You are on page 1of 14

The Generous Vegetable Seller

2010 Asian of the Year Winner

CHEN SHU-CHU
This extraordinary woman thinks nothing of living a
life devoid of luxuries in order to help those less
fortunate than herself
by Esther Liang

After the morning hustle and bustle, the atmosphere


at Central Market in Taiwan’s Taitung county
quietens as every stall shuts for the day and the
owners return to the comfort of their homes. A lone
lamp shines on a vegetable stall. With head bowed,
Chen Shu-Chu, who turns 60 this month, silently
sorts vegetables as she waits for the occasional
afternoon customer. Decades of hard work has
caused the fingers on her right hands to look gnarled,
its joints swollen; her feet are slightly deformed.
Chen has a daily routine—waking up at 3am, she
makes her way to the vegetable wholesaler and sets Vegetable vendor Chen has
up her stall, which she tends till seven or eight in the donated the equivalent of 1.5
evening. The first to arrive in the dark, damp market crore to charity.
and the last to leave, other stall-owners have fondly nicknamed her ‘market manager.’

Chen holds the stall her father left her dearly. Yuan-Jin Vegetables is her everything.
Selling at “a bundle for 30 dollars*, three bundles for 50,” Chen earns only marginal
profits. Yet, her frugality has allowed her to donate about NT$10 million (nearly Rs1.5
crore) towards various charitable causes, including helping schools, orphanages and
poor children.

The selfless generosity of a woman with such a humble income has placed her under the
international spotlight. In March, Forbes magazine named her one of 48 outstanding
philanthropists from the Asia-Pacific region. A month later, Time magazine selected the
year’s top 100 influential people and Chen emerged under the Heroes of Philanthropy
category. Fellow Taiwanese and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee wrote her entry
personally. “Money is only worthy if given to those in need,” he quoted Chen. He also
wrote, “Amazing, but of all she has given away, her greatest gift is leading by
example.”

Despite the honour of receiving the Time award in New York, gaining global
recognition, and a personal meeting with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, all Chen
really cares about is her vegetable stall. If not for President Ma and the foreign minister
personally convincing her to go, she would not have agreed to visit New York as she
feels, “This is not a competition and I did not win anything.” Amid the frenzy of
applying for a passport and preparing for the visit, Chen’s main concern was that her
regular customers would not get their vegetables.

Chen has become a celebrity in Taitung county. Local authorities decorated her stall
with congratulatory posters and banners hailing her as the “Pride of Taitung” and the
“Model of Philanthropy.” Fans turn up at the stall with a vegetable basket and a camera,
hoping for a picture with Chen. Despite all the attention, Chen remains humble, saying,
“I have done nothing extraordinary and everyone who wants to can do it.

There are many other charitable people; we just don’t know about them.” Chen, who is
unmarried, adds, “I do not place great importance on money. When I donate to help
others, I feel at peace, I’m happy, and I can sleep well at night.” She also feels for the
poor, having experienced hardship in her younger days.

Chen had just completed primary school when her mother was admitted to hospital due
to difficulties in labour. The family needed to pay an insurance premium before medical
attention would be given. Chen’s father asked their neighbours for the money but it was
too late to save her mother. The family’s eldest daughter, Chen had to grow up
overnight, giving up her studies to help at the vegetable stall.

When she was 18, her younger brother was stricken with illness which dragged on for
over a year, gradually depleting the family’s savings. Doctors suggested they take the
boy to Taiwan National University Hospital, but how could they afford the fees? Huang
Shun-zhong, a teacher at the primary school Chen attended, started a donation drive, but
her brother too could not be saved.

The kindness bestowed upon her family inspired Chen, who made up her mind to help
the poor once she was able. When her father passed away 17 years ago, Chen, a devoted
Buddhist, generously donated NT$1 million (`15 lakh) to Fo Guang Shan Monastery. In
2000, she donated NT$1 million to her primary school, for an Emergency Relief Fund
to help poor children get financial help.

Assisting in the setting up and maintenance of the fund is Li Guo-rong, who teaches
Chen’s nephew. In 2001, Li had a plan to build a library for the school and estimated
the cost to be between NT$4 million and NT$5 million. When he approached Chen, in
the hope that she might contribute NT$50,000, Li was shocked when Chen said she
would fund the entire project. The school was skeptical, but Chen was determined. In
May 2005, the two-storey library was completed and named “Chen Shu-Chu Library” in
honour of the “vegetable market heroine” alumnus who had donated NT$4.5 million.
Chen’s ability to give away such large sums of money has led many to ask, How can a
mere vegetable seller earn so much?

