Social Enterprise Founder Peter Chuang
Reviving a Rural Community
Taiwan's young generation is discovering that finding work may mean creating your own job. Here's the story of Peter Chuang, who started a business in a relatively nondescript rural township.
Reviving a Rural CommunityBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 561 )
When you follow the winding mountain road up to Big Hill North Moon coffeeshop in Hsinchu's Hengshan Township, the scent of ginger lilies fills the air, pleasantly surprising your senses.
Twenty-six-year-old Peter Chuang, winner of countless startup competitions, chose this remote place in Fenghsiang Village to pursue his entrepreneurial dream in an abandoned elementary school. The reuse of the school premises, which had been neglected for 30 years, put Hengshan Township back on the tourist map and opened up new opportunities for this rural community. He tells his story to CommonWealth Magazine.
In graduate school, I took a course on service innovation. At the time, our teachers dumped the 20 of us on the side of Provincial Highway No. 3, demanding that we unearth and solve problems ourselves by following what we had learned in class: exploring demand, brainstorming, establishing a prototype, and making it work.
Five of us went to Hengshan Township, which straddles Provincial Highway No. 3, to a place called Dashanbei (backside of the big mountain). There we found Fengxiang Elementary School, which had been abandoned for 30 years.
The hiking trails in the vicinity of the school were extremely dirty. Through observation and interviews with locals, we found out that Dashanbei was virtually non-existent in tourism information. It was unknown among travelers, local business was bad, and local residents did not have any confidence.
Launching a Business, Solving Problems
We found an opportunity to get started. First, we launched an online campaign that promised local products as a reward if people traveled to Hengshan to help clean up fallen leaves. We also found a bakery in Hengshan that bakes wood-fired hearth bread and was ready to cooperate with us. Through this platform, we helped make connections, and when people registered [for this activity] we notified local stores to provide cleaning gear. In the end about a dozen people from outside participated.
This experience gave me the idea to found my own business. We study from childhood on and take exams. All we know is answering exam questions. It came as a surprise to us that were also able to solve real world problems. As it turns out, a job did not need to be in a company, it could be in a village or in a community and you could even create it yourself.
When I heard that the Dashanbei Hakka Culture Center in the renovated school building would cease operations, I decided after consulting my girlfriend to rent it from the town office.
When we moved in, the site was overgrown with weeds and littered with trash and other stuff. The two of us rolled up our sleeves and started to renovate the place, beginning with repainting the blackened walls. We remodeled the classrooms into a nature exhibition room, a lecture room and a leisure restaurant. Then we brought in books that we had collected from everywhere to create a reading space with a completely fresh face.
At the door we put up a blackboard as our shop sign, and I wrote the four words Big Hill North Moon (da shan bei yue) with white chalk on it. [In Chinese, the character for 'backside' consists of the characters 'north' and 'moon' on top of each other]. Aside from splitting the character for "backside" into its two components north and moon, north moon also hints at a new beginning in life. Also, one of the characters in my name contains the character for "mountain" and my girlfriend's name contains the character for "moon."
The Big Hill North Moon that we envisage in our hearts is not just a coffeeshop and an arts museum but fully integrates local character, too.
Local Goodies, Candied Bitter Melon
The first step you need to take is to delve into local life. When visiting small farmers in the community I discovered that they worked very hard growing tea but that they couldn't find distribution channels. Therefore, we organized a "tea-making workshop" through an online campaign to bring urban travelers to this small, remote village. On these small excursions, they would hear local people tell their stories and eat local produce.
Moreover, each product in the stores would have to tell its own story.
A small farmer nearby was planting organic bitter melon but because his prices were somewhat higher he couldn't sell them. Thinking that what he did was actually beneficial to the health of consumers, we decided to buy up all the bitter melons.
Putting her confectionary-making experience to work, my girlfriend stir-fried the bitter melon with sugar to make candied bitter melon. Much to our surprise, more than 100 jars of candied bitter melon were gone right after being put up for sale.
Even more important is that we hope to highlight local goodies in our restaurant menu. We have put trademark foods from the five villages along Provincial Highway No. 3 on our menu. The wood-fired hearth bread that we serve before the meal, for example, is a classical Hengshan product. Grass jelly from Guanxi is made into cold grass jelly noodle dishes, while Beipu stands for "lei cha" ground tea sorbet. We also offer handmade mochi [cakes of pounded sticky rice] from Zhudong and Oriental beauty oolong tea from Emei.
I am clearly aware that we need to integrate our resources to bring all good things together, or else it will be impossible to increase their value.
The values I believe in are not just actual profits but the value that things have for people.
Cartoonist Liu Hsing-chin, the author of the Brother A-san and Great Auntie comic series, is a graduate of Fengxiang Elementary School. A while ago, Liu and his former classmates came to Big Hill North Moon for an alumni meeting. I felt an indescribable, warm feeling when I watched this group of seniors, who graduated some 70 years ago, that they were still able return to their school, which holds so many childhood memories. They chatted animatedly, sang songs from their childhood and told childhood stories.
We will continue to expand our imagination for this place; we are ready to try any innovative project, from holding dream weddings on the lawn to corporate meetings. We also interact with local residents, discuss future development, and forge consensus. We hope to bring together experts, scholars, residents and farmers to create many more diverse possibilities.
Finally, I hope to be able to create a three-way win-win-win effect. The travelers can enjoy the beautiful scenery of Dashanbei, understand the features of local culture and experience good life. The local residents can bolster their self-confidence and encourage younger people to return to the countryside to open up more possibilities.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz