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Sylvia Yu Friedman

Journalist, Author, and Film/TV Executive Producer

Columns

CBC Analysis & Viewpoint

Wisdom Springs rescues Beijing’s beggar children

February 24, 2005

By Sylvia Yu

One winter’s night, by a popular shopping strip for tourists called the Silk Market, two-year-old Yang Yue was bundled up in two coats, her face was blackened, her tiny hands exposed to the chilly air. Little Yang was out asking for money with a middle-aged woman she called ma ma. I had an apple in my pocket so I wiped it on my jacket and gave it to her. She grabbed it in a flash, and started to bite into it.

Meanwhile the woman she was with stuffed a plastic cup in my face, asking for qian, for money. “Where’s your mom,” we asked Yang. She looked away. Yang was not with her mother but with her boss, a woman, locals tell us, who works for gangs and gives them most of what she collects from sympathetic passersby, usually foreigners feeling sorry for Yang’s adorable face and blue hands numbed from the cold.

Just about every night on Beijing’s streets, children like Yang Yue are forced to beg and target foreigners. One boy moaned and begged and walked with me for more than a city block near American restaurants, even as I told him repeatedly that I didn’t have any money. I really did have money but I felt conflicted. I wanted to help but at the same time, I didn’t want the gangs to profit and continue exploiting these kids.

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 Street kids

“The gangs are very rich. They use these children,” a local restaurant owner tells me. Sadly, these kids are professional beggars. And some of them may have been sold or farmed out as slave labour by their poor parents, who themselves could make about $17 Cdn a month.

Another group of young boys on another night tell us their parents were poor farmers and they were promised work in a factory. Work in a factory? They were only boys. “What do you want?” we ask. “Money!” shouts the boy with a blackened face and unwashed hair.

I asked them another question to see how they would answer, “Where do you live?” “Over by the airport,” one boy responds, sounding like he had rehearsed the line; his handler probably trained him to say that. A few weeks later, a street fight breaks out near Starbucks between two handlers of street children over turf.

One handler begins to beat the disabled man with an iron rod. Three street kids look on with anxious faces and one boy starts wailing. I yelled at a woman with a mobile phone, “Call the police!! Call the police.” She just ignored me. The fight started when I was giving one kwai, about 15 cents, to one boy.

Then an older street kid I’d seen before blocked the way and tried to take the money. I held it back for a couple of moments, then I relented. The disabled handler of the younger boy got mad at the handler of the older one and used his crutch to hit him.

This violent world was once home for Joseph Song. He was taught to break into cars and steal things. He had left home at the age of 14. A man promised his family Joseph would find work but in the end the teenager ended up washing cars and stealing for a living.

“If I didn’t come back with enough money, I would be beaten until I was bloody,” he says. But today the 19-year-old helps run a sanctuary for street kids called Wisdom Springs Technical Skills Training Centre, just south of Beijing. At what used to be an old chili factory, 37 young people between the ages of 12 and 20 get three meals a day, a basic Chinese and English education plus technical skills classes like computer education, management or cooking.

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 Stacey Hayes by the centre she runs

The school is run by Stacey Hayes, a Las Vegas native who came to Beijing to study Chinese a few years ago. She met so many kids begging for money that she felt she needed to do something. “Just about everywhere we go, we see kids begging on the street, selling flowers, washing cars, or blind children sitting on the street corner,” Hayes said. Stacey, also known as “Ceci,” reached out to Joseph Song and gave him clothes, gloves, shoes and socks.

The former businesswoman also told Song she wanted to start a school for street kids. “When I used to see kids on the street, a lot of times they would be hungry. Giving them a meal solved the problem for the moment, but it was really in my heart to do something to get them off the streets,” said Hayes. “Poverty is a kind of vicious cycle unless you have some education to get out of it.”

Song caught the vision and eventually became the assistant director of Wisdom Springs. “I want to help those kids on the street, because I used to be like them,” said Song. “Especially in the winter, it’s very cold, I want to give them a warm place.”

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 Former street kids

Song says the pain is long lasting for children who’ve grown up begging. “Their hearts are in pain because people beat them and scold them on the street. They are very sad,” he says. “At least here, you have things to eat.” The young people at Wisdom Springs get a small allowance every week in order to learn money management skills. Every one has a chore or household duty, like the kitchen team for older boys.

One of their favorite activities is roller-skating; it’s something they try to do a couple of times a week. The centre is supported by private donations and Hayes is in the process of taking it to the next level by improving job training skills courses.

On the streets of Beijing at night, I look for little Yang Yue whenever I see street kids with their plastic cups and dirtied faces. Her tired eyes and cold hands haunted me so much that I went out again the next night to look for her, and the next night. But I haven’t seen her since. Chances are, Yang will still be on the streets begging for a very long time to come.

(Stacey Hayes still runs a program for former street kids in Beijing)

Foreign ghosts

June 30, 2005 

On one of China’s popular websites called sina.com, hundreds of messages were pouring in around the time of Condoleezza Rice’s visit to China this past spring. The comments were very disturbing for a couple of reasons. People lashed out angrily at the U.S. secretary of state’s ethnicity, her looks, her gender.

They wrote that she was (and this is hard for me to repeat): “a black devil,” “a black pig,” “a black whore” and “a black female dog.” They said: “You’re not even as good as a black devil, a real waste of a life,” “Her brain is blacker than her skin,” “The ugliest woman in the world” and “She looks like an orangutan, and talks rubbish; send us a beautiful woman next time.”

The website is particularly popular among the urban elite and educated masses, and I remember reading these shocking words at the time. According to media reports, these comments were also gathered by Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was so disgusted by the awful remarks he felt compelled to write something about it.

