vol. 3 Self-Fulfillment

Credit: Rui Liu

01 / 02

Rui Liu:
"I'm at the centre of my own stories"

Tea Expert & Wing Chun Teacher & Entrepreneur & Model

Musings about her transformation from a child of the mountains to the face of Maybelline, a chance encounter with Richard Branson, being the messenger of tea and rediscovering your roots along the way


May 6, 2021 | As told to Cherie Yang

Rui and I caught up over a virtual tea one afternoon: I had a generic lychee & rose tea; she had a Slow Mellow Yellow.

The founder of Grass People Tree, Rui is also an erstwhile model for the likes of Valentino and Maybelline, Wing Chun practitioner (and teacher) and self-proclaimed ‘servant of the tea’.

We talk about several key moments: that unlikely meeting with a billionaire who ended up being her ‘wingman for London’, the fateful Valentino campaign that planted the seeds for a two-and-a-half-year journey of exploration, and how the story that begin in the mountains of Guizhou really stemmed from a bet (or prank—depending on which way you look at it).

This is a heartfelt conversation about living as an immigrant and an ‘in-betweener’, about growing up too quickly and losing your roots, about being backstage and holding that tea flask, and going onto the centrestage and owning your stories.

Plus, we spend a little time musing over Chinese calligraphy (cake analogy included) and where the name “Grass People Tree” came from.

Follow Rui on Instagram and visit Grass People Tree's website here and Instagram here.

Listen to Rui's episode on our Podcast here.

Pics below courtesy of Rui's Instagram

  • And I then made a deal with another friend of mine within the group—I grew up with four boys and they’re like my brothers—I said I was going to try and win it. If I won it, we would split the bet winnings.
  • &: You were a model for a long time before coming to London. How did the modelling career come about?

    RL:

    It started out as a joke.

    I was 15 years old, and my best friend was playing a prank on me and entered me into a modelling competition. They were betting on it.

    And I then made a deal with another friend of mine within the group—I grew up with four boys and they’re like my brothers—I said I was going to try and win it. If I won it, we would split the bet winnings.

    The modelling competition was just a bet! [laughs]

  • I grew up as a mountain girl, and suddenly was exposed to the adult world before the age of 16, and it was a very distorted version of the adult world.
  • &: What happened at the competition?

    RL:

    I went on and won the regional, then the national, and within six months my life just changed.

    Guizhou is very rich in natural resources, but it was in the bottom 3 in terms of poverty.

    I went from right in the middle of nowhere in Guizhou, to being signed with an agency in Beijing and an agency in France.

    I grew up as a mountain girl, and suddenly was exposed to the adult world before the age of 16, and it was a very distorted version of the adult world.

  • I remember going into a supermarket—those massive ones with many different floors. There was a section on the fourth floor for home appliances. I remember buying as many as I could, and sending all of them back home to everybody that I know.
  • &: How did that play out?

    RL:

    I became the face of Maybelline—the first Asian model to do that.

    In terms of money, I didn’t know what to do with it.

    I remember going into a supermarket—those massive ones with many different floors. There was a section on the fourth floor for home appliances. I remember buying as many as I could, and sending all of them back home to everybody that I know.

    I had no concept of finance or wealth management.

  • I felt like there were a lot of things that didn't align with me, but I couldn't quite identify them because I was so young. I just experienced this anger, I'm angry towards everybody. I don't trust them, I don't chat, I don't vibe with them.
  • Rui in 2014

  • I remember one day I woke up and didn't know where I was, so I needed to go open the blinds. “Oh, yellow cabs. Okay, that's New York.”
  • &: You were so young when you left home. How did that affect you?

    RL:

    There was a lack of feeling of home, being with your friends, growing up with your friends, and also being in school.

    I’d always wanted to do art. So I went to uni in Shanghai and studied art and English, but at the same time I was modeling.

    It was really like being a uni student was my part-time job. In the fourth year, I didn't even know where the library was. It was that bad, really shameful! [laughs]

    In my last year at uni, I was pretty fed up with how things were. The industry, the people, and what I felt was a misalignment between my values and the vibe of the modeling industry.

