If 'our things are who we are," then what does clutter say about us?

Many of us live in messy homes, but professional organizers are gaining a foothold in China, giving households the impetus to tidy up.

If you are tired of looking around your home and seeing nothing but clutter, clutter, clutter, but the mere idea of sorting, discarding and organizing all that stuff defeats you, help is at hand.

Decluttering has been a more or less respectable profession in the West for years, and now the idea is taking hold in China.

The idea of decluttering at home and in life in general was largely popularized by the two Japanese best-sellers Hideko Yamashita’s “Dan-Sha-Ri” and “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. Entrepreneurs were quick to sense a business opportunity.

The Chinese Association of Professional Organizers, established in Shanghai in May last year, has around 200 members and about a third of them are undergoing training in Shanghai.

“Some people have a lot of beautiful things but are still not happy. They are disoriented and do not know meaning and value of the things in their lives,” said association founder Han Yi’en. “Our things are who we are.”

Han, 29, is a former corporate legal specialist who became a full-time professional organizer at the end of 2015. Helping others reorganize their lives brings her a lot of satisfaction.

It does not matter how much space you have, she said; The bigger the house, the more space to cram stuff in.

“Some of the worst cases are in the biggest of houses, and they can be the most tiring because we have to carry a lot of things down from the third floor to the first.”

If 'our things are who we are, then what does clutter say about us?

Han Yi'en organizes a home. Photo courtesy of Han

If 'our things are who we are, then what does clutter say about us?

This corner of Han's client's home before and after being tidied up. Photo courtesy of Han

Top organizers make tens of thousands of yuan a month, an enviable salary, but the public remains largely unaware of the service. It is a small niche.

In its first year, the association cleaned up more than 200 houses in an introductory campaign where clients weren’t charged for the first five hours work. Half of the households were in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. About 60 percent of them had incomes of 15,000 yuan (US$2,190) or more a month, living in apartments or houses of bigger than 100 square meters. In short, that means the richest people were the first to latch onto the service. Eighty percent of them rated the results “great” or “excellent.”

The association now has about 20 trainees running their own agencies and there is no shortage of others keen to start similar services.

Zhou Mi, 34, a former marketer and public relations professional who has lived in the UK, Spain and Mexico set up her own decluttering service three years ago.

She has shaken up both Chinese and expat homes. Clients who seek her help want more space and a classier look to their homes.

“Chinese families are more likely to keep large amounts of oil, salt, sauce, soap, napkins and old stuff that they ‘saving’ for future use,” she said.

If 'our things are who we are, then what does clutter say about us?
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Zhou Mi and her fellow home organizers work in an apartment.

One of the beneficiaries of Zhou’s service is Yang Liying. Yang lives in a 60-square-meter apartment in Shanghai with her husband, their 4-year-old child and her mother.

Yang asked for professional help because she was tired of telling her mother not to hoard things in their tiny home.

“Older people take advice more readily from strangers than from their own children,” Yang said. 

“My mother even turned out to be more decisive than I was when the organizers suggested throwing some things away.”

In their newly organized home, children’s toys are gathered in one place, and kitchen cabinets are labeled so that everything is always in the same spot. Yang said her tidier home also looks bigger.

She said she learned lots useful, if somewhat obvious, skills from the organizers, such as putting the possessions of a taller person like her husband higher up. That makes it easier for everyone at home to access their belongings.

Yang was so intrigued by the decluttering process that she now works alongside Zhou in her spare time.

If it was just as simple as finding a place for everything for everything and putting everything in its place, there would not be much need for professional organizers.

Gu Jing, 38, a surgeon-turned-organizer, and her team have overhauled more than 1,000 homes since 2013. Some of her clients called her “maid,” when she first came to their homes, but after the work was done, they called her “master.”

“The purpose of home organization is to enable people to form good habits and keep their own homes tidy. Forming good habits and discipline can be challenging for many families,” she said. “In a tidy home, one doesn’t have to move more than 10 things every day to keep order.”

Messy families tend to blame their untidiness on the birth of their children, said Gu, a mother of two. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

“Many parents told me that they put their children’s clothes and toys on a high shelf and had to get them when the young ones wanted something,” she said. 

“But putting those things where children have access to them makes them less dependent on adults for simple tasks. It also helps children learn to put their things back in their proper places.”

Professional organizers hold a variety of different qualifications, and usually get clients by word of mouth.

Textbook experience, which in China comes mostly from Japan, doesn’t necessarily apply to every household. In China, for example, people tend to keep things overhead while in Japan people keep things at ground level. Homes in different climates also require different methods of organizing.

A top professional needs to be a tireless student of fashion trends and home design. It also helps to be empathetic and a good communicator.

But first and foremost, professional organizers need to be physically fit because the work can often involve long hours in dusty spaces.

“It sounds like a swish job, but it comes at a price,” Han said. “Some people give up after the first try.”

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