He said in a media interview that racism and sexism are so widespread on the mainland that no one was especially surprised by the hateful verbal attacks on Rice.

But not everyone was oblivious to the insults. One Chinese chat room writer, who goes by the name of “ymc” was outraged:

“Reading Liu Xiaobo’s analysis of major Chinese Internet BBS [bulletin board] forums in the immediate aftermath of Secretary Rice’s visit to China last week, I, as a person of Chinese descent, felt thoroughly disgusted and deeply ashamed by the outburst of the ugliest possible racial slurs launched by the Chinese masses against black Americans in general and Secretary Rice in particular.

“It’s all because she urged China, in the mildest possible form, to be more democratic, and to be cool on sabre-rattling at Taiwan.”

When I asked my Chinese teacher and several friends what they think of black people, almost all of them say the same thing, “They’re scary, they smell, they’re loud … they’re different from us.”

My teacher Li Juan is a 20-something educated woman with a generous spirit. She’s the kind that can’t hurt a fly. But when I press her to tell me what she really thinks of Africans, she shakes her head in mild disgust and says she’s afraid of them.

One Chinese journalist told me that she believes black men have an abnormally high sex drive. Her friends believe that one can get AIDS from sleeping with black men.

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Jean-Marc Agnero

It seems pretty difficult for a black person to live in China. My friend’s African friends know it could take a long time to get home from a social outing. That’s because many taxis speed up, instead of slowing down whenever they see black people.

That happens regularly to Jean-Marc Agnero, a Beijing resident from the Ivory Coast. “If I’m standing by a white person, a taxi driver will pass me by and stop in front of the white guy,” he says.

I asked a middle aged Chinese driver about this and he explained, “Black people are poor and the men are usually really big and intimidating looking. So that’s why taxi drivers don’t like to pick them up. Sometimes they don’t pay.”

Agnero is an articulate and thoughtful 20-year-old, fluent in English and French. The son of two diplomats has been living in Beijing for the last 7 years and feels bothered that the Chinese are becoming more openly racist towards blacks. “When I first got here the Chinese were impressed to see black people. We’re new to them,” he says, “they used to touch my hair and skin. Some of them touched my skin to check if it was dirty.”

Agnero has also been charged almost double what his Caucasian friends pay for entry fees to clubs. “We have a responsibility in this,” he says. “Sometimes I hear black people fight on the streets and everywhere. Some black people have bad attitudes, but we are not all the same. It’s going to take a long time for the Chinese people’s attitudes to change.”

Canadians Sally and Alvin (not their real names) can vouch for the difficulties, and subtle and sometimes not so subtle discrimination. The married couple have lived in different parts of China working as English teachers.

Not too long ago, they were applying for teaching jobs in a smaller city when the person in charge of hiring offered Sally a job, but she profusely apologized and said she couldn’t hire Alvin even though she wanted to. The reason? Sally is Caucasian, and her husband is from the Dominican Republic.

The parents would pull their kids out of class because they don’t want a black teacher, the woman said. In the smaller cities and in Beijing Alvin had a hard time finding work. He eventually started working at a cafe.

Sometimes, the Chinese just want others to know they have foreign friends, says Sally, who laughs at a memory. Their Chinese friends invited them over for dinner one night to merely show them off proudly – as if they were trophies – to another Chinese couple.

For the duration of the meal, the Chinese friends chatted loudly while Sally and her husband ate quietly, dumbfounded by their friends, who would glance over at them like they were animals at a zoo.

Sally can laugh about it now. However, the two have headed back to Canada because they were tired of the way Alvin was being treated. “Like a second-class citizen,” Sally says.

The Chinese seem to have a love-hate relationship with foreigners, and it’s the same for some of the foreigners I know. Some of my waiguoren, or foreigner friends, need to break out in rants once in a while about the challenges of living in a developing country, and how poorly they’re being treated.

We at times complain about the fact that we pay quadruple what locals pay at the markets and furniture stores. If you’re Caucasian, you could pay up to 10 times or more the going rate, especially if you don’t speak any Putonghua (Mandarin). That’s because many Chinese assume foreigners are very wealthy. There’s even a two-tiered rate for foreigners and locals at some tourist attractions.

There are 3,800 Canadians in China registered with the Canadian Embassy. But the number of Canadians in China is probably closer to 5,000. And the number of foreigners studying Chinese is expanding rapidly. Just 20 years ago, fewer than 8,000 foreigners studied in China. By 2008, the government wants to see 120,000 foreign students in China, with the bulk of them studying in the capital city.

As for Asians like me, who look Chinese but don’t speak fluently, the locals view us as their hillbilly cousins. Some downright chastise me for not speaking Chinese. I’ve given up and barely offer up my old answer: “But I’m not Chinese…”

I remember visiting Seoul right before the 1988 Olympics. There were barely any English signs and the few that were up were spelled wrong. The city was not foreigner-friendly at all. The Koreans were very hostile towards foreigners.

But what a different city it is now. Any non-Korean-speaking person can get around with ease in cities there, thanks to the preparations made to host the international event in ’88. The Chinese, like the Koreans and Japanese, have historically been isolated from the rest of the world. Their discriminatory attitudes are fuelled by fear and mistrust of foreigners, and a growing sense of nationalistic pride.

Let’s hope that by the time the 2008 Olympics roll around, the capital city is a more open and welcoming place for foreigners and visiting dignitaries alike.

(I’ll post more columns later)

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2 thoughts on “Columns

  1. I read an article you posted in 2005 about a school called Wisdom Springs in Beijing. I recently tried to get in touch with it but it seems to have vanished. Can you tell me the status of this school?

    1. I believe it is still running. They had started a coffee shop a few years ago. Are you looking to support them financially? I can try to find a contact but it might take a while.

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