Yang Kaiqi embroiders at her Xiang embroidery store in Changsha, Hunan province. ZOU SHUO/CHINA DAILY
Overcoming years of struggle, Yang Kaiqi, who has half a left arm, embraces embroidery to earn a living
Nov.20, 2023 -- Yang Kaiqi believes that in a way, she's lucky that she grew up with a disability, rather than being a person who developed one later in life.
Born with half a left arm, she has never known what it's like to have two hands.
"I have met people who became disabled due to accidents and have trouble adjusting to their new reality, so luckily for me, I was born with a disability," she said.
The 35-year-old from a small village in Huaihua, Hunan province, has never placed limitations on herself. She now runs a Xiang embroidery store in Changsha, the provincial capital, and is happily married and has a 2-year-old boy.
Xiang embroidery is a national-level intangible cultural heritage that originated in Changsha.
In Chinese, Xiang is a short name for Hunan.
Xiang embroidery is one of the four best-known styles of the craft in China, along with Su embroidery from Suzhou, Jiangsu province; Shu embroidery, which is popular in Sichuan province and Chongqing; and Yue embroidery, which is famous in Guangdong province.
Featuring rich colors and sharp images, the Xiang style has a history of more than 2,000 years.
Yang said she has been interested in the craft since she was a child, when she learned some of the basics from one of her neighbors who is an embroiderer.
Though she has taken various training courses, she has mainly learned the techniques on her own through trial and error, she said.
More importantly, embroidery is a craft she can do despite her disability. "No matter which profession I chose, I needed to deal with the fact that I could only do it with one whole arm," she said.
"I decided to choose Xiang embroidery because I like it. The only inconvenience is that I cannot stitch as fast as others."
Yang has helped more than 1,000 disabled people learn the embroidery, teaching them for free. Whether they choose to learn it because they like it or want to make extra money, she said she is willing to help.
"For people with disabilities, we are not afraid of difficulties. We only worry about not having a fair chance to try something," she said.
A spate of challenges
When she was born, villagers gossiped about her disability.
Her grandfather said she was an angel with a broken wing, and she was destined to be special and successful.
To support her studies, her little brother abandoned his after finishing middle school and started working.
She enrolled in Hunan International Business Vocational College in 2008 and majored in international business and trade. While studying in college, she took a variety of jobs to help pay her tuition, including giving out flyers in the streets and working as a cashier, tour guide, sales agent and street vendor.
Before she graduated in 2011, she had applied for more than 200 jobs with employers in different cities, but all of them turned her down because of her disability. "After some time, I started telling the human resources department about my disability before I came to the company for an interview, in case it was an issue for them," she said.
Finally, a foreign company in Changsha hired her to work as a receptionist. Her salary was 1,200 yuan ($165) per month, which was the minimum monthly wage in Changsha back then.
Yang soon discovered that there was little chance of her being promoted at the company.
She began thinking about quitting and starting her own business, but she hesitated after many of her disabled friends told her that she was doing very well for a person with a disability and that she should relish the opportunity she had.
After weighing her options for about six months, she decided to quit her job and started a business selling handicrafts on the streets with five other disabled people.
She invested all her savings in the business and even borrowed 20,000 yuan ($2,759) from a friend.
"The toughest time for us is when it rained. Changsha is a city where rain occurs frequently," she said.
The business was much harder than Yang imagined. Selling the crafts was not easy, so they did not earn much money and often quarreled with each other.
After around seven months, the business failed and Yang lost all her money.
Afterward, a friend advised her to consider making Xiang embroidery for a living, as it did not require much investment.
"I chose it mainly because I had no money left, and threads and needles do not cost much," she said. "However, I still had a lot of difficulties, as I did not have the resources, nor did I know how to run a business properly."
At first, Yang would sneak into different commercial buildings in Changsha and hand out flyers to workers to promote her business. The local disabled persons federation even offered her a free office. Still, her efforts did not materialize into success.
Persistence pays off
It was then that Yang decided to take a course on female entrepreneurship and business management as part of an adult education program run by Tsinghua University for three years.
To support her business and studies, she borrowed money from the banks and maxed out a dozen credit cards.
Yang rented a very small apartment for 300 yuan per month in Changsha and commuted between the Hunan capital and Beijing regularly to take the course at Tsinghua.
The course helped her broaden her horizons, and she also learned the basics of running a business, she said. In 2014, her business finally started making money, and she managed to repay all her debt a year later.
At the peak of her business, Yang employed more than 40 embroiders, some of whom were disabled. But the business took a hit after the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020, and now she has a smaller number of staff consisting of part-time employees.
Currently, some challenges remain. Xiang embroidery is still a relatively niche market and is enjoyed mostly by older people, she said.
Moreover, the skills and renown of embroiders have a significant impact on how many works they can sell, she said. She has also been trying hard to win awards at different exhibitions and competitions to promote her brand.
Tang Shujun, a former colleague of Yang's at the foreign company she worked for, joined her business seven years ago, and they have been running the shop together ever since.
Tang is trying to introduce more products to sell at the store, including Hunan tea and porcelain.
"There have been disagreements, but I know she has a good heart, so we can always work things out," Tang said. "No matter how she is treated by other people, she always treats others with kindness and love, and that's why I decided to stay with her."
Yang also never relies on the help of others, and she often carries her own works around, Tang added.
By: ZOU SHUO
By: ZOU SHUO