Taiwan's Unlikely Hero: Vegetable Seller of Taitung Market
New America Media, Q&A, Vivian Po Posted: May 11, 2010
Editor’s Note: Described by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s “ambassador with a loving heart,” 61-year-old Chen Shu-chu was selected as one of the “heroes” in this year’s TIME magazine’s annual 100 Most Influential People in the World for her outstanding generosity and philanthropy. A vegetable vendor with a modest income at a local market in Taitung in eastern Taiwan, Chen has donated $320,000 USD to various charities in Taiwan, including a number of schools and orphanages, in the past two decades.
Coming from a poor family, Chen ended her education at the age of 13 after her mother died. Shortly afterwards, she started working at her parents’ vegetables stall. Last Friday, Chen made a quick stop in San Francisco before returning home after receiving her Time magazine award in New York. She told New America Media she was overwhelmed by the recognition for something many other people are doing.
How do you feel about receiving the “Honor of Taiwan?”
A: Nothing. I do not have much feeling. I’ve been doing this all my life. Actually, many people are doing the same thing. I am just lucky to be recognized. I felt funny when I received the award in New York. I asked myself “Why am I here on the red carpet with the others?” The outfit I wore [was] worth less than $65.
What was your initial reaction after learning you were selected as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine?
A: I was very much surprised. I was falling asleep picking my vegetables when a group of reporters showed up at my vegetable stall with their cameras and photoflashes. After learning the news, I told the reporters I did not enter any competition, but they told me movie director Ang Lee nominated me. I was confused. I did not know director Lee personally. In fact, I have never seen his films because I have not been to the theatre inover 20 years. Even now, I am still not clear how I got selected.
Is this the first time you are coming to the U.S.?
A: This is the first time I left Taiwan. In the past, the furthest I have traveled [from Taitung] was to Taipei, and I got lost that time. At first, I refused to come to the United States because I had just ordered some new vegetables and did not want to leave the stall and business behind. However, officials from the Taitung county government and foreign affairs office called and visited, encouraging me to go. The President also called me. I was touched and changed my mind. But I miss my stall. I have had it for almost 50 years.
When did you first begin to donate?
A: After the death of my father, in 1994. He left me $880,000 NTD ($27,714 USD) from life insurance, but I had no use for the money. Besides, I could always earn more on my own. So I donated all to Fo Guang Shan Monastery (a Buddhist charity organization), along with $120,000 NTD ($3,779 USD) of my personal savings, a total of one million NTD, to help my father gain good karma in the netherworld. My father and I were close. We had been supporting each other after my mother died in child labor when I was 13.
Q. The younger generation conceptualizes money very differently nowadays; do you have any advice for them?
A. I am not qualified to give advice to anyone. Different people have their own set of rules for spending money. I am committed to charity because I myself was helped earliere. Poverty is scary. My family was very poor when I was small. When my younger brother fell ill, we could not even afford the security deposit to admit him to a hospital, but the teachers at our elementary school fundraised for us. They were warm-hearted people. However, that’s my choice and my personal experiences. I am single. Other people with families may have more to consider.
It was reported you chose to give up a marriage opportunity for your family. Is this true?
A. Yes, I was about to get married in my 20s, but my father asked me, “What is more important? Your six siblings or your individual life?” Then, I realized that if I was the only one living well while my siblings suffered, I would not be happy either. That is part of my personality. I like to take care of others before I take care of myself.
What does a day in a vegetable vendor’s life look like?
A. Very simple and comfortable. I can roll up my pants and talk very loudly. That is the lifestyle I truly enjoy. I wake up at three every morning to transport my vegetables from the wholesale market. I open my stall at around 4 a.m. and work until 8 p.m. I only have one meal per day and will not spend more than 100 NTD (3.15 USD) a day. After work, I always listen to Buddhist sutras at home. If I am not too exhausted, I enjoy watching Korean drama.
What would you do if you one day decided not to sell vegetables any more?
A. I do not know. I have never thought of not doing it. I like my work very much. My parents left me the vegetables stall. I wish to continue their work. My stall is open all year round, except the first day of the Chinese New Year.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
A. No, because I am not the only person who donates. Many people in Taitung are doing so. I will continue to donate. The feeling of helping others is hard to describe. It makes me happy.
Beside TIME’s honor, Forbes magazine voted Chen one of Asia’s heroes of philanthropy.
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