A Cool Summer 12 Years Ago
Twelve years ago, on a day that began any other, she rose before dawn, quickly dressed and then made her way to the field. The ground was shrouded in a veil of mist; the hoe was freezing to the touch.
On this small plot of land in Hunan Province, a thousand miles south Beijing, 35-year-old Xie Yinmei would toil until nightfall, digging vegetables she hoped to sell at the county produce market.
It was a difficult life, but every penny counted as she and her husband struggled to support their family of four. Yet, despite their best efforts, they could barely make ends meet. An introverted and feisty woman, she knew all too well that working on the field and selling vegetables wouldn’t earn a better living for her family. Also, she didn't want to end up like most other women whose husbands were the sole bread-earner of the family——idling away by playing mahjong and talking gossips, repeated, predictable.
Later that day, Yinmei decided to make the two-hour trek to the produce market. It was a decision that would change the trajectory of her life. As she walked through the market, someone pressed her a leaflet into her hand. Glancing at it, she saw that it was from the Woman’s Federation. They were recruiting rural women for free housekeeping training in Beijing.
“I didn’t even know what a housekeeper was,” she now admits. “But I was immediately tempted because it said the Women’s Federation would pay for travel and food.”
That evening, Yinmei shared the information with her husband. She was not surprised by his response: “If you leave, don’t come back.” At the time, rural men did not readily accept the idea of their wives leaving home to work in distant cities. But Yinmei was not discouraged.
“I was determined to go,” she says. “I was confident that I could earn a good salary and support the family.” Then with a chuckle she adds, “Besides, sending the money home would irritate my husband.”
The Only One Left
“When we boarded the train, all of us were very excited,” Yinmei recalls the time when she first came to Fuping, “but as soon as the train started moving, we fell silent.”
Their reaction was understandable. These rural women, most of whom had never left the county, were now embarking on a thousand-mile journey and leaving behind everything they knew.
Thousands of millions of migrant workers come and go each year; only few can find their feet in the city. Xie Yinmei is one of them, though she also experienced moments of disappointment and thought of leaving. Homesickness quickly set in, and several women returned home within the first week. At the time, computers and mobile phones were far less common, so it was much more difficult to keep in touch with loved ones. As training continued, even more fled. Of the more than twenty women who began the journey, only Yinmei and one other completed the training.
On the day of her graduation, Yinmei was offered employment. Ironically, the other graduate, upon seeing Yinmei being taken away, had a change of heart and surreptitiously took a train home.
“Maybe it’s hard for others to understand,” Yinmei says in her defence, “but we are from the countryside, and it was an intimidating thought to live with city people we’d never met.”
Never Too Late to Learn More
Reality turned out to be far more pleasant that Yinmei had dared imagine. Her employer was patient and friendly, and her training proved to be invaluable.
“What I had learnt in Fuping turned out to be quite handy. I had learnt how to cook flapjack, all kinds of pastas and typical northern dishes, how to use gas stove, washing machine, electric irons and other home appliances, and lastly, how to take care of kids their way. Without the training, these things would have been way beyond me, someone from southern countryside.”
Nonetheless, Xie Yinmei stumbled as a beginner. Once she misheard “meat filling” as rice noodles, due to their resemblance in her dialect. Another time, she overcooked dumplings into a pot of porridge. Instead of blaming her, the client laughed over her mistake and asked her not to take it too hard, “You’re only beginning and practice makes perfect.”
Over the past 12 years, Yinmei has worked for four families. She keeps in touch with all of them.
“I feel so lucky that everybody I’ve met has been so good to me. I’ve learned so much from them. Especially about caring for children. Instead of scolding or spanking, parents teach good behaviour by reasoning and setting a good example.” The kids are asked to greet the families when leaving and getting back home. So everyday, Xie Yinmei would hear the kid call her politely: “Hello, auntie”, “Goodby, auntie”.
Small things like this warmed Yinmei’s heart and started to change her. Her first reunion with her own children came during the Spring Festival not long after she began her employment. “My sons told me I’d changed, that I’m no longer like the other villagers. They wanted to spend time with me and listen to my stories. But what made me happiest was that they approved of my working in Beijing. I was afraid that we’d become estranged, but instead I felt their love and respect.
Even her husband warmed to the idea of Yunmei’s employment. Initially, he didn’t believe she’d earn enough money to make a difference. But once Yinmei began sending her salary home, he realized that her contributions would transform their lives. Although no apology was spoken aloud, Yunmei knows that he regrets his harsh words.
Indeed, the lives of Yunmei and her family were transformed. They were able to build a house and furnish it with comfortable furniture and modern electronics. Her sons received a good education that enabled them to open small businesses in Wenzhou and Guangzhou. And the villagers who once gossiped about the woman who left her family behind, now speak the name Xie Yinmei with respect and admiration.
