Chengdu’s Aiyouxi: Building a Harmonious Community

CDB Senior Researcher, Fu Tao, introduces a unique community-based social enterprise that brings theater, a community marketplace, and community self-governance together in a neighborhood in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan.

On the afternoon of March 10th 2012, a unique red carpet and question and answer session was held in Chengdu’s Shuijing Fang community for the premiere of the film Happiness. The cast and crew, surrounded by screaming fans, walked up the carpet and stepped onto the stage for their Q&A. There was an atmosphere of excitement as the cast and crew gathered on stage, and local residents of all ages crowded closely around.

Happiness recounts the experiences of an elderly overseas Chinese man who returns to China to look for his relatives. The film casts a rosy hue on the altered appearance of the city and his hometown. Perhaps it was the film’s production method, rather than the film itself, which won the neighborhood’s affection. It is not a commercial film, but rather the first “community film,” drawn from the community’s real life experiences and written, directed, and performed by the residents themselves. The 83 year-old overseas returnee Mr. Liu, the film’s screenwriter, was once a resident of the community, and the story was based on his own experiences. Shuijing Fang Community residents from all different backgrounds and walks of life entered into the community-wide competition, auditioning for roles in the film. A female janitor was cast as the hero’s elderly mother, while a female taxi driver portrayed herself.

It is difficult to determine whether people in a play about life are acting or naturally bringing their own lives and emotions into the film. People who originally lived in different courtyards with little interaction shared four intense months of filming– a process which surely strengthened the community’s cohesion.

This story has an interesting backstory. Happiness was produced by the community residents’ self-organized “Wen Nuan Theater Company” (水井坊街道温暖剧团).  The troupe, which developed out of a project administered by the Chengdu Jinjiang District’s IYouShe Community Culture Development Centre (成都市锦江区爱有戏社区文化发展中心)  (hereinafter referred to as “IYouShe” ) in early 2011, is supported by Hong Kong’s Partnerships for Community Development (PCD).  With a background in public interest film and television production and a commitment to community culture and harmonious development, IYouShe has been able to provide the theater company with professional-quality technological support.

The success of Happiness brought a surge of popularity to the theater company, enabling them to expand from their original 10 members to a team of 120.  “Alerted” on the day of the red carpet event, government officials from the district party committee, district government, and street committee government office eagerly came forward to express their support.  [Editor’s Note: The street committee office is also known as the subdistrict office and is the level of government below the district government.] On that day, a number of the “crouching tigers” and “hidden dragons” of Shuijing Fang became community celebrities.

“The Charity Bazaar” as a Cross-Border Gathering

On March 10th, the same day as the premier, another hectic “drama” took the stage– IYouShe’s monthly charity bazaar. The charity bazaar provides a space for “charity friends” to sell their secondhand goods, the proceeds of which are donated to the community’s poor. “Charity friends” can also directly purchase items from the impoverished and needy themselves, at special tables identified by their bright red banners.  This was IYouShe’s 6th charity bazaar in the Shuijing Fang community.

University students brought second-hand clothes. An art student quietly set out hand-painted bags. A grey-haired mother helped her photographer daughter sell her own works. Several elementary-school students, under their parents’ supervision, waited excitedly for buyers to purchase their second-hand school materials.  In the background, two members of IYouShe’s music production team gave a free performance.

The bustling market was full of familiar NGO faces: NongYou Market (农友市集) Pi County’s Anlong village organic vegetable farms, and Da Yi County’s Waldorf schoolteachers with their popular self-grown vegetables; entrepreneur Ni Kaizhi promoting his “Public Interest Inn;” Guo Jing from Sichuan Haihui’s Poverty Alleviation Service Centre (四川海惠助贫服务中心), who stopped by to show her support.  Chen Tao and his assistants watched happily as box after box of their green eggs were sold. After the Wenchuan earthquake, Chen worked for Alibaba’s CSR department, carrying out disaster relief in the Qingchuan community. Once his term was completed, he founded an ecological agriculture company.