    The fashion industry is pretty unhealthy. At the time, everyone was very exposed to drugs and alcohol. I'd never been interested in any of this. You know, the most extensive experience for me is to smoke a joint and that's it.

    I felt like there were a lot of things that didn't align with me, but I couldn't quite identify them because I was so young. I just experienced this anger, I'm angry towards everybody. I don't trust them, I don't chat, I don't vibe with them.

    If I walked onto a set, I would just assume everyone was a dick. And most of the time they would be. There were a lot of egos and a lot of insecurity. I paint quite a dark picture of the fashion industry, but this is just my personal story of it.

    I just felt like having a break.

    I think from the age of 16 to about 20 or 21, my rent was paid to airplanes. I lived on an airplane. I slept on it. I ate on it. I met friends on it.

    I remember one day I woke up and didn't know where I was, so I needed to go open the blinds. “Oh, yellow cabs. Okay, that's New York.”

    People on the outside would think, “Oh, you're so glamorous” but really deep inside, the fundamental, deep questions were bubbling up.

    I was asking myself, “What am I doing?”

  • Going home was like my own way of healing. It’s going back to the closeness that I'm used to because I grew up within a community. My parents weren't around so much so the community brought me up.
  • &: Did you still stay in touch with your family and friends in Guizhou?

    RL:

    I would go home to Guizhou whenever there was a gap in my schedule. I remember it’s usually in the beginning of November, which is my birthday, and it’s also when everything stopped (after the Spring/Summer fashion week season).

    Going home was like my own way of healing. It’s going back to the closeness that I'm used to because I grew up within a community. My parents weren't around so much so the community brought me up.

    I grew up knowing that I can go to any house and people will be there to safeguard me.

    All of a sudden that was gone and you're like, “What should I do now?”

    I was just so tired of moving around.

  • Fitting for Jaimee McKenna at Central Saint Martins

  • They saw me talking to this old man on the CCTV and they were shocked. They were asking me, “You chatted with this person. Do you know who he is?”
  • &: And that’s when you decided to go study in London?

    RL:

    That’s a very interesting story.

    I was hesitating at the time whether to go to London or New York. I was living in Shanghai and in the French concession, which is very beautiful. It’s a mix of yin and yang, and eastern and western.

    There was a jazz club that I’d go to everyday. One Saturday, I went there and there was this silver-haired man in a white shirt, with a tacky champagne bucket and two bottles of champagne.

    He came and spoke to me and said, “Do you want to put your coat here? I have space and am waiting for my friends to arrive.”

    So I said, "Where are you from?" And he said he lived in London and we started chatting. I told him I was hesitating (about where to study) and he was like, “You have to come to London to study art. Are you kidding me?” He asked if I’d heard about Central Saint Martins.

    I was like, “Yeah, but they're there, I'm here.” (Moves hands around to signals high and low)

    He then asked me “So have you tried it? How do you know you can't do it?” He was the wingman for London.

    But that’s not the end of the story.

    The next day was Sunday, and so I would go chill out with the owners of the jazz club. Our favorite pastime on a Sunday was to eat dimsum and to watch the CCTV. People do all sorts of things like snogging each other when they're drunk.

    They saw me talking to this old man on the CCTV and they were shocked. They were asking me, “You chatted with this person. Do you know who he is?”

    It turns out I was chatting to Richard Branson for two hours!

  • That hasn't been a very easy process because, when you leave home, you lose your roots. You feel like you get diluted a bit. And even now, when I go back (to Guizhou), my friends would say, “Oh, don't worry about her, she's a foreigner.” But I come here and people will be like, “Oh, she's very Chinese.”
  • When in Brixton

  • &: Wow, you have Richard Branson to thank for ending up in London. What an incredible story. Does London feel like home now?

    RL:

    Since I've been rooted in London, in Brixton, it does feel like home.

    For me, when I leave London, I don't really miss London, but I would really miss Brixton or a particular spot in Brixton. To me, it’s got a good vibe, good style, good manners, humanity, integrity, fun. It's life, you know. Brixton is different from Notting Hill, for example. Everyone has their struggle with life. But when people come together, there's always clarity, and a celebration of life.