It took Xie Yinmei 12 years to chase a dream 1,000 miles away. What she achieved, however, is much more than a dream.
The Rich Life of A Migrant Worker
Xie Yinmei has been with Fuping for 12 years. Several years ago, she joined Fuping’s art society.Today, Xie Yunmei spends much of her free time at the Fuping Art Society. Created in 2012, the Art Society offers Fuping’s graduates an opportunity to explore and expand their linguistic, artistic and IT skills. as way of self-improvement for these female migrant workers.
After joining, Yinmei began to see changes in herself. “I used to be an introvert who never rested during the holidays, so I could earn overtime pay. Then someone told me about the Art Society, and now I regret not coming earlier. In the past, I would cry when I was homesick or felt sad. Now I come here, to my second home! I learn all kinds of things, which makes me feel more fulfilled, younger and even healthier!”
After so many years, Yinmei still calls Fuping her ‘second home’. Each Saturday gathering is homecoming for her. The day we interviewed her, she was rehearsing for its annual “Migrant Workers’ Gala”. In a several-minute performance, the housekeepers performed dancing, clappers talk, bel canto and folk songs. Yinmei had a central role to give the most important lines. She wrote down those lines on a sheet of paper, and memorized it by heart during the break. When it was her turn, she delivered them with a broad smile, clear voice and vigor that people could hardly associate her with the introvert that she used to be.
At the age of 15, Li left her home in the mountains of Shanxi Province to work as a nanny in Beijing. As she stepped onto a train for the first time, she was filled with hope and happiness. She would help her family escape poverty. She would earn enough money to build a house. She would pay for her brothers’ weddings. It was dream come true. But once she began working, the dream quickly became a nightmare.
Like many people brought up in rural China, Li did not have a storybook childhood. When she was eight, her mother died of complications from a serious disease. The true cause of death, however, was poverty: the family could not afford proper medical care. Being the daughter of a poor farmer meant Li never had new clothes, and that noodles with salt and vinegar constituted a feast. After finishing primary school, she begged her father to send her to middle school, but even that was beyond their means. Life seemed hopeless. Then came the opportunity to work in Beijing.
In 1999, the 15-year old Li was taken to Beijing to work as a nanny. The first time on a train was exciting and she was full of hope: she will make enough to build a house for family, and pay for her brothers’ weddings. Once she got out from train station, the city unfolded before her eyes was beyond her wildest imagination: the colorful neon lights, the countless sky scrappers and the endless stream of vehicles. She felt like coming into an alien world for the first days. She had never seen a washing machine or fridge before, or even ceramic tiles, toilet and toilet paper. She wondered how gas stove makes fire without burning wood; she had never had green leaf vegetables like pak choi or rape, let alone chicken, duck, fish or shrimps. There were also numerous rules from her mistress that she couldn’t remember: she had to stand while doing her work; she must reply whenever called upon; when she sent the baby to sleep, she had to keep a distance from the bed; she mustn’t wash her own clothes in the washing machine; only use the water used after cooking milk bottle to wash feet; no reading; no calling home without permission, because it’s illegal.
One afternoon 3 months later, Li saw the kid moved, knowing he wanted to pee she carried him out from bed. The mistress heard the kid crying, accused her for keeping the kid awake and slapped her face several times. Li curled up in a corner, too frightened to protest.
Her silence only led to more abuse. She thought: They paid me, and if I couldn’t reach their standards, being beaten is justified. When the kid should go to kindergarten, the mistress asked Li to sew the 7 slit pants up and embroider the kid’s name on more than 10 pairs of socks. She did this until 4 in the morning, and couldn’t resist sleeping. Suddenly she felt a piercing pain on her face. The angry mistress was poking her face with a needle! “I hired you to work, how dare you to rest without finishing! Do it yourself!” The mistress handed her the needle, and Li cried as she pierced her own face and arms until they were filled with blood.
Among Li’s chores was taking out the garbage, which is how she met a sympathetic neighbour. The old woman gently touched Li’s face, where the signs of abuse still lingered. “You have to get away,” she told her. “Before they beat you to death.”
A few weeks later, they nearly did. Li’s employer smashed her face with an iron rod, knocking her unconscious. When she came to, she managed to escape to the neighbor’s house, and there she was able to phone her relatives. The next day, her uncle spoke to a liaison in the Shanxi Provincial Government, and they coordinated her rescue. Later, when she was given a medical examination, her body was so covered with bruises and injuries that even the doctors shed tears.
After reading about Li’s story, a human rights lawyer contacted her and offered to help her file a lawsuit against her former employer. Li was sceptical, but because she had learned that up to a third of domestic workers suffer some form of abuse, she decided to proceed. “It’s not just for me,” she reasoned. “It’s for all of us.”
