With great power comes great responsibility. Sure, we’ve heard this line over and over again. But 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Chen Shu-Jiu has proven that even those with seemingly little power and a few spare change can transform the world. All you need is a little thing called Greatness of Spirit.
Small change. That’s all she started with. At the end of each day, Chen Shu-jiu of Taitung, Taiwan, would set aside a portion of her modest earnings from selling vegetables. Over the years her small change amounted to a small fortune—seven million Taiwanese dollars (US$320,000). She has given it all away to those who those who need it more.
Chen’s story is one for the books. People generally give to charity what hardly hurts the pocket; others pool resources to be able to donate a more substantial amount. Chen counts only on her own hard-earned daily profit of five to 10 Taiwanese dollars (less than 40 US cents) per sale, at 30 dollars (US$1.02) per bundle, or 50 dollars (US$1.70) for three bundles.
Math computations aside, it can be mind-boggling, considering that Chen won’t even allow herself to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Unmarried with no family of her own, she is content with the bare necessities, preferring instead to invest in good deeds.
And what a profitable investment it has been! Her donations to hospitals, schools, and orphanages have made life a little better for numerous Taiwanese, so much so that others of similarly humble means have been inspired to follow her example. “When I donate to help others, I feel at peace and happy,” she explained in a magazine interview. “I do not place great importance on money,” she said, adding that she would rather accumulate virtue.
For her altruism and transformative acts of compassion, Chen was chosen to receive the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Award.
At the presentation ceremony, President Benigno S. Aquino III noted in his speech that Chen earns much less than “those with loftier titles and fancier offices.” And yet, he said, “she has given much of what she has to those who need more…reminding us all that the fullness of our hearts is a greater measure of our humanity than the size of our bank accounts.”
Chen herself finds nothing extraordinary about what she does, however. “I am just an ordinary person…I simply do what I can, to the best of my ability,” she said in her response. Everyone has something to offer, she added. “What makes a difference is whether or not you actually put it into action.”
What motivated Chen was a deep sense of gratitude. In her youth, her family had been at the receiving end of kind gestures, so she resolved that someday she would do the same for others, in the hope that they would be spared the sufferings her family endured. Chen, born in 1950, is one of eight children of poor vegetable vendors. She was only 13 when her mother died from complications at childbirth after being denied immediate medical attention due to inability to pay the hospital the required deposit. Moved by her father’s pleas, neighbors had chipped in, but it was too late.
The oldest daughter, Chen had to drop out of school after elementary to help her father run the market stall. When she was 18, one of her brothers died after a protracted illness. With the family’s savings all but drained, they could not afford hospitalization. A teacher at Chen’s primary school started a fund drive for the purpose, but by then her brother’s condition had taken a turn for the worse.
Chen’s first opportunity to do others a good turn came in the wake of her father’s death nearly two decades ago. By then financially stable and a convert to Buddhism, she offered her first million-dollar donation to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan and also one of the largest charitable groups.
In 2000, she donated another million dollars to the Ren-ai Primary School, where she studied, to start a relief fund for poor children. A teacher of her nephew assists her in managing the fund. Chen went further, financing the construction of the school library, which opened in 2005.
She has also donated thousands of dollars to the Kids Alive International mission, where three wards are under her sponsorship. The money, she once mentioned to a magazine writer, came from the loose coins she would drop every night in three little cardboard boxes.
Before all this, Chen’s siblings became her first beneficiaries. Sacrificing her education to keep the family’s vegetable stall going, she was able to see them all through school (all the way to university) and look after their health.
For most people, financial success means more material comforts. Not for Chen. Even though she can now afford to live in luxury, she maintains the same frugal lifestyle she has known all her life. Awake before 3 a.m., she is an early bird at the market, where she works 16-17 hours a day. She spends less than 100 Taiwanese dollars (US$3.40) a day on her needs, mainly two meals consisting of rice, noodles, and gluten porridge (she is, not surprisingly, a vegetarian). She buys clothes from sidewalk stalls, saying she does not socialize, anyway. She has no need for a bed, either, explaining that the floor is good enough for her. Besides, she once quipped, a bed would only make her sleep so soundly that she might be late getting up in the morning.