According to IYouShe founder and director Liu Fei, it was indeed an unusually busy afternoon.  Our interview was repeatedly interrupted. First came a project officer from PCD, which funds the project, stopping by for a chat.  Next, “Baby Yu” (Peng Yu), the founder of a group called “Love100” (爱100) which promotes public welfare culture, came by to request the use of IYouShe’s space to hold an activity.  Someone from the provincial Communist Youth League greeted Liu Fei and offered to volunteer to teach the game Go to students.  Liu Fei occasionally responded to the warm greetings of the costumed actors from the Wen Nuan Theatre Company who passed through the office.

Benefitting from its relaxed, open atmosphere, the Bazaar has been very successful, attracting 260 core “fans” and gaining more with each event. This was the first bazaar to include a farmers’ market and an ecological agricultural producers’ cooperative, bringing in new resources. To support these environmental protection and development projects, IYouShe created different guidelines for these organizations. While families were required to donate their entire profit from the bazaar sales, these organizations were permitted to donate only a proportion of their profits. Through the public space created by IYouShe, NGOs from the outside are provided with a legal opportunity to enter the community. The Charity Bazaar seemed like a big cross-border meeting, gathering donations and support from both inside and outside of the community and creating a steady flow of aid to those who need it.

Where does the funding for the Bazaar come from? PCD and the street committee government funded the first event, and the current focus is on finding a funding partner interested in the public welfare sector to cooperate with and provide support. In terms of a longer-term plan, Liu Fei explained that IYouShe will  produce and sell souvenirs with the charity bazaar logo, and is also considering the inclusion of entrepreneurial and other suitable fees. They hope that, as the platform grows, it may be able to be completely self-supported through market mechanisms.  IYouShe will also introduce charity shops to create a space for poor families to earn money by selling products.

It is impossible to explain the charity bazaar without discussing IYouShe’s “Charity Warehouse” project, as the charity bazaar was created during a “Charity Warehouse” brainstorming session.

The Beginning

Chengdu is widely known as a wealthy and populous southwestern city. In Liu Fei’s impression, the area within the first ring road is particularly affluent. Once, a wealthy friend took Liu Fei on a tour of the community.  As she expected, she  observed luxurious places like Lan Kuai Fong and the Shangri-la hotel, and rows of upscale offices and residential buildings. At the same time, however, she noticed poor people living in simple buildings and shacks. There were old people living alone, people with mental or physical disabilities, and families affected by disease. Liu Fei was shocked to find out that some impoverished families survived on leftover leaves pilfered from the vegetable market.  Although the poor and the wealthy lived side by side, like two parallel lines, their paths never crossed.

In fact, even in ancient China, rural areas had concepts and practices of mutual aid and charity– and the charity warehouse was one of them.  Villagers would donate some of their rice to the charity warehouse to help children from poor families attend school.  Inspired by this predecessor, IYouShe carried out some research in the community and found that Shuijingfang had 30,000 residents.  In order to make a list of people who needed help, IYouShe organized a team of 30 university volunteers to interview the families.  The community provided them with a list of families receiving basic living allowances, but it took a few interviews to confirm those and even longer to interview those who were not on the list.  Before the launch of the ‘Charity Warehouse’ in April 2011, over 2,000 families had been interviewed. Afterwards, with the help of retired volunteers, they completed the interviews.

The organization formally registered on March 2011, entered Shuijing Fang in April and officially launched the Charity Warehouse project in May. After completing its research, IYouShe began implementing projects to break down the barriers of class and community indifference. Families could volunteer to regularly donate goods according to their financial circumstances.  The project emphasizes the giving of regular small donations over a long-term period, rather than irregular, short-term large donations.  IYouShe described the Charity Warehouse as “a project that not only helps the poor, but connects people and builds a caring society.”  These ideas and values behind the Charity Warehouse are also reflected in the Charity Bazaar.

 “A Single Grain”

“If I buy a bag of rice and donate it to another family through the Charity Warehouse, this represents my good intentions. This is the principle behind the Warehouse.”  We do not accept cash donations; instead, we rely on resources from within the community to provide a solution.  People can donate their items directly to the charity warehouse, or take the money they earn from the Charity Bazaar to purchase goods in the nearby community’s supermarket, and donate those items to IYouShe.

The Charity Warehouse does not exclude donations from businesses outside the community. But in Liu Fei’s opinion, business support is not sustainable, and not helpful for building a community support network. IYouShe hopes to establish such a support system, outside of the government support system, managed by the residents themselves and emphasizing material donations. Even though its monetary value is low, it will help to establish trust and bonds among community residents.