Eventually, the employer was found guilty and sentenced to 15 days of detention. She was also made to pay monetary damages for the physical and mental abuse she inflicted on Li, and to write a formal letter of apology. Upon parting, the lawyer reminded Li, “The law protects your rights.” These words moved his young client, who had, until recently, believed she had no rights at all.
n late 2003, the Female Migrant Worker’s Home, an NGO, held a symposium entitled, “Beijing’s Domestic Worker Training and Rights Protection.” Li was invited to share her experiences. Her talk included eight tips for ensuring a satisfying employment experience. (The tips were so well received that they were published in the journal, Female Migrant Worker.)
After her talk, she was approached by a man who asked her, “Did you write those tips yourself?” Li assured him she had. “I’ll pay you 500RMB for the right to publish them,” he said. The man was Jaff Shen, principal of the Beijing Fuping Vocational Training School. When Li realized whom she was talking to, she mustered the courage to ask, “May I study in your school?” He smiled and said, “We need women like you.”
In the spring of 2004, Li started a new life after coming to Beijing for 5 years. Teaching was not an easy task for her, who barely finished primary school. The first time she tried to teach, she was so nervous that she almost passed out. Although grandpa told her: ”Just imagine all the students were carrots. ” However, when she stood on the podium and saw Mr. Chen, Director of Admission’s Office at Fuping School, was also there, she panicked and hurried to finish the class in 15 minutes.
A year later, she’d settled into her position and continued to hone her teaching skills. “ Li is a very motivated person,” Mr. Chen asserted. “I would often see her late at night with her head buried in a book. She works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen, and I know she’s going to be a wonderful teacher.” Humbled by the praise, Li added, “I don’t have much formal education, so I have to make up for it with hard work.”
“At first I was so naive to believe the client wouldn’t let me go outdoors because there were woman traffickers out there. When I was finally allowed to buy food, I was nervous at other people’s glances, because I thought they’re going to sell me.” Li said with a smile. She is no longer that silly young girl 6 years ago, but a “senior” teacher in Fuping. “I’ll make sure to teach them everything.” Li is quite confident, “I’ll encourage the timid students and give arrogant ones questions they can’t answer; let the cocky students know that we teachers have much to offer…”
Indeed, it was hard work that took Li from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Shanxi Province to a respected teaching position at Beijing Fuping Vocational Training School. Her journey serves as an inspiration to all who seek a better life.
“Shaanbei Complex” Led Him to Fuping
Chen Peizu was born in 1950. An indigenous Beijinger, he spent the best years of his life in the countryside north of Shaanxi Province, known as the Shaanbei District.
The first 50 years of his life has nothing to do with social benefit, charity or social enterprise. The only thing he had in common with Leping is their kinship with countryside and peasants. “After staying in the Great Northwest for 20 years, I know the terrain of this locality like the back of my hand and see the people there like my family.” In 1969, the 19-year old Chen Peizu was sent down to work in the countryside of Shaanxi Province. The next year, he was recruited into the Yan’an Song and Dance Troupe as he learnt to sing since early age. He spent the summer of 1970 performing as a folk song tenor in the troupe. “At that time, we were touring in the 13 counties and sang some of the favorite songs for the locals. I know it like the back of my hand, and I think of the people there as my family.”
In 1990, he returned to Beijing to work in the Tongzhou District Culture Center. It was a nine-to-five job, and over the years, he lost interest. He learned from a friend that two well-known economists, Tang Min and Mao Yushi, were seeking to hire someone familiar with the Great Northwest in order to recruit students. “When I heard they wanted someone to work in an area that I knew so well, I was more than willing to go.”
The look on his face was genuine.
He’d always remember the day on Faburary 22nd, 2002. It was when he passed the interview at Yushi Mao’s home, he became the head of recruitment for Beijing Fuping Vocational Training School. “I remember that day vividly like yesterday. Every thing happened ever since told me how should I live my life without regret.”
The interview took place in the home of Mao Yushi, and on February 22, 2002, Peizu became the head of recruitment for Beijing Fuping Vocational Training School.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says with a wistful smile, “for that was the day I began to live my life without regret.”
A Story that Changed His Life
“What has impressed me most? It must be the story of Jing.” When asked what impressed him the most in all these years he spent at Fuping, Zupei replied with certainty.
“The first time I saw Jing, she was skinny and frail,” Zupei recalls. “And she was carrying a big, shabby rucksack,” It was New Year’s Day, and he’d been at Fuping for a little over two years. “She’d come alone, all the way from Fuyang in Henan Province. The first thing she said was, ‘the local Women’s Federation sent me here. Will you take me?’ As soon as I said yes, she burst into tears. As it turned out, Jing’s husband was an alcoholic, a gambler, and an abuser. He beat her regularly for giving birth to two girls instead of boys.