“Spend only what you need, and you’ll be able to save a lot!” says Chen. Since 1996,
she has been donating NT$36,000 to help three children in the Kids Alive International
organization. To achieve this, Chen explains that she empties her loose change into
three little cardboard boxes at home every night. “This is a simple act that can be done
by anyone, isn’t it?” she says.

Chen leads a very simple life without any luxuries. Neither does she have any desire for
material gains or any form of enjoyment. Work, she says, is her enjoyment. “I love my
work. If I didn’t, would I be able to work 16 hours a day?”

All she needs is food and a place to sleep. Everything else is a luxury. She does not buy
expensive clothes. “I do not socialize much, hence there is no need for beautiful clothes.
The clothes from the roadside stalls are good enough for me, and even then, I like to
bargain.” Her daily meals cost little: a vegetarian rice dish and a bowl of noodles.
Freeze whatever cannot be finished, buy a can of gluten and add that to the rice with
some hot water. “This becomes porridge and is very tasty,” says Chen.

She also sleeps on the hard floor, a habit from her younger days when she first started
working at the vegetable stall. The comfort of her warm bed made getting up early to go
to the wholesaler very difficult, especially during the cold winter months. Hence Chen
made up her mind to sleep on the cold floor, where she would not run the risk of being
late.

Has business improved after winning the award? “Business is as usual,” Chen says. “I
still need to sell my vegetables, not much has changed.” Advertisers have approached
her to film commercials, financial managers have offered to manage her finances and
other well-wishers have offered to donate money. Chen rejects these advances politely.
“It is easy to return borrowed money, but difficult to return a favour,” she says.

“I have to be very careful in handling money matters,” she adds. Even when customers
tip her, she refuses to accept any of it. “Buying from my stall is already a form of
support,” she explains.

The only commercial Chen was willing to take on was for Taiwan’s Bureau of National
Health Insurance, in memory of her beloved mother. Chen requested that all shoots be
done beside her stall so as not to affect her business. The only payment she was willing
to accept was a black T-shirt given by the Bureau.

Since her return from New York, Chen has been working even longer hours. She has a
new goal: to collect NT$10 million to set up a “Chen Shu-Chu Bursary” aimed at
helping poor children pay their school fees and medical bills, things she could not afford
as a child. “All I need is to sell a few more vegetables, save a little more money, and
encash a number of insurance policies that are near the end of their term. A lot of people
are also willing to donate. I am sure there won’t be any problems,” says Chen.
Li, who treats Chen like a sister, says that setting up the bursary is actually a good way
to let her retire from selling vegetables and start influencing society with her reputation,
in the hope that there will be more generous Chen Shu-Chus.
“My philosophy in life is simple: If doing something makes you worried, then it must
be a wrong thing. If it makes you happy, then you must have done the right thing. What
others say is not important,” says Chen. She is content with what she has and feels that
as long as she lives a life she wishes for and does the things she wants, “that is good
enough.”
The Woman Who Earns W1 Billion Teaching English
Yoo Soo-youn has risen from nothing to
become a popular English teacher of a string of
crammers preparing students for English
proficiency tests and earn a yearly income of
about W1 billion from her crammers, outside
lectures and media appearance. Now, she has
published a book in which she tells her story
and explains her belief that by giving her best
every day, she overcame her lack of degrees
from a top-notch university, wealthy family
background, or, as she believes, good looks.

Yoo graduated from Kangnam University in


1995 with a BA in business and received a
master's degree in business at Aston University
in England. Afterwards, she returned to Korea and began teaching preparation for the
TOEIC English proficiency test, which is still widely taken in Korea. "I leave home
around six-thirty in the morning and give TOEIC lectures from 7 a.m to 2 p.m. I teach
about 1,000 people, 200 in each of the five classes," she says. "After the lectures, I head
over to the Yoo soo-youn English Center, which I established, around 2.30 p.m. When
I'm done there, I head back to my classes and lecture from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. I usually
handle three classes of 200 people. My day officially ends when I get home around 11
p.m. I usually go to sleep at 1.30 a.m. in the morning after I check online posts and
comments related to my lectures. I haven't slept for more than five hours a day since I
became an adult."