Although there are 70 families on IYouShe’s list to receive regular support, the community is slowly experiencing a change. Whereas people previously tended to say “we are poor, why doesn’t the government help?” they now consider helping others themselves.  IYouShe plans to withdraw from the Charity Bazaar and Charity Warehouse after 2 or 3 years and hand the projects over to the community.  During this period, IYouShe will foster community organizations which can take over these activities, allowing IYouShe to withdraw from their administration. This will keep costs down, and will also allow more residents to participate in the community-building process.

In January 2012, at the fourth Charity Bazaar, over 20 residents were commended for their contributions, with an emphasis on the value of their participation, rather than the amount they donated. Low-income and elderly people who donated packets of noodles, pickled vegetables, or salt also received commendations.

Liu Fei told me the story of Grandpa Xiao, a ninety-year old man who received support from the charity warehouse. Grandpa Xiao was responsible for taking care of his 60 year-old, handicapped daughter and the family was only able to eat meat once a month and even then only pork skins.  When IYouShe volunteers first visited Grandpa Xiao’s house, he thought it was simply for show, and threw them out.  But, moved by their persistent support, he took out an old Chinese chess set that hadn’t been used for years, cleaned it thoroughly, and donated it to the community, gaining a commendation.  A mentally handicapped boy, who used his tricycle to help transport donations, also received a commendation.  And although they were not required to, blind people insisted on donating part of the income they gained from doing massages.

Liu Fei was impressed at the self-respect and value that people were able to gain from their own hard work and action. Not only did IYouShe’s Charity Warehouse and Charity Bazaar projects draw from traditional ideas of charity, but they also improved on modern public welfare practices.

Because the warehouse requires participating families to maintain its activities, a brainstorming session led to the idea to hold a monthly bazaar to supplement its funding. Unexpectedly, the donations collected through the bazaar account for more than 70 percent of the resources going to the warehouse.

Art Helps to Build a Happy Community

Unlike other public welfare organizations, IYouShe’s projects often include an artistic element.  As Liu Fei has more than 10 years of public welfare experience, she was able to accumulate a number of professional production resources and connections. While working at the Chengdu Blood Centre (成都市血液中心), she wanted to make a video to publicize the voluntary blood donation team that she had established, and was gradually able to build up a specialized volunteer video team.  In the following years, IYouShe made several highly valued public films with the same level of skill used in their public welfare projects. IYouShe also set up the Xiao Bu theatre and supported the development of the Wen Nuan theatre described above.  They also encouraged the participation of residents with art expertise. IYouShe was unique in increasing the residents’ sense of happiness through art.

Within the community, Mrs. Yang is famous for her acting skills; she was also the heroine of the movie Happiness.  She has sung and danced on TV, and is the top performer in the Warehouse’s monthly performance.  She sings Beijing operas and songs, and her own compositions of rhythmic storytelling are quite popular. Before the performance, volunteers research the families’ preferences, according to which they will adjust the performance. Sometimes, when performing for elderly persons who live alone, there may even be three or four actors performing to a one-person audience.  Nevertheless, Mrs. Yang and the volunteers are always happy to oblige, and never give any less of a performance.

Mrs. Yang lives in the Da Ci Temple community which makes her the only ‘outsider’ in the Wen Nuan theatre company. After being invited several times by Yang Haiping and Xiao Bu (the head of Wen Nuan), she became a member of the theatre company. Now she spends almost every day with the Shuijing Fang community.  This upsets the head of Da Ci Temple community, who complains, “Why do you always help other communities?”

Aside from the theatre company, IYouShe also founded a musical storytelling, community theatre, and oral history group, which documents the residents’ life experiences and memories, as well as the community’s history and changes.  The most interesting sections are turned into songs and plays and performed on stage, in the hope of breaking down class barriers among community residents. In addition to the elderly, young people and migrant workers from the community have also become increasingly active.

