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'I have nothing left now except happiness'

Shanghai Daily, December 29, 2014 Adjust font size:

Shanghai resident Zhang Zhiyong once lived the life of affluence. He owned a company, a car and a hefty bank account. But no more.

Zhang Zhiyong with some of the Yunnan students he has helped.

  Zhang Zhiyong with some of the Yunnan students he has helped.

Zhang, 56, donated everything he had to help impoverished ethnic minority children in a remote area in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

"I have nothing left now except happiness," Zhang said.

In the last decade, he has helped more than 160 children, most of them living in poverty-stricken Menghai County. The recipients of his largesse gratefully call him "godfather."

His life today is a far cry from the past. The former navy man worked in a state-owned company before deciding to venture into his own business in 2001. He opened a trading company that proved highly successful.

That all changed during a trip to Xishuangbanna in Yunnan in 2002, inspired by a popular TV series about Shanghai zhiqing, or urban youth, sent to the countryside in Yunnan for "reeducation" during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Zhang visited Yunnan as part of what he had planned to be a trip to Tibet. He left Shanghai with 20,000 yuan (US$3,225) in his pocket.

On the long bus ride to Xishuangbanna, he met a primary school teacher from Menghai who invited him to visit his school in the county. He was intrigued.

"At first, I just wanted to have a look," he said. "But when I arrived there, I was astonished by poverty beyond what I could ever have imagined. My heart was heavy."

He was greeted by disheveled children with dirty faces and ragged clothing. They ate plain rice with soy sauce because there was no other food available. The classroom was in a dark, dilapidated building that looked like it would collapse in the first strong gust of wind.

But in that grim environment, Zhang was overwhelmed by the warm, innocent smiles of the children he met. He left the school knowing that he had reached a turning point in his life.

Zhang canceled the next leg of his trip to Tibet and instead visited more than 10 schools in Yunnan. Everywhere, he saw the same need for help.

He bought clothing, quilts and stationery for the students until all his money was gone. When he returned to Shanghai, he sold his car and closed his company. The proceeds all went to Yunnan. After he had exhausted all his savings, Zhang began borrowing money from friends and relations to give to the school and children.

Suspicions melted

At first, the locals in Menghai were wary of this Good Samaritan. Who was this man and what were his motives? Gradually, the suspicions melted and Zhang became a trusted member of the local community.

Huang Yongde, head teacher of Mansao Primary School in the county, said Zhang helped more than 20 students in his school and even assisted teachers. In one instance, a teacher fell from a bicycle and was blinded in one eye. Zhang helped contact a local hospital and arranged for free medical care.

Zhang assisted local police in rescuing three abducted children. He helped local villagers suffering from intestinal problems find doctors. He mediated in disputes among locals. He cooked meals for the children and taught them how to tidy up themselves.

Nowadays, Zhang spends most of his time in Menghai, staying at his Shanghai home for only a few months every year. To support himself, he set up a small teashop in Shanghai's Xuhui District, where he also sells handicrafts and other local Yunnan specialties.

With little disposable income, Zhang lives a frugal life. In Menghai, he stays in homes for seniors. He eats simple meals.

To some of his old friends in Shanghai, Zhang is a fool to forsake comfort for austerity. But Zhang said he has no regrets.

"I don't even own a bicycle now," he said. "Once I started down this path, I couldn't stop. My only hope now is that these children do well at school and have a brighter future."

Indeed, his charity is paying off. One of the students he helped support went on to postgraduate study and now works in a big state-owned company.

Neglected family

Zhang admits that he has often neglected his own family, praising them for the sacrifices they have made on his behalf.

Zhang's son, soon to be married, had hoped his father would help him buy an apartment, but there were no funds to do that. So Zhang and his wife decided to give up their own apartment and move into rented housing.

Zhang's long-suffering wife Yu Yuefang has stuck by him where others might have demanded a divorce.

"I know these children need help and I can understand donating money to them," she said. "But how far can he go? We are not rich people."

Zhang is undeterred. He said he plans to visit other impoverished areas in Yunnan and will continue trying to help people there for the rest of his life.

He realizes his goal is beyond the means of one man, so he has begun working with Shanghai charitable organizations to keep his Yunnan crusade going. Zhang set up a charity service center, with the help of the Xuhui Charity Foundation.

A fund to help Yunnan also has been established, and a team of 20 volunteers assembled. He is currently in Yunnan, delivering 2,000 quilts and 2,300 garments collected from donations.

"My energy and savings are limited, but the charity in my heart is infinite," he said.

For details on donating to Zhang's charity fund, call the office on 021 6483-8771.

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