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Interview: Xiang Rong

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Kunming's cityscape is changing at a lightning pace. Old neighborhoods are being demolished to make way for new high-rise blocks. International brands have set up shop throughout the city and cars are getting bigger, fancier and more expensive.

Amidst the newly arrived bling it can be easy to forget the plight of Kunming's migrant population. Typically migrants move from the country to the city, lured in by the promise of jobs and pay. However, due to China's hukou system, a residence registration regime that ties social and other benefits to the place where one is registered, migrants from the countryside face difficult challenges in most facets of their life from housing to finding a job. They have next to no social safety net and few resources to turn to for help.

Yunnan native Xiang Rong (向荣) is one of the few people working to change this. Xiang juggles three roles. She is a professor of social work at Yunnan University. She is the chair of Heart to Heart (云南连心社区照顾服务中心), a non-profit dedicated to providing services to migrants. She also runs the Design and Social Development Research Center, a project sponsored by Yunnan University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University that, among other things, has worked with the women from the village of Pingzhai – many of whom live off of an annual income of 400 yuan (US$63) – to develop their handicrafts into ecologically friendly products that are sold at stores in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Kunming. That project is now coordinated with Green Roots (绿根城乡互动组织), a fair trade-focused NGO.

GoKunming recently met with Xiang at her office at Yunnan University to learn more about the challenges she faces in helping the members of Chinese society who aren't cashing in on the country's development:

GK: Please tell us a little bit about your organizations and how they work.

Xiang Rong: The Design and Social Development Research Center works with migrants to develop handicrafts that reflect their ethnic heritage. Many migrant women from the Buyi or Miao ethnic groups work as garbage collectors, but whenever they have a spare moment they are producing traditional handicrafts. So they'll make something with a traditional design, and the design students here will adapt that design for a product that can be made and then sold. This is empowering because migrants are learning new skills while simultaneously preserving their culture.

We also research the ethnic groups the migrants come from and work as policy advocates on their behalf, providing policy suggestions to the government that address their needs.

Heart to Heart has eight full-time social workers. It offers services including a child care center, with after-school day care, a library and volunteer tutors. Our social workers also do outreach and visit communities in the countryside once or twice a week.

GK: What kind of community events do you have?

Xiang: There's always something going on. The Design and Social Development Research Center has a yearly contest where we challenge people to design an eco-friendly product using recycled materials. The winners become prototypes for our products.

Heart to Heart hosts a lot of community events where migrants can meet each other and form bonds. We celebrate festivals and have family days. We also host summer camps for children. On the weekend there are open community events so Kunming locals can become more aware of the issues migrants face. For instance, we display our photographs of migrants so people can understand them better. People tend to think that migrants' lives are full of tragedy, but that's not the case. Life is hard, but it's also life and it has its happy moments.

GK: What would you say the are the biggest issues faced by migrants?

Xiang: All their issues stem from one major issue: cultural prejudice. There's a lot of discrimination against migrants. People don't think they matter. This trickles down to all aspects of their lives, including getting a job, finding housing and educating their children.

GK: How did you become involved in social work in Yunnan?

Xiang: I'm originally from Mengzi. I studied sociology at Oberlin University in America, and then social work at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I came back home and realized that there's very little in the way of social work in China. We started the social work department at Yunnan University in 1993, our first graduating class is from 1997. We don't have a long tradition of social work like the West. There's a lot of education and growing that still needs to happen. Furthermore, Western notions of social work don't quite work in China, so there's a lot we need to come up with ourselves. We discovered that when we started teaching.

Xiang Rong introducing products from the Design and Social Development Research Center
Xiang Rong introducing products from the Design and Social Development Research Center

GK: In what ways don't the Western notions work? What did you do to bridge the gap between your training and what was actually required?

Xiang: The Western method, the clinical method, is expensive and works on a case-by-case basis. Individuals work with one social worker who diagnoses the problem and then stages an intervention. This doesn't work in Kunming. People come and go. Furthermore the population doesn't have existing ideas of social work. People don't know what to expect so they don't know they can come in for help.

We ended up developing a more community-based model. It works much better if we have events where people can come and go and where they can develop bonds with other migrants.

Heart to Heart actually started because I realized there was a gap between what we were teaching and what we needed to practice. In many ways Heart to Heart is our experimental lab, where we get feedback from migrants on what they need.

GK: How is Kunming's rapid urban renewal affecting migrants?

Xiang: It's a vicious cycle. Urban renewal creates construction jobs, so migrants arrive, lured in by the prospect of jobs. However, urban renewal is all about demolishing old buildings. Often times these are the ones with cheaper rent and house lots of migrants.

When demolishing urban villages, or chengzhongcun (城中村), the densely populated pockets of low-income housing in the city, only the residents with Kunming hukou are compensated. For every person in a chengzhongcun with a Kunming hukou, there are seven or eight migrants. Migrants don't get any compensation if the government knocks down their building, so they become homeless or have to relocate to another chengzhongcun that will likely be demolished in the near future. After becoming urbanized, returning to their villages is not much of an option because there are no jobs for them there.

GK: Why should the average person in China care about the plight of migrants?

Xiang: Good question. Simply put, it's a matter of social stability.

GK: Is there anything the average Kunminger can do to help?

Xiang: We need donations and volunteers. We love used clothing donations, especially children's clothing – but whatever is donated should be clean and tidy. We also need educational materials and second-hand appliances, especially rice cookers. In terms of volunteers, we always need English translators and English teachers. People with relevant professional skills are also welcome.

For more information about how to volunteer or donate, contact Li Tingting at: ttlee19[at]gmail[dot]com.

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We accept donations for Heart to Heart at Aling Crafts around the corner from Paul's Shop continuing down the alley on the left. If donating used clothes, Heart to Heart has asked for mostly cotton, linen or other natural fabrics.

Xiangrong has done amazing work as have her workers and volunteers. As the tides of urbanization continue to rise, it's encouraging to know that some are working to lead others to higher ground.

I have a suggestion. Would it make sense to title the excellent GoKunming interviews with something that gives the reader an idea of who the person interviewed might be? Because just saying "Interview: so and so" gives the reader nothing to go on and less likely to actually click on it and read it. Just a thought.

Why do the donated clothes have to be cotton, linen? I have quite a lot in a good condition for donation but just don't think they fit in natural fabric category.


Thanks for GOKunming's good work in this interview. Thanks for everyone's encouragement which we value very much and will serve as ever lasting spring in nurishing us the Heart to Heart to move on!

We would prefer the natural fabric but other category is also welcome as far as it is clean and in ok condition. Children's clothes and toys are most needed.

Thanks you all, again, for your continuous support.

So where can we actually get products from the Design and Social Development Research Center? Great to know that we can make a donation at A Ling Crafts but that shop does not stock up "Heart to Heart" products, does it?

not yet, but hopefully by February Aling crafts will carry some of their products

i used to meet some migrant workers who enjoys delicate handicrafts work, as this has been a common part of their daily life. we enjoy better life just because of some accidental fortune from resources allocation. let them be lonesome is also to make ourselves lonely.


Xiang Rong, I am glad that your good work with the migrant workers has gained more publicity and hopefully it will attract more support for your worthy cause. Please be assured that you have friends in Hong Kong rooting for you. Ricky

Thank you so much for this Interview. Great information!

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