Our vendors: Old lady Zhong (Big Issue Taiwan, Taoyuan, Taiwan)

By Ru, Yu-Rui, The Big Issue Taiwan

It is mid-March and the spring rain is drizzling down in Taoyuan, Taiwan. There are teachers and students with umbrellas emerging from the backdoor of Central University on their way to lunch. Thursday noon of every week is the only time that old lady Zhong is able to come here to sell The Big Issue Taiwan. “I am at Chung Yuan Christian University on Tuesday and Thursday is for the Central University,” she says. “The rest of the time, I sell scratch-card lottery tickets and I’m a volunteer at the Association.”

Around two years ago, old lady Zhong bought a copy of The Big Issue magazine at a Taipei MRT station; afterwards, she contacted the magazine office of her own accord. Shortly after, she started life as a magazine vendor. “At the end of every month, I ride my motorbike to Taipei to replenish my stock with new magazines,” she says. “To reduce the time that I spend making back and forth journeys, I usually load up with a large volume of magazines.” Old lady Zhong has had difficulties with walking since she was a child; the mobility scooter is the only way for her to get around.

Central University The Big Issue Taiwan salesperson Zhong, Yue-Mei. Credit: Ru, Yu-Rui / The Big Issue Taiwan

Old lady Zhong has lots of bitter-sweet stories to share about her youth and growing up. She shifts her position a bit before starting to tell the story of her past. “I was born in Lukang and my father was a construction worker,” she begins. “When I was 5 years old, he had an accidental fall from the top floor that caused him to be paraplegic and bedridden for years. I have never gone to school. After I reached the age of discretion [i.e., coming of age], I took care of my father and younger sisters. I had to hold a crutch to move around and became a domestic worker for my neighbors: I helped with peeling and cutting sweet potatoes and doing domestic chores. It wasn’t until I turned 14 years that I changed my job to work in a nearby electronics factory, placing the tungsten filament in light bulbs. After two years, I won the trust of the factory owner: he promoted me to manage the assembly line…

“Back then, lots of people wanted to make a match for me. When I was young, I was skinnier than now! Although my legs are deformed, I had good looks and charm. After I married, I had two children; now, they have their own families. My husband died way of cancer during our marriage, so I had to raise my children on my own. For this reason, I always worked very hard. I have opened a breakfast shop, run a karaoke store and been a broadcaster in a radio station. My performance was recognized by my radio station boss and he assigned me to a role in Taipei. In the meantime, in addition to taking care of my family, I also needed to go back to Taoyuan to take care of my father and my old mother.

Credit: Ru, Yu-Rui / The Big Issue Taiwan

“My father passed away at the age of 88; then my mother passed away too. The work of my life is almost done. There were many benefactors who helped me a lot in my earlier life, and now I try my best to help others as a repayment of the loving-kindness that I received from my benefactors in the past. Therefore, I often go to the Physical Disability Association as a volunteer to help some of the underprivileged in applying for subsidies and filling out forms… Thanks to my savings allowance, I can also support them at the appropriate time. All of this is possible thanks to the college students who continue to support me by buying the magazine,” she says. “I sincerely thank the teachers and students of Chung Yuan Christian University and Central University for their support over the last two years.”

After our conversation, the drizzle is still falling from the sky and the streets have gone back to being peaceful after the lunchtime rush. Old lady Zhong is sitting on her motorbike under her umbrella at the road side, waiting for classes to be dismissed at dusk.

Translated from Chinese by Wei-Chen Chiu