One step at a time

Updated: 2012-07-08 07:27

By Mei Jia (China Daily)

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 One step at a time

Tien Ching (center) travels to Gansu province every year to meet the girls who go to university thanks to the financial support from her foundation. Provided to China Daily

One step at a time

Canada's Tien Ching puts her money where her heart is, reaching out to educate girls in rural China, Mei Jia reports.

Chinese-Canadian Tien Ching has helped almost 300 girls from rural areas of Gansu get through school and on to college. But she tells her young proteges that she's not a rich woman spreading inherited "easy money" on charity.

"Some of my donors are people like retired teachers, donating by installments," Tien says.

Tien has made an art of sizable change through thinking small. Thanks to her British Columbia Society for Educating Girls of Rural China, 116 young women can boast university degrees since her Vancouver-based foundation was registered in 2005.

According to the foundation's website,, 170 students are in the program and studying in 96 universities in more than 30 cities throughout China. Among the graduates, 15 percent have gone on to master's programs and 20 percent work as school teachers or for the local Gansu government, EGRC says. Most graduates work in various professional industries in cities and townships throughout China.

"I don't intend to do big things," Tien says. "But I mean to do really effective and helpful things."

Unlike the popular images of charity beneficiaries - shy or shaking with gratitude - Tien's girls are self-confident and outgoing. They behave and speak elegantly, quite like Tien herself.

"My girls are composed and at ease because I don't impose any extra things on them," she says.

Except for yearly reports on their school performances, Tien asked nothing in return from the girls. Because of that standard, she turned down several sponsorship offers that would have required hours of community service or joining the sponsor's companies after graduation.

At a fundraiser in Beijing in June, 22-year-old Liu Yanxia couldn't hold back her tears when introducing herself in English and describing her connection with Tien.

The event, which was arranged by the Canadian embassy, generated money for Tien's upcoming program for middle-school girls and the foundation's planned expansion into other provinces, including Qinghai and Guizhou.

"My other mother (Tien) gave me a life-changing opportunity, and the faith in education and in myself," Liu told the audience.

Coming from a family in Longxi county consisting of three children, a farmer father and a sick housewife mother, Liu says even meals are a huge problem because of the barren lands there.

After her "miracle-like" encounter with Tien, she's able to go to Civil Aviation University of China. She anticipates a bright future.

Ma Huiming, who smiles every time she utters a word, calls Tien "auntie". The smiling 23-year-old has earned a bachelor's degree in primary education from Tianjin Normal University - and won a scholarship for her master's degree at the same university.

Ma and Liu, who didn't know each other before being sponsored by Tien, are now as close to each other as sisters.

"During the yearly reunion in summer vacations, all our older and younger sisters, all in different grades, gather together with auntie," Ma says. The young women "share secrets of defeating the freshman embarrassment, of choosing a way for the future, of living in a big city".

That, says Tien, is "what I call sustainability of charity". The girls share experiences and learn how to encourage each other, she says. Later they become each other's social resources, which give them strength.

"Now my earliest recipients are giving back. They volunteered to donate money in the hope of helping more like themselves," Tien says, adding she won't let them donate more than 2,000 yuan ($314).

Tien knows almost everyone in her "big family". She savors their updates and says the first girl whom she sponsored starting in 2005, Wang Bixia, is finishing her master's in Canada.

Tien insists on visiting Gansu every year to meet the girls and families. After recommendations from the local educational bureaus and head teachers, she talks with every candidate to learn what she can do about them and then delivers scholarships directly into the girls' accounts.

Tien, who never went to university herself, is proud to be "giving these girls the opportunity that I did not have". Born in 1950s in Beijing, Tien has a pediatrician mother and a pilot father who had flown with the American Flying Tigers. Her life took a dramatic turn during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when her education was interrupted and she was sent to a factory in Gansu with her mother.

She returned to the capital eight years later, and in 1983, she emigrated to Canada and a new life, running a framing company and an art gallery. She gave birth to a son and a daughter there.

Canadian Ambassador to China David Mulroney applauds Tien as "a person whose strength of character is evident the moment that you meet her".

In 2004, at a UNICEF fundraiser for African girls, Tien was greatly inspired by the notion that "educated women will have educated children".

And she thought of the girls in Gansu, where she spent years and well understands the hunger, the poverty and the limited opportunities most girls have in such rural areas.

Determined to help whomever she could afford to reach, she started small with $27,000 in the first year - an amount that has gradually increased to $100,000 a year as new donors came aboard.

"China has changed a lot compared to those years when I was young," she says. "I can see progress made by the government with the favorable policies for educating rural children." Local loans help many freshmen who might have given up university opportunities in the past simply because they couldn't afford the travel and tuition fees, she says.

"The awareness of charity increased. The country has no lack of willing donors," she adds.

In 2011, Tien invited Canadian companies operating in China to help, believing they're gaining from the country so they should have community responsibilities.

Eldorado Gold, one of the largest foreign mining companies in China, liked her approach and became her first corporate sponsor.

"We see Tien is making real changes," says Gao Xilin, general manager of Risk Management and Community Affairs of Eldorado Gold China Operations.

Tien, with a plain suit and a modest handbag, says she keeps the administrative fees of the organization to within 4 percent.

"She does wonders in China," says Ambassador Mulroney. "But she also makes Canada a better place through her presence."

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(China Daily 07/08/2012 page4)