    At my favourite pub, they do Jamaican jazz on Thursdays, and you see 90-year-old grannies moving and shaking their booties, it's just great.

    That makes me feel at home, because home to me is very much like that type of courtesy and kindness. And at the same time, it is truthful. When you come out of Brixton tube, there're so many crazy people out there, but they're not pretending to be what they’re not. They say whatever they say, they are wherever they are. And I actually really like that as well.

    I think consciously, and also unconsciously, there's a lot that connects to who I am. Also, being in London really makes me try to explore who I am really.

    That hasn't been a very easy process because, when you leave home, you lose your roots. You feel like you get diluted a bit. And even now, when I go back (to Guizhou), my friends would say, “Oh, don't worry about her, she's a foreigner.”

    But I come here and people will be like, “Oh, she's very Chinese.”

    I'm constantly in between places, and that has been with me since the modelling kicked off. I think Grass People Tree has really helped me figure out what that means, and the integrity and pride that comes with it, as opposed to the confusion and the sense of loss that came with it before.

  • Rui in her "Previous Life"

  • I do still work in fashion and modelling, but I think that the form of that is now up to me, it's not about me being a slave.
  • &: You were a fashion model for a long time, modelling for some of the biggest names. I noticed on your Instagram stories that you've got a highlight that is titled "Previous Life". Is that how you see things— is there a line that you've drawn?

    RL:

    What I meant by “Previous Life” is that it’s a phase of my life which is now in the past.

    That phase was when I was constantly moving around without knowing where my roots are. That, to me, is a previous life. All the pain, the struggles and the confusion—all of that contributed to making me know profoundly where my roots are, and how and what I can do to grow that.

    I still do modelling, but I have two criteria. Firstly, it's got to be a job that I know that will vibe with me and that has a good crew. Secondly, it's got to be worth my time. That means I only work with people that I know, or work on projects that pay well so that it justifies my time.

    I do a lot of consultation now, and I work with many young girls, sharing with them my stories and telling them what are the things they need to watch out for.

    I do still work in fashion and modelling, but I think that the form of that is now up to me, it's not about me being a slave.

  • I think we were shooting a Valentino campaign. There were a lot of Mars bars and a lot of coffees! At some point you just feel like you need something more refreshing. So as every Chinese person does, in your bag, there's always a tea sachet that your parents or your relatives give you. I had this green tea that my parents gave me. I cleaned the coffee pot and brewed the tea. Immediately the leaves started popping up and doing pirouettes.
  • &: It sounds like you were feeling a lot of internal struggles that came with feeling a loss of identity. How did you face them head on? What made you look at yourself and think that you needed to find out who you are?

    RL:

    In Chinese, there’s a saying “It takes two hands to clap.” You can't make a clap with one hand.

    On the one hand, I was in the process of working things out. Particularly after having attended Saint Martins, I realised that everyone's struggling with their identity and looking for answers.

    But the great thing about Saint Martins is that everyone's looking for answers or to prove they have something to say with such desperation. That to me is very inspiring. You get elevated by your peers. And then soon you're thinking, “What am I doing?” I did a lot of things to figure stuff out. I did modelling. I had two design studios. I did window display projects. I was just going to try lots of different things.

    And on the other hand, something happened as I was modelling.

    I think we were shooting a Valentino campaign. There were a lot of Mars bars and a lot of coffees!

    At some point you just feel like you need something more refreshing. So as every Chinese person does, in your bag, there's always a tea sachet that your parents or your relatives give you.

    I had this green tea that my parents gave me. I cleaned the coffee pot and brewed the tea. Immediately the leaves started popping up and doing pirouettes.

    It was very beautiful. Through the glass jar, you could see it. You could smell it.

    Instantly, the music was off. Everyone came to look at it. What is this?

  • Because I brewed a pot of tea, curiosity came, questions came, presence came. Everybody was there and everyone was together.
  • At home in Guizhou

  • &: Wow. What happened next?

    RL:

    I remember somebody passed through the studio door, smelled it and asked, “What's that?”

    He ended up joining us to have tea. And I started telling them, “Oh it's a green tea from home.”

    “Where's your home?”

