That’s Shanghai – Urbanatomy – Charity Wednesday, 05 January 2011 07:01, by Jessica Li
Orphaned at 16 and lacking a high school education, Zhang Zhenghai started his working life in a bleak factory job, making just enough to get by. His luck changed when he joined Shanghai Young Bakers’ inaugural class. Two years later, he’s bound for France to study at the prestigious Ecole Francaise de Boulangerie d’Aurillac.
“When I started this program I didn’t think that I would be on a plane to France,” says Zhang, who is now 23. “I thought maybe at the least I would be able to find a good job in Shanghai. I’m excited to see the country that inspires a lot of our desserts in China.”
Founded in 2008, Shanghai Young Bakers selects students based on referrals from other youth charities. Disadvantaged youth (aged 17-23) are given the opportunity to study French baking for one year free of charge. Taught at Shanghai’s Caoyang Vocational School, students alternate in two-week periods between classroom learning and internships at Carrefour or five-star hotels and restaurants.
In addition to French bakery, students take academic courses to round out their secondary education. They also learn how to make Chinese-style Western desserts (think airy sweet cakes, like the ones sold at local coffee shops), which gives them versatility in the job market. Internships provide hands-on kitchen experience, and when they graduate most students continue in paid positions.
“Before, I was working and living day to day without a goal in my life,” says Zhang. “Now, I feel like I have direction. I didn’t come into the experience expecting anything, but I actually grew to love this profession. The independence is great and I really like making bread. I’ve discovered the key is to be happy while you’re baking. If you are annoyed then you can easily forget the little steps and a lot more things can go wrong, but if you’re happy it comes out delicious.”
This month Zhang and two classmates will fly off on the all-expenses paid trip to France to master their craft. Joining Zhang is 22-year-old Xiao Jinjin from Anhui Province, whose father died of AIDS. Xiao says she has always had an interest in baking.
“One time when my friend was having her birthday I went with her to the bakery and instead of paying for a pre-made cake I paid for the chance to go back into their kitchen and make my own,” she says. “Of course, it turned out very ugly and messy because it was my first time, but I loved the experience.
“Cakes are so beautiful because they come in any color and you can design them however you wish. It helps that I have a pretty big sweet tooth. Now, all my friends are asking me to bake cakes for them and I feel pretty proud.”
Xiao and Zhang are confident in their skills now, but Song Xiuyun, who just arrived in September, says she’s still adjusting.
“We had only been in school two weeks before the internship started so going to the restaurant was a head twisting experience,” says Song. “On my first day I felt really bad because I couldn’t do anything right, so I kept apologizing for all my little mistakes. I felt really ashamed that I couldn’t do more to help, but now I’m used to it and slowly I’m getting better.”
Before coming to Shanghai, Song said she tried to find work as a baker in Henan, but without the proper training she could not endure the rigors of the kitchen.
“I got all these burns and scars on my hand and when my mom saw them she made me quit,” she says.
Song’s mother is HIV positive and their closeness made it difficult for Song to leave Henan.
“I love my family, but I felt like I had to leave to learn some new skills,” she says. “I don’t think life has very much meaning if all you do is wait around, get married and have a family. It’s good for a girl to educate herself.”
SYB has a Chinese social educator who helps country kids adjust to Shanghai.
“Teacher Huang has been so great to me and I really feel like she’s my adopted mother, taking me under her wing,” says Song. “I tend to carry a lot of stuff on my shoulders and not tell anyone anything, but she has been so warm to me.” Retired kindergarten teacher Huang Rongfang started at SYB part-time. She’s mainly there as a mentor – putting out fires when students have disagreements and making sure the boys don’t spend too much time with the girls. Taking care of them has become an all-consuming occupation. They’re like her children now. “I worry about them all the time,” says Huang. “When they start crying to me I feel my own tears falling. They’re all very shy and guarded when they first arrive. They keep their problems bottled up and it’s my job to draw it out of them. I’ve lost 10 kilos taking care of them.
“Last year, we jointly celebrated three of their birthdays with a huge spread of food and a great big cake, which we ended up smearing on each other’s faces. Seeing them enjoy life without the pressure of everything else going on makes me the most happy.”
After the three top students return from France, SYB plans to hire them as teachers to help impart the fine art of French baking and the promise of a better future to the next class of underprivileged youth.