When she rolled up her sleeve, I saw her badly scalded arm. Thoughts of suicide had passed through her head, but Jing couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning her little girls. ‘I have no right to die,’ she told me.”
Jing blossomed at Fuping, embracing her training and the opportunity it presented. After she graduated, Zupei shared her story with Jing’s new employer, who was so moved that she increased Jing’s pay by 300 RMB even before she began.
As Jing stepped into the elevator on the day of her departure, she turned to Zupei and said, “You saved my life, my daughters lives and my whole family.”
He was deeply moved, but upon reflection realized that Jing was mistaken. He had not saved her life. She had done the saving. At that moment, he understood that above all, Fuping’s role was to empower women with training and opportunity. They would save themselves.
Since then, Chan Zupei has been committed to helping women like Jing—to providing them with the chance they deserve. A chance to break free from the shackles of poverty. A chance to find fulfillment through meaningful employment. A chance to live a life they never thought possible.
From Struggle to Success
The Beijing Fuping Vocational Training School opened on March 16, 2002 with fifty students and eight staff. They were outnumbered by the journalists who covered the event. “We were the first school to offer this type of training,” Zupei recalls. “Before us, no one thought to train housekeepers. And no one thought to recruit low-income women in rural areas and help them find job placement in urban areas.”
Within three months, the school faced a serious problem: it was almost impossible to find enough students. There were two reasons for this. First, villagers were skeptical, as free training and high-paying jobs sounded too good to be true. “Some even took me to be a human trafficker,” Zupei remembers. “They called the police to investigate.”
Second, the idea of leaving home to work for rich people in a distant city was daunting.
By relying on knowledge he’d gained from 20 years of living in the Great Northwest, Zupei steadily earned the confidence of the women he hoped to recruit. He could see curiosity in their eyes and was convinced of their desire to pursue a better life.
Gradually, the students started to come. A reputation began to form. Eventually, local governments began handling recruiting and subsidies, so Fuping was able to concentrate on training and job placement. This arrangement became known as the Fuping Model, and it is now used across the industry. To date, more that 35,000 women have graduated from Fuping, and the number continues to grow.
During Zupei’s 14-year tenure, Fuping pioneered the formal training of domestic workers and shaped the housekeeping industry. It successfully pushed for the implementation of national policies that ensure paid leave, double pay for overtime, and adequate insurance coverage. “We call it ‘Employment with Dignity’,” Zupei says proudly. “Currently, there are more than 3,000 housekeeping service companies, and almost all of them operate by the standards Fuping has established.”
Zupei knows that Fuping has to achieve many more things, so its social impact could reach a larger population. Two years ago, Fuping launched an online platform offering further training and vocational counsel, which provides an easy access to learning resources to a wider range of low-income labor forces. “It’s hard enough to establish Fuping all from scratch, when it comes to scaling up, I know we still have a long way to go. But I feel hopeful to work with my colleagues.”
Three Years Without Pay
“In Fuping, I’ve met people I’ve never met before, like Mr. Tang and Mr. Mao, Economists who put theories into practice. And people like Mr. Shen, who worked without pay during Fuping’s three most difficult years.”
The “Mr. Shen” he mentioned is Jaff Shen, now CEO of Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation. During Fuping’s tumultuous first three years, Mr. Shen worked tirelessly and without pay. In fact, it was he who developed the Fuping Model, also known as the Public-Private Partnership, whereas the local government is in charge of recruiting and providing subsidies to rural women, Fuping is in charge of training and job placement. Nowadays, this model has been introduced to Hunan, Henan, Shaanxi and Gansu Province. Combined with State Council’s “Domestic Service Project”, all the workers in this industry are now entitled free training.
Inspired by Jaff’s behavior, Zupei decided to continue working at Fuping for at least three year after retirement. And he will do so without pay, just like what Jaff did.
“I was motivated to join Fuping out of curiosity and to earn a living,” Peizu says softly. “Now I can’t live without it. So you see, being a volunteer will bring me great joy.”
In the past 14 years, Zupei witnessed Fuping’s growth, struggling through being unable to recruit students to sustainability; he also saw how it enabled more than 30,000 women to improve their lives with their own hands, how it pushed the implementation of national policies and the establishment of a set of new industrial standards for domestic works——free training, commercial insurance, paid leaves, etc.
“Currently there are more than 3,000 housekeeping service companies, almost all up to the standards Fuping has established. ” Zupei raised his voice with pride, “Maybe other people don’t, but I know we are the trailblazers of industry, for which I feel deeply gratified.”