    “My home is Guizhou.”

    “Where's Guizhou? Show us on Google.”

    I started to show them on Google, and they were like, “This is your home? It's like Avatar, the movie.”

    They started to ask more questions. “What's it like growing up there? How come you're here?”

    Because I brewed a pot of tea, curiosity came, questions came, presence came. Everybody was there and everyone was together, and not in a stressful manner after working on that campaign for 20 hours.

    From then on, something clicked for me. Because for the next six months, I did exactly that every Thursday. There was always a group of 10 or 20 people at my house, drinking tea on a Thursday evening.

    That went on for six months. And at the same time I was giving people tea for free. Take this, drink that, try this. I was doing that to the point that my friends got so hooked—on the tea, the stories and everything around it.

    They said to me, maybe that's your way out.

  • I had to go back and check it out myself. So I went back and did that. What was planned as a two-month trip, became an on-and-off adventure for two and a half years.
  • &: Were you looking for a way out?

    RL:

    I wasn't consciously, but I think going back to the clap analogy, there has to be two things, the yin and yang or whatever you want to call it.

    There needs to be a yearning, and when you see something you make that link.

    I was quite reluctant because I've been so brainwashed by Western education and Western media about China's negatives. I grew up there in Guizhou and I was taught by the tea masters. Everyone was saying to me, that tea from home is the cleanest you can find in China. And of course, I just thought, “I don't believe you.”

    I had to go back and check it out myself. So I went back and did that. What was planned as a two-month trip, became an on-and-off adventure for two and a half years.

  • Once I put the message out, a lot of yuán fèn happened, and chá yuán also happened.
  • &: What did you do for the 2.5 years?

    RL:

    That period was me going back home and going through a process of clarifying, “Why am I here in London? What am I doing with my life?”

    I met so many people along the way.

    Once I put the message out, a lot of yuán fèn (editor’s note: loosely translated as fate or serendipity) happened, and chá yuán (editor’s note: tea-inspired fate or serendipity) also happened.

    I was introduced to the leaders of the tribes, the government people who are very passionate about tea, historians, writers, and people who went to Cambridge but came back to start a tea business. I went to more than 280 villages within that two and a half years. And I collected more than 30 notebooks worth of writing.

  • You ask a question and they tell you the answer; then you ask more questions, they tell you, and then you get a notebook out and you just start writing, or drawing. That has been, to me, perhaps the best time in my adult life, because you just learn so much about who you are. It's very personal to me.
  • &: What do you write in your notebooks?

    RL:

    Whatever people say.

    I enjoy learning, and particularly when there is interest, you don't even think about it (learning).

    It's so modern in China nowadays. No one takes a notebook out and writes notes. Most of the notes were taken at a tea table.

    Because I was exploring the tea and the culture around it, wherever you go, there's a tea table and people share tea with you.

    You ask a question and they tell you the answer; then you ask more questions, they tell you, and then you get a notebook out and you just start writing, or drawing.

    That has been, to me, perhaps the best time in my adult life, because you just learn so much about who you are. It's very personal to me.

    Before I started the journey I wasn't sure what was going to happen.

  • And he held my hands with his hand that was full of blisters. I remember the blisters bursting in my hand when he shook my hand. And he said, “Our stories depend on you. We don't have the skills and the language to speak to those people who are out there. But you are the person who can do that.”
  • Rui learning about tea

  • &: What did those 2.5 years teach you about who you are?

    RL:

    Richness. The richness in my culture. How I grew up, the diversity of that, the celebration of that, the difference from how the Western world views it. The way of life at a very deep, profound level.

    I didn't know much about wild indigenous teas. I didn't know there is such a library of diversity. It's mad. There are more than 400 languages spoken just in my province alone. And two villages next to each other speak completely different languages.

    To me, it was like, “Whoa, what am I doing in the UK?” I didn't even know this shit. There's just so like, dope. It really blew my mind in realizing this is the place I come from. These are my people. And these are the people who teach me. And everywhere I go, you meet with such sincere kindness and a sincere wish to share.