Constantly juggling a busy schedule, Yoo has no time to put on makeup. "I always give
lectures without wearing any. Some students are confused when they see me for the first
time, since I look so different from the pictures. That's why I always tell them on the
first day, 'Anyone seen my headshot in the advertising materials? When you start to
think I'm pretty without makeup, you'll score over 950 on the TOEIC.'"
She also gets many middle school and high school English teachers in her classes.
"Because the competition in the education sector is so fierce, they constantly need to
develop new teaching methods over a short period of time. That's why they come here
to learn from my lecturing skills."

Yoo believes the only way to learn English is through pure effort. "To improve my
English speaking skills, I would decide on a subject and talk about it with my friends
only in English," she said. "To improve my listening skills, I picked out a movie and
watched it over and over for more than two months. Sometimes, I would end up
confusing the movie with reality."

She declined to speculate about the future. "I often say 'I do not have a dream,' because I
want to be faithful to what is happening in the present," she said. "Opportunities don't
come knocking on your door one day out of the blue. But only people who constantly
try to better themselves despite their failures can discover them by chance."
englishnews@chosun.com / Aug. 28, 2009 07:28 KST
Restaurateur finally finds
success
Bankruptcy and business failure couldn’t deter defector
May 15, 2010

Kim Yong, a North Korean defector, greets customers at his restaurant


Morangak, which is packed with customers on the evening of May 8 in
Ilsan, Gyeonggi. By Cho Yong-chul

After Kim Yong, 50, escaped from North Korea and settled in South Korea in 1991, he
seemed to have turned his life around.

He was in demand as a television personality and a singer and was one of the most
popular and influential North Korean defectors in the South. In addition to the
resettlement subsidy provided for North Korean defectors by the South Korean
government, Kim quickly scooped up a fortune.

But he lost everything in 1993 when he was defrauded twice by scam artists who went
after his money. He also lost his property.

It was one of his hobbies that soon catapulted him into his next venture.

Kim, who liked entertaining, often invited his friends to his house. He would cook them
Pyongyang naengmyeon, a chilled North Korean-style soup with buckwheat noodles.
His friends really liked his naengmyeon and suggested that he open his own restaurant.

In June 1996, Kim opened his first naengmyeon restaurant, Morangak, in Ilsan,
Gyeonggi, and it was a huge success.

Three years and seven months later, he had 94 restaurants in Korea, Japan and the
United States.

“There was a time I paid 1 billion won in tax per year,” Kim recalled, describing his
success.

He put his earnings into the bank and in 2000 he was awarded a Prime Minister’s Prize
on Savings Day.

Kim then donated his part of the profits, which by that time amounted to tens of
millions of won, to orphanages, senior centers and facilities set up for North Korean
defectors.

He hit another wall in 2001 when he took a trip around the country to check the quality
of the food at his restaurants and express his gratitude to the franchise owners. What he
discovered changed his life again.

Some of the restaurants were using Kim’s picture but not selling Kim’s brand of
naengmyeon.

To save his brand and his reputation, Kim overhauled his business and terminated
contracts with franchises that were in violation of their contract agreement.

As a result, many of the franchises closed and his revenue declined dramatically until
the business collapsed altogether in 2005.

“Back then, I slept for four straight days to forget about what was going on,” Kim said.

Kim was in despair after his business collapsed, but his employees encouraged him to
persevere.

“Some of my colleagues told me there was a way out even if I didn’t have any money
because my brand, Kim Yong and Morangak, still existed in people’s minds,” Kim said.

In 2006, he rallied his business partners and re-launched a large 300-seat Morangak
restaurant in Ilsan, Gyeonggi. It was an instant success.

The company’s frozen naengmyeon and kimchi naengmyeon products are now exported
to the United States, Canada and Australia. In Korea, they have been the No. 1
naengmyeon products on a local home shopping channel for three consecutive years.

Kim recently expanded his business and ventured into the ramen industry when he
opened a ramen restaurant chain called “Yong Ramyeon.”

Meanwhile, commenting on the Cheonan disaster, Kim said he hopes that North Korea
is not behind the sinking of the South Korean Navy vessel and that the North will
eventually reform their economic system.

“I hope there’s a way that my [business] experience can help the North Korean
economy,” Kim said.

By Park Tae-kyun, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]


A Hardworking Korean at Top Milan Design Studio
Atelier Mendini in Milan breathes warmth into
architecture and design. Design guru brothers
Alessandro and Francesco Mendini have given a
spirit to inanimate objects and produced
luxurious designs for Cartier, Hermes, Etro,
Alessi, Swatch and Philips.