What makes Chen happy is her work. She often proclaims her love for it, even though she concedes it is “a serious, painstaking job.” For one thing, the vegetable stall is a treasured legacy from her parents. Every day she’s at the stall, hardly taking time off. There, too, she has gained devoted friends from among loyal customers, with whom she enjoys trading tips on cooking and just about anything to do with the business of daily living. Above all, her work has enabled her to raise money for the needy, an activity that gives her “great pleasure.”
Word about her good deeds eventually spread, so much so that in 2010, she was recognized by three international publications, along with business tycoons and high-profile personalities. Forbes Asia named her one of its 48 Heroes of Philanthropy; she was also on the 2010 TIME 100 list of influential people, under the Heroes category. Later that same year, Reader’s Digest named her Asian of the Year, who “embodies the best contemporary expression of Asian values…and who is working to shape the future of Asia in a positive manner.”
The TIME award required her to travel to New York, her first overseas trip. If she had been excited, she did not show it. Instead, she worried that her customers would come by the stall and not find her there. She couldn’t wait to get back to work. And when she did, it was “business as usual.” Fame had not changed her one bit. It rather tended to get in the way, with reporters and photographers, well-wishers, and curious onlookers swarming around her stall, to the inconvenience of her customers. Chen practically shooed them away!
(Fellow-Taiwanese-born film director Ang Lee, in his brief profile of Chen, observed that she seemed to dismiss her celebrity, “with a wave of her hand, perhaps even with a hint of irritation.”)
According to an article in Reader’s Digest, advertisers approached her to film commercials, and financial managers offered their services. Someone suggested that she set up a foundation, an idea she originally considered but abandoned later on “to avoid unnecessary hassles.”
She has accepted only two proposals: a commercial for the Bureau of National Health Insurance, in memory of her mother; and her biography, published in 2011 by Aquarius Publishing Co. Turning down any payment, she only agreed to accept a black T-shirt for the commercial. Her royalties from the book—which sold well—formed the bulk of the one million dollars (US$34,120) she donated to the Red Cross Society, the rest coming from her daily savings.
Chen presented her donation during the 2011 Double Ten national celebration in Taipei. Accepting the donation, Red Cross president C.V. Chen said he hoped all Red Cross volunteers would share her sense of giving. Even as he spoke, Chen’s infectious generosity had already begun to spread, especially following her international recognition.
The United Way of Taiwan, which raises funds for some 450 social welfare groups, reported that donations increased threefold. In just four days, about a hundred people contributed a combined amount of more than 200,000 dollars (US$6,823). United Way Secretary –General Chou Wen-chen told the China News Agency that 110,000 (US$3,752) came from four people alone. The sudden surge more than made up for the 15-percent decline in the preceding months, when only about a dozen donations per day came in.
Another local charity, the Garden of Hope Foundation, noted that more small donations from ordinary people poured in more frequently. An octogenarian former soldier was reported to have given away his life’s savings to a charity that supports orphaned children of soldiers.
“All of a sudden, many people found that even though they were not rich, their small donations may come as a great help to some people,” Hu Yu-fang of United Way was quoted in Reader’s Digest. In the article, social worker Phyllis Weng of the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families, likened Chen to a seed that “has taken root in the hearts of many people.”
The Ramon Magsaysay Award citation states that Chen was being recognized for “the pure altruism of her giving, which reflects a deep, consistent, quiet compassion” and which has transformed the lives of her fellow Taiwanese.
In her response, Chen thanked the board of trustees but at the same time, she intimated that she was still “quite embarrassed” by all the attention. It never once crossed her mind that she would receive the award, she said. In the first place, she never intended to let other people know about her donations. “Helping gives me a sense of pure satisfaction and makes me feel extremely happy,” she said. She vowed to continue selling vegetables and donating her earnings for the rest of her life.
Even before she departed for Manila to accept the award, Chen had announced that she would donate her US$50,000 prize to Mackay’s Hospital in Taitung for the construction of an intensive care unit.
After accepting the award, she made one simple request: to visit a wet market. Clearly, the market is her life—and a lifeline to her countless beneficiaries.