    The first year when I ran Grass People Tree, I never paid for a tea. They gave me the tea and said, “Well wishes are all that we can give you. Have it, share it. Go with it. Don't be afraid. Just share with people and share our stories.”

    I remember last time that when the Rao brothers gave me the tea, the younger brother was making tea and had so many blisters on his hand.

    When he was loading the tea into the jeep, it was such a big truck and he filled it up. I was like, “I don't need so much tea.” And he held my hands with his hand that was full of blisters. I remember the blisters bursting in my hand when he shook my hand. And he said, “Our stories depend on you. We don't have the skills and the language to speak to those people who are out there. But you are the person who can do that.”

    I was like “Okay, no pressure.” [laughs]

  • It's really taught me a lesson about being true to myself. And once you do that, there is really nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be planned, in the broader sense, because it just evolves itself.
  • &: What a powerful moment. So do you think that you are the connection? You are the messenger?

    RL:

    I think I'm the servant of the tea. That's what I've been doing.

    It's really taught me a lesson about being true to myself. And once you do that, there is really nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be planned, in the broader sense, because it just evolves itself.

  • During London Fashion Week in 2016

  • &: How did that mesh with your life in the fashion world?

    RL:

    There was an overlap when I was doing modelling and also trying to start Grass People Tree.

    I remember being backstage during London Fashion Week. I would always have a tea flask, and the vibe would always get so much better instantly because I have something to share.

    You always meet the same people. I remember having the same dresser for two seasons. In the second season he asked me, “How's the tea business going? Everyone knows that now you have a thing that you wanted so desperately to share.”

Dedication & Passion

Celebrating yourself

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  • But also, I think fashion has prepped me to work hard. Glamour aside, every single model who is out there in every season has a tremendous amount of commitment. Within 20 days you could be in 30 different places. That's just how it is. And the people may be as fucked up as can be. The creative process itself is the brilliance of people, the talent, set designers and more. Seeing all of that really teaches you about work ethics and expectations. If this is where I want to go, this is how much work I need to put in.
  • &: How has your fashion background affected the way you do business, or your storytelling narrative?

    RL:

    I think, for one, is to stick to people who know you and really celebrate you as you are. If you say my butt is too big, I’m not gonna walk on your catwalk. You have to know me as who I am. I think that translates as a kind of coherence in who you are.

    But also, I think fashion has prepped me to work hard.

    Glamour aside, every single model who is out there in every season has a tremendous amount of commitment. Within 20 days you could be in 30 different places. That's just how it is. And the people may be as fucked up as can be. The creative process itself is the brilliance of people, the talent, set designers and more.

    Seeing all of that really teaches you about work ethics and expectations. If this is where I want to go, this is how much work I need to put in.

    And another thing that is important is knowing where your passion is. At Central Saint Martins, people around me are all so passionate about something. Sometimes it borders on obsession. But it's that obsession that really pushes you, and sometimes deconstructs you, tears you apart, and regroups you into someone new for a period of time.

    I think that passion is very important. You're going to experience fatigue from all sorts of things like doing admin, standing at the post office, or going into a room of 20 CEOs and pitching them about why they need to drink your tea.

    Doing all of these things stem from passion.

  • Rui modelling for Michael Halpern

  • &: Being a model, there are those backstage moments, but once you’re on the runway, you’re centrestage. How does that feel for you?

    RL:

    Even when I was very young, one thing I felt that I took ownership of and really enjoyed is those 30 seconds when you're on the catwalk.

    You step into a narrative that is very different from reality. Fashion is a fantasy. Whatever the moodboard is for this season's inspiration, you adapt.

    When you walk onto the catwalk, you are the center of the attention. You hear the cameras clicking, the whole world is watching.

    I think I now have a more grown-up understanding of other people's work that they do for you to be there on the centrestage.

  • I think it’s important to encourage people to tell their stories and own their stories, particularly younger people.
  • &: As a messenger of tea, do you still feel like you’re at the centrestage?

    RL:

    For sure. I'm at the centre of my own stories. And I want to let others find their own centre stage as well.

    Because to me, Grass People Tree is about that narrative that is so authentic to you.

    The world desperately needs that right now. Inequality aside, we face so much challenges when it comes to cultural appropriation. I think it’s important to encourage people to tell their stories and own their stories, particularly younger people.

