 1933 Glee Club. “That’s me,” she said, pointing to a pretty girl in a qi pao dress in the front row. The young Hu is the only one smiling at the camera; she seems to sparkle amid her serious-looking peers.
She doesn’t remember meeting me in Hong Kong seven years ago. I show her a photo I took of her that evening. She smiles and murmurs, “I have more gray hair now.” She also seems more pre-occupied now than when we first met. But this is not surprising, considering her workload. She is writing three books, one on Hong Kong gardens, one on orchids, and another on chrysanthemums. She is the author of more than 168 publications and is an authority on holly, orchids, and the day lily, among other flora. She has an 800-page book, Food Plants of China, set for its US release in December.
“There is so much work that demands my training,” she says.
Despite her illustrious career, Hu hasn’t forgotten her roots. Her parents were farmers in a village near Suzhou in eastern China. Her mother was widowed at 29, and of five children, only Hu and an elder brother survived childhood. At 12, she had the chance to attend a missionary boarding school, where she swept floors and cleaned to pay for her room and board.
Hu eyes the slice of banana bread that she had offered me earlier and I have only nibbled. If I don’t want to finish it, she will put it away. “China is too poor to waste food,” she says, wrapping it in plastic and returning it to the refrigerator. It seems to be her subtle way of telling me that if there aren’t any more questions, it’s time for her to get back to work.