Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment

In a twist on mainstream office parks, a group of nonprofit and social welfare organizations has banded together in a unique enclave dedicated to the public good.
Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

Gongyi Xintiandi is located on the former site of a welfare facility established by entrepreneur and philanthropist Lu Bohong in 1911.

Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

Tucked away from bustling streets, Gongyi Xintiandi is rich in architectural heritage. Most of the buildings in the area are post and panel structures.

When talking about office parks, people might immediately think of venues grouping technology, industrial or creative arts companies.

But not all parks have a commercial motive underlying their existence. In downtown Shanghai, there’s a hub for nonprofit and social organizations called Gongyi Xintiandi, or literally “New World of Charities.”

It’s housed in the former site of the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute on Puyu Road W. in the Huangpu District, a venue that has long been associated with the concepts of love and equality.

The site dates back to 1911, when Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Lu Bohong founded New Puyu Tang, a home for orphans, the elderly, disabled, sick and impoverished.

To save money on construction, the bricks used to build the welfare facility came from old city walls demolished in 1912. Visitors today can see a brick engraved with an official seal produced in the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Xianfeng in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

From 1956 to 2001, the site housed the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute, the largest of its kind in China at the time. Today it’s home to more than 30 nongovernmental organizations and social welfare enterprises and two museums.

Strolling in the area on a rainy day, I was deeply moved by the connected atmosphere. Shrubbery trimmed into Chinese characters asks people: “Did you do anything today to benefit the public?”

Colorful graffiti on a wall was painted by volunteers and staff of the World of Art Brut Culture, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 to assist mentally handicapped people with artistic potential. A huge chalkboard says “before I die I want to…” and invites visitors to complete the sentence.

Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

Wall graffiti painted by volunteers and staff of the World of Art Brut Culture enhances the unique, tranquil environment of Gongyi Xintiandi.

Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

Shrubbery trimmed into Chinese characters encourages people to do something beneficial to the public.

Many people like me were taught as early as elementary school to be generous and sharing. We were encouraged to donate money or items to those less fortunate. This is the stereotype of practicing charity. But organizations in Gongyi Xintiandi present a more enlightened view of helping others.

Although the brick-and-timber architecture coated with incomplete lacquer looks a bit worse for wear, the inside environment is vigorous, with an array of interesting people doing interesting things.

“I really like this place because of its profound philanthropic history,” said Lu Le, chief executive and co-founder of First Respond, a social enterprise that offers first-aid training to the public and provides emergency response backup at sporting events.

“When I first came here in 2015, I immediately decided to stay.” Lu said, “I wanted my enterprise to take root amid such a tranquil, pure environment.” His organization has about 20,000 registered volunteers and 40-50 full-time employees. The group has trained more than 100,000 people in first aid since 2015 and has helped 14 distressed runners in 30 or more marathon races.

“On February 5, 2012, a runner died of a heart attack while competing in a race in Shenzhen, falling into the arms of one of our co-founders,” said Lu. “That was what triggered the establishment of First Respond.”

Last Saturday, I participated in the group’s daylong cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training course. First Respond is an authorized American Heart Association training site. The one-day tuition fee is 1,000 yuan (US$146). I thought that might be too steep to attract many people, but I was wrong. People of all ages and from all walks of life crowded into the classroom.

A mother came to learn first aid for her little daughters, an outdoor enthusiast regarded the course as a survival skill, and a 10-year-old boy came with his mother to learn ways he might help his grandparents. Everyone took the course seriously.

“I was appointed by my company to study first aid because we builders are prone to sunstroke when working under the hot sun every day,” said a middle-aged construction worker. “My first-aid certificate had lapsed so I needed to do a refresher course. There have been many times on the job when my first-aid skills have come in handy.”

The program is so popular that Lu said the group might have to find larger quarters. He added that its staff salaries aren’t particularly high but are competitive with nongovernmental organizations, a realm plagued by brain drain.

Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

Trainees of all ages practicing CPR techniques at First Respond, a group dedicated to emergency care in Gongyi Xintiandi

In the nearby offices of the World of Art Brut Culture, Xia Zijie, a sophomore in the Internet of Things and a volunteer since 2014, said he enjoys the work but won’t stay in the future.

Although I really like this place, which seems like a family, the pay is too low,” he said. “As a man, I can’t avoid the financial pressures of the future.”

The organization was founded by Miao Shiming. It provides educational training to about 20 disabled people in Shanghai, mainly between the ages of 16 and 20. Every Saturday, there are two classes teaching 10 trainees to paint.

Entering the studio, I saw the wall slogan: “Finding the Chinese van Gogh.” Surrounding the characters are imaginative artworks created by students.

Several similar pieces portraying men with multiple eyes stood out. I was told they were painted by a boy suffering from cerebral palsy. Another artwork by an autistic young person showed an almost incomprehensible jumble of Chinese characters.

“The people diagnosed with autism tend to self-talk,” Xia explained. “During one of our sessions, the teacher asked the trainees to write down those words. That’s how the artwork came about.”

Training almost 1,000 mentally disabled people in 10 cities, World of Art Brut Culture believes that art is a treatment method to enhance the spiritual quality of life for them and improve their mood. The ultimate aim is to help them integrate into society.

“Art can’t cure them, but it can influence them to become more stable,” Xia said. “I have watched their progress, from anxious to calm, from shy to confident, from pencil drawings on A4 paper to oil painting on canvas, from monochrome to polychrome. Through the artworks, we can analyze their psychological changes over a specified period.”

Xia is not only a giver but also a receiver. Apart from the sense of accomplishment he feels, he also said he acquires a deeper understanding of the people he serves.

“I have moved from compassion to empathy,” he said. “My attitude toward people with disabilities has changed. They are my friends. No difference.”

There are over 900 volunteers in the Shanghai branch of the organization. They help in the staging of exhibitions and charity sales, and accompanying trainees to class. People of all ages and all nationalities are encouraged to become volunteers.

“But we do make a phone call first, just to make sure that they understand what is involved here,” Xia added.

Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

Art education at the World of Art Brut Culture aims to integrate into society.

Caring and sharing: Altruists create a unique environment
Wang Rongjiang

World of Art Brut Culture believes that art is a treatment method to enhance the spiritual quality of life.

First Respond and the World of Art Brut Culture are among the more visible organizations in Gongyi Xintiandi. Many smaller groups are similarly dedicated to worthy causes, such as elderly care, legal services, education and care for disabled teenagers.

On September 15 and 16, Gongyi Xintiandi will hold an activity involving games that relate to sign language, Morse code, first aid, wound care, eye health, fire-escape knots, Chinese paper-cuts, puppetry, painting, comedy, Chinese tea culture and literary recitation. More information is available on the official WeChat account (gh_dcb11f1539b9).

How to get there:

Take the Metro Line 4 to the Nanpudaqiao Station and walk for 12 minutes to 105 Puyu Road W.

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