  • Now I identify it as my healing process, or contemplation process, introspective process. It's really a part of me trying to figure things out.
  • &: I was looking at your Instagram. You seem like a writer.

    RL:

    I write a lot.

    I wrote a novel at the age of nine and it was published.

    When I was a teenager, I wrote a lot because I had so much pain. I never understood why.

    Now I identify it as my healing process, or contemplation process, introspective process. It's really a part of me trying to figure things out.

    Last lockdown, I wrote a lot.

  • Words by Rui about Guizhou, home

  • &: Do you write in English or in Chinese?

    RL:

    It depends.

    When I'm in China I write a lot in Chinese. When I'm here I mostly write in English.

    I think it's dependent on what your linguistic environment is.

  • &: Are you the same person when you’re writing in English versus Chinese?

    RL:

    I haven’t really thought about that before, so this answer is going to be very general.

    If I’m in China, I feel like a more emotional person.

    When I’m writing in English, perhaps I’m more… rational?

    I become less emotional, but on point, in what I want to say. So I guess, maybe in Chinese, I'm a bit freer and a bit more myself.

  • I become less emotional, but on point, in what I want to say. So I guess, maybe in Chinese, I'm a bit freer and a bit more myself.
  • &: Are you the same person when you’re writing in English versus Chinese?

    RL:

    I haven’t really thought about that before, so this answer is going to be very general.

    If I’m in China, I feel like a more emotional person.

    When I’m writing in English, perhaps I’m more… rational?

    I become less emotional, but on point, in what I want to say. So I guess, maybe in Chinese, I'm a bit freer and a bit more myself.

  • Often when I'm stuck, I would go back to Chinese calligraphy, or the writing. That gives me such profound understanding of the meaning of things.
  • &: Are you stepping away from your emotions and becoming more objective when writing in English?

    RL:

    think it’s about the vocabulary you use to describe your feelings.

    English is a very generic language. It’s formed by letters.

    But Chinese language is about the composition of a word.

    This is when it becomes very interesting and very useful for me nowadays. I was trying to facilitate a team exercise recently.

    We were exploring the meaning of “sharing.”

    I was trying to contemplate with my “English brain.” What does sharing mean?

    Often when I'm stuck, I would go back to Chinese calligraphy, or the writing. So sharing is (made up of two characters) fen and xiang.

    When you say fen, it really means to be torn apart, to give a piece of yourself, like a cake. Then with xiang, there's the enjoyment.

    That gives me such profound understanding of the meaning of things.

  • Credit: earthstoriez

  • &: And that’s how “Grass People Tree” came about.

    RL:

    Yes.

    That’s why people are in the middle, and responding to the balance of things. The word reveals so many layers.

    I really like that, and thinking like that gives me tools which I don't think English as a second language does.

    Nowadays, if I wanted to write something, I would do a voice recording, because I’d just say whatever comes out and it might just be a mishmash of different languages.

    But it's about the flow of my thoughts. If I went straight to picking up a pen, I might have to deal with the spelling of the word, the grammar, the way to express something, the meaning of the expression, or the artistic way to go at it. All of these things will come at once, when I’m actually also trying to create a train of thought. That becomes a barrier when I’m just trying to get things out.

  • Particularly as a woman, as a woman who is non-white, as an immigrant, and as a small business owner. And also as a person who lives thousands of miles away from home. You need to find a way to connect with yourself here.
  • &: Besides writing, what other rituals or routines do you have?

    RL:

    I think it’s about knowing to choose myself.

    Particularly as a woman, as a woman who is non-white, as an immigrant, and as a small business owner. And also as a person who lives thousands of miles away from home. You need to find a way to connect with yourself here (Rui puts her hand over he heart).

    I think even the running of Grass People Tree to me is very healing. I haven't been home for two years, which is a long time. I think it's about doing things that you know are going to make you go back to a space that you're yourself completely.

    I do a lot of that because I live by myself. I do kung fu, I do Wing Chun. I drink tea.

    So all of the things you associate with a Chinese person who has an identity crisis, I do. [laughs]

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