Support from the Government

IYouShe success could not have been achieved without the enthusiastic support of the street committee’s party secretary Zhu Lie, who pushed for government contracting of nongovernmental services.  IYouShe began with projects focused on community culture and support for the elderly and disabled. Later, it used its own funds to launch the Charity Warehouse project, which lead to an interesting development. One day, Liu Fei was suddenly informed that she was required to attend a meeting. When she arrived, Liu Fei discovered that government leaders from a variety of departments were present, while IYouShe was the only social organization represented. Liu Fei felt this was odd given that there are a fairly large number of social organizations in this community. At the meeting, leaders presented their thoughts on social management innovation, and asked for Liu Fei’s suggestions for carrying out collaborative projects. Liu Fei recalls that the meeting lasted until 1 a.m.

Afterwards, city management officers came to help maintain order, and a number of government officials participated in a private capacity in the Charity Bazaar team.  The Jinjiang district chief, the Civil Affairs Bureau chief, and the Communist Youth League leadership brought their children to set up a stand, and some even volunteered to distribute goods.  Liu Fei was truly moved to see these officials, who are usually buried in administrative work, joining the public to participate in this type of work.

From a Beautiful Decoration to a Precious Necessity

These days, the Charity Warehouse and Bazaar are operating quite effectively, and in late April this year IYouShe launched a Charity Warehouse project in Xiaojiahe, and held their first Charity Bazaar there in May.  But these developments have not slowed IYouShe’s pace in Shuijing Fang. In November 2011, IYouShe took on a project promoting self-governance in ten clusters of households in the Shuijing Fang community.

Community self-governance is a project of the Jinjiang district government which chose several neighborhoods in the district to act as test sites, constructing youth and elderly service spaces and a community bookstore. While the project refers to “self-governance,” the emphasis was actually on developing the hardware of community services.  At first the Shuijing Fang neighborhood was not on the pilot list, but Zhu pushed for participation, and invited IYouShe to come and “play the game.” The street committee government allotted funds for the annual salary for four staff, as well as additional funds for activities.  Although the funding provided was insufficient, and required IYouShe to contribute its own funds, the opportunity intrigued Liu Fei.  Most importantly according to Zhu, IYouShe was able to carry out a significant degree of self-governance.

“The Charity Warehouse is a charitable project, but the self-governance project was a public welfare project, and so it was more difficult than projects we’ve done before.” Yang explained. Unlike other projects, IYouShe has positioned itself between the government and the community, and between rather complicated relationships among different interest groups.  As a result, IYouShe has begun to touch upon and uncover the relationships among classes, rights and interests.

Beginning with too many ideas and too little cooperation from residents, IYouShe did not make much progress for three months, which put a great deal of pressure on the generally optimistic Liu Fei.  While the Charity Warehouse and Bazaar had gone quite smoothly and effectively, Liu Fei found the self-governance project requiring her to deal with the selfish and complex dimensions of human nature. She found herself missing her volunteer friends, and the happiness she gained through volunteering.

Later, IYouShe, looking to learn from others, participated in the training of another public welfare organization, Community Participation Action (社区参与行动的培训 ). They introduced the “open space” meeting system to serve as the community’s democratic decision-making mechanism, and invited Guo Hong, the Sichuan Academy of Social Science’s Sociology Institute Director, to teach government officials about the need to lessen regulations.  [Editor’s Note: Guo Hong is also an advisor to the former 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center, recently renamed the Shangming Social Development Research Center.] As the project gradually took off, IYouShe adopted the name “open space” for every community activity space. They offered juvenile and senior services and a community bookstore, and served as a mechanism for community self-governance.  IYouShe plans to include art programming like the theater company into the self-governance project, and set up a small theater where migrant workers reside to attract their participation.

While documenting community problems, IYouShe found that the elderly are generally satisfied with the status quo, while the young more likely to actively confront problems and challenges. They are eager to address inequalities, and have a strong awareness of rights-protection. All they need is an effective mechanism or opportunity to express their needs. In terms of the relationship between the community and government, on one hand, the government has a mission and a plan to carry out this project. On the other hand, the principle of community self-governance means that the government must respect the community’s interests and opinions. In accepting government funds to contract services from within their community, IYouShe has experienced a subtle change in its role.

“Because we are not regarded by the government as a pilot project, there is less pressure.” Yang explained. “What we are most afraid of is becoming entirely absorbed by the government, because then we will not be able to act according to our own interests.” Founded in 2009, IYouShe continues to grow, responding to the needs of the community while relying on the community’s energy and its organizers’ own knowledge, and slowly feeling its way forward.

CDB Senior Researcher

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