Although a leading architecture and design


consulting firm, it is known for not hiring many
people. The company has about 30 people
working in the office, with just 12 in permanent
position. And Korean designer Cha Young-hee is one of the lucky dozen.

Cha joined Atelier Mendini in 2000. She started


her design career at Hanssem, a major Korean
furniture company, in 1994 before going to
Instituto Europeo Design in Italy in 1997. She
graduated three years later, and boldly went to
the Atelier and met Alessandro Mendini. She
told him that she really wanted to work there.
Mendini told her, "You have to work unpaid for
two to three months to get a chance to be hired
here. Even after that, the chances of getting a
permanent job here are slim. If you still want to
work, then go on."

For Cha, who had only studied design, there


were so many things she needed to learn. She
had to study laws related to architecture. "I worked two or three times harder than other
people until late at night, and I tried to come up with four new ideas for every one that
the others had," she recalls. "When I look back, I think I tried harder because working
unpaid at a relatively advanced age hurt my pride." Three months later, she was the only
person among the interns who landed a permanent job, and is the only Korean to work
there.

Cha sums up her time in Italy as "a mosaic of joy and exhaustion." "The biggest thing I
learned here is the ability to enjoy work itself. Alessandro Mendini is almost 80, but he
goes to more exhibitions and lectures than us younger people, and he constantly
sketches new designs. I learned the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open at all
times. Good design lightens up lives. Perhaps what sets a luxury brand apart from others
is the fact that it makes people smile and feel happy," she says.
englishnews@chosun.com / Mar. 04, 2010 07:37 KST
Global trip changes lawyer’s life
plan
Travel helped free her of prejudice
January 08, 2011

Woo Eun-jeong, 26, shares a photo with a child she met last year on the shore of Lake Titikaka
in Peru. Her visit to the area was part of a trip around the world she gave herself after passing
the Korean bar examination. The trip, she said, changed her life and career goals. [YONHAP]

While she was living in a small room at a gosiwon, a dormitory-like facility for people
who want to focus on studying, Woo Eun-jeong, 26, tacked a world map to the wall and
promised she would treat herself to a trip around the world if she passed the Korean bar
exam.

Last year, she was able to fulfill her promise when she set off on a 319-day trip that
took her to 24 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and South America.

The trip, she said, changed her life.

Woo passed the bar in 2008 when she was a junior in the law program at Ewha Womans
University. But instead of entering the Judicial Research and Training Institute straight
away, she spent 2009 earning money for the trip and she took off to travel the world,
deferring her entry to the Judicial Research and Training Institute twice.

The JRTI aims to further the education of those who have passed the Korean bar
examination before entering the legal profession, according to its Web site.

“Ever since I saw the starving children in Africa, my dream of becoming a legal
professional working for a global NGO has grown stronger,” Woo said.

She said she doesn’t regret choosing travel over entering the JRTI right away, even
though competition for jobs in the legal profession grows more fierce every year.

“Through traveling, I was able to break free from the prejudice and stereotypes I had of
the world and I promised myself I would become a conscientious lawyer,” said Woo,
who will enter from the JRTI in March.

After passing the bar, Woo saved 10 million won ($8,906) by working as an assistant
teacher at a cram school during the day and a bartender at night. She left Seoul last
January.

Her first destination was South Africa. She then went to Kenya and Ethiopia and moved
on to countries in the Middle East and Europe. The final continent she visited was South
America, where she traveled to Columbia, Brazil and Argentina. She also went to Cuba
before returning to Seoul on Dec. 10.

Woo said that some experiences still linger in her memory, especially those of meeting
a starving 17-year-old Ethiopian girl who could not even muster the strength to ask for
food, the four days of ardent hospitality she received from a local in Tunisia and
meeting Cuban people living on only 30,000 to 40,000 won a month.

“When I was saying goodbye to the Ethiopian girl, I gave her $200 and told her never to
give up on her dream of becoming a doctor,” Woo said.

She added that seeing so many people fighting with poverty every single day, allowed
her “to attain a modest heart.” And her goal of working for a global NGO solidified.

“I am sure there is a domain in which only legal professionals can operate to help those
around the world who are suffering from hunger. I want to become a legal professional
who takes different perspectives into consideration in everything I do,” Woo said.