A scavenger struggles to take care of many disabled Chinese children left to die.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
ANDING, China -- Chen Shangyi makes a living as a scavenger. He prides himself on having a good nose for unusual finds. So when he saw a crowd clustered around a white bundle at the local train station one day while he was hunting for empty soda cans and soy sauce bottles, he couldn't resist taking a peek.
It was a baby, wrapped in a thin sheet.
"Everybody was just looking. Nobody would do anything," recalled Chen, who was 65 on that bitterly cold, snowy day 17 years ago. "When I took her home, she was frozen stiff. My wife and I wrapped her in a burlap bag. ... We started a fire. We fed her soup and put some old clothes on her. A while later, she started to wiggle."
Chen named her Ling-Ling.
Today, Chen still makes a living as a scavenger in this remote Chinese town of 460,000 people on the edge of the Gobi Desert. And he is still bringing home children -- 42 in all, at last count.
Many had been abandoned because they were born with physical disabilities. Over the years, Chen has developed such a reputation as a keeper of castaway kids that even local officials have sent them his way. They know Chen would never reject any child, no matter how imperfect.
"Nobody else wants them, because they are afraid of trouble," said Chen's 81-year-old wife, Zhang Lanying. "They think these children are dirty. But I pity them. They are human beings."
As the world's most populous nation, China is home to the largest disabled population on Earth: about 60 million. Despite a 14-year-old anti-discrimination law that guarantees equal rights, society's attitude toward the disabled has been slow to change. Handicapped access in public places is rare. Employment prospects are grim.
Although in recent years they have made up only about 5 percent of the general population, mentally and physically disabled people account for about one-third of the unemployed and their living conditions are worse than average Chinese.
For some Chinese parents, the prospect of watching their disabled children experience a lifetime of stigma is too terrible to bear.
Making ends meet
Local officials say they have sent castaways to Chen because they have no other way of caring for them. A new orphanage sits empty -- it takes too much money to operate. A handful of staff members are paid to guard the vacant building.
Instead, local officials pay Chen and his wife to do the work for them: less than $80 per month for the eight children the elderly couple now care for.
That meager sum, plus the little cash Chen brings in by picking through trash and all the love the couple can muster, has been enough to save dozens of children from certain death.
Chen, a sturdy 82-year-old with deep lines on his sun-baked face, has a first-grade education. When he was younger, he worked as a laborer. After the economic reforms of the late 1970s, he started peddling tea drinks at the local train station and collected garbage on the side. After becoming a full-time parent, he gave up the tea business.
His first wife left him long before that, taking with her their two children, now in their 60s. He married Zhang more than 50 years ago. They have no children of their own. However, they say they have cherished every one of the youngsters who have come into their lives.
Supporting their children
Their oldest now is 12-year-old Yuan Yuan. She was born with a lump on her skull the size of a peach. Someone had left her in the yard of the local municipal building. No one wanted anything do with this frightening-looking child who was probably then 1 year old. Chen took her home.
Like the rest of the children, Yuan Yuan calls Chen and Zhang Grandpa and Grandma, or yeye and nainai.
The youngest child now is 2-year-old Ling Ling, named after the baby Chen found at the railway station. The first Ling Ling never recovered fully from being left in the snow and suffered from frequent coughs and seizures. She died when she was 4.
Of the 42 children Chen and Zhang have taken in over the years, 21 turned out to be healthy or suffering from mild disabilities and were adopted. Thirteen sick children died.
They said the loss of Ling Ling, their first child, still hurts the most.