by Legatum
The Librarian: A China Social Sector photo essay

Photographer Alice Carfrae visited The Ruo Mu Community Centre, where she met Mr. Hu, a quiet man with a passion for reading, who has devoted his life to providing better opportunities for the migrant children of Zhengzhou.

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by Legatum

China’s stunning economic rise and massive societal shifts have recently led to a historically unprecedented drop in poverty levels.

World Bank figures show that just twenty years ago, more than 727 million people in China, or 69 percent of the population, lived in extreme poverty. Today, that number is below six percent and dropping. In this same period of dramatic change, the social sector in China has been inventing itself, first through international support and now, increasingly, with the deployment of local resources.

A number of key milestones have helped stimulate this change, including the 1995 UN World Conference on Women that sparked the creation of many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and also the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that established a new generation of philanthropists, volunteers, and social entrepreneurs. Events like these have marked clear growth points in the lifecycle of Chinese civil society’s increasingly complex system of social institutions.

Today, it is key that we improve, expand, and replicate the work of China’s pathfinders, and support those who are helping shape the development of China’s emerging cadre of civil society organisations.

Meet Mr. Hu...

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Mr. Hu founded The Ruo Mu Community Centre by opening up his own personal collection of 3,700 books into a free library to help migrant children discover the joy of reading. The library provides a safe space for migrant children to play and do homework.

Hu is actually a very quiet man, as befits a librarian, but he is delighted to share his passion with others, especially with the children.

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Hu, an optometrist by trade, was renting a former gambling hall as a space to store his vast book collection. Converting it into a public library and then a community centre for migrant children was organic.

Migrant workers form a marginalised group in China, as in so many countries. Often they have little in common apart from poverty and a need to earn money, and home life for their children is often unsettled.

Soon local people started to show an interest in his collection and were dropping in to spend a few quiet hours reading. He noticed that more and more young people were coming to read and use the space to do their homework. It then transpired that they were the children of migrant workers, whose parents worked long hours, often leaving the children at home without supervision at night.

The centre evolved gradually, and as well as providing a safe comfortable environment for the children to study, play and read, Hu now also puts on daily and weekly classes to help enrich the children’s education, led by local university student volunteers.

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Most local public secondary schools in the area cost money to attend and migrant families cannot afford to send their children there, nor negotiate the complex paperwork necessary for this to happen. Hu’s hope is to expand the centre and bring in more volunteers.

Hu has a philosophy as simple as it is effective — he would like to help more children into good colleges to give them a better chance in life.

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Alice Carfrae is an English documentary photographer currently based in Beijing China. She works for clients such as The Telegraph magazine, Ford Foundation, Legatum, The Welsh Rugby Union, the Youth Justice Board,, and has been published by Private magazine, Acuphoto France, and BBC Online.

Alice’s work has been exhibited internationally, her first solo show ‘Tin Girls’ was shown at Focale gallery in Geneva Switzerland. She has since exhibited in the UK, China and is about to show her work as part of Melborne Film Festival. ‘Tin Girls’ was taken on tour in Feb 2012 as part of a Multimedia Theatre piece produced in collaboration with Testimonial Theatre company ‘Viva Voce’. She has received The Reginald Salisbury Travel award bursary and received funding from ‘The Hinterlands Workshop’ to exhibit her work. As well as receiving the 2012 HSBC student bursary award to enable her to study for a full time Masters degree in China.

Alice graduated from The University of Wales Newport in 2011 with a BA hons in Documentary Photography. She has completed her Masters degree in China at Beijing Foreign Studies University in International Multimedia Journalism. She has since gone onto work on freelance multimedia journalist as well as collaborating on projects with Fire Fly Multimedia and the Legatum Foundation.

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