A Joyful Life of Giving

“Life is short. We need just enough money to get by. We should leave some time for ourselves,” said 70-year-old Hong Tian-zhu, who often drives his 30-year-old van to do volunteer work.

I’ve decided to close my factory by the end of this year,” said Hong Tian-zhu (洪天助), as he drove to the Tainan station of the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) to pick up some recyclables. “After it closes, I won’t be so pressed for time when I do recycling work.”

“Why are you closing your factory? Isn’t business good?” asked a fellow Tzu Chi volunteer who was riding shotgun.

“I’ve talked it over with my wife,” Hong answered. “Life is short. We only need enough money to get by. Our children are grown and independent. We should leave some time for ourselves.” He wanted to have more time for volunteering.

Hong mentioned another reason for closing his plastic bag factory. He said that he had started the business 40 years before because the market for plastic bags was good. Back then, he, like most people, had no idea about the heavy toll plastics would have on the environment. Now that he knows better, he needs to make a change. “I’ve urged people since I took up recycling work to cut down on the use of plastics. It would be quite ironic if I go on churning out plastic bags while telling people to reduce the use of them. I’ll quit while I’m still physically fit to dedicate more time to volunteering.”

Members of the Tainan chapter of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association make monthly visits to remote mountain areas in Longqi, Yujing, and Guanshan to provide free medical services to elderly and needy people. Hong Tian-zhu (standing center) helps out on one such trip. Huang Yu-xiong

God helps those who help themselves

There are day and night shifts at Hong’s factory. His wife, Qiu Nian-yu (邱年玉), and their employees work the day shift, while Hong works the night shift. He also makes deliveries to customers every morning. At noon when he has had his lunch, he ought to catch up on his sleep. But instead of doing that, he drives to the THSR Tainan station to collect recyclables. He doesn’t mind sacrificing some sleep. He enjoys volunteering.

Hong’s factory has been in operation for nearly 40 years. He was introduced to this line of work by one of his older brothers, who had opened a plastics factory in southern Taiwan with a friend and invited Hong to join them. It was 1973 and Hong had just completed his compulsory military stint.

Taiwan’s economy was taking off at the time, and the plastics industry was still relatively new. After joining his brother’s business, Hong, with a major in bank management, successfully convinced his bosses to solicit orders from abroad, thus helping widen the company’s market. Hong wore many hats at the company, including financial management and purchasing. He was a very dedicated worker and basically lived on site.

One year, the company hired a new employee, Qiu Nian-yu, to work at the warehouse. She had just graduated from a vocational school. Hong often saw Qiu washing the dishes for the more than 30 employees at the company after lunch, even though the company had stipulated that everyone should take turns doing that. Having grown up in an underprivileged environment, Hong admired her hard work and enthusiasm for serving others. He became strongly attracted to her.

Hong came from a family of 11 children. His father toiled hard to support the family—farming during the day, working for a puppet troupe at night, and peddling plum cookies and popsicles during whatever free time he had left. Toiling day and night eventually took a toll on his health, and he passed away at 48 after spitting blood. After he died, his wife demonstrated impressive perseverance and assumed the weighty responsibility of supporting the large family. Hong learned from his mother’s example what an important role the female head of a household played. Looking at Qiu, he knew she would make a good wife and mother. He told himself not to let her slip away.

Eight years after they tied the knot, Hong and Qiu left his brother’s company and struck out on their own. They started a plastic bag factory in an industrial park in Rende, Tainan, southern Taiwan. They also made the factory their home. Both of them were hard-working and trustworthy, and they built up a good business over the years.

Hong Tian-zhu at work in his factory

Heartened by 0.85 cent

In 1990, Hong went to a former colleague’s housewarming party. That colleague, Cai Xiu-zhi
(=٢(q*v), was a Tzu Chi commissioner. She told the people at the party that Master Cheng Yen was calling on everyone to do recycling to protect the environment. Hong had just ended an investment in China and had more free time on his hands, and so he accepted Cai’s invitation to help collect recyclables.

Hong and his wife started by picking up recyclable garbage in the industrial park where their factory was located. They did that in the evenings. When they met people they knew, they would pretend to be out taking a walk. “We were afraid that people might think we had fallen on hard times if they saw us collecting garbage,” Hong explained.

After some time, Hong thought of visiting neighborhoods in Rende to promote recycling and encourage people to set up recycling points. He would then visit the points to collect sorted recyclables. Xu Chun-chang (徐春長), a senior Tzu Chi volunteer, advised him to think twice about his idea. He was worried that Hong might be taking on more than he could handle.

Despite Xu’s advice, Hong went ahead with his idea. Many recycling points were set up in response to his appeal. He would go out in the morning in his van to make deliveries for his factory, and then stop by at the various points on his return trip to pick up recyclables. However, he soon found that his van was not large enough to handle the large amount of recyclables people were collecting—the vehicle was often full before he could finish his rounds. As a result, he often received calls rushing him to collect recyclables at a point. He was overwhelmed.

He mentioned to a Tzu Chi donating member the problem he was encountering, and he said that he was thinking of raising money to buy a truck for Tzu Chi. The donating member relayed Hong’s wish to her husband, who was a factory manager at Ta Chen Stainless Pipe Company. The husband in turn told his boss, Hsieh Jung-kun
(謝榮坤), about it. Impressed by Tzu Chi’s recycling efforts, the boss very generously decided to donate a large truck to the foundation. That solved the recyclable collection problem in the Rende area.

Back then, few recycling dealers were willing to buy beverage cans because they didn’t fetch much money. Hong sought far and wide to find a business that would take them. Sometimes, when he had finally found one and had driven a full load of metal cans to the dealer, the dealer would tell him, “Don’t bring me any more.”

Hong was in a dilemma. He felt stuck. Drink cans collected by volunteers kept coming in and yet there was no one willing to buy them. “It was like being in the middle of shampooing your hair and having the water stop,” he said.

Refusing to be defeated, he continued looking. He eventually found a dealer that specialized in buying scrap metals.

“Do you take metal cans?” he asked an old man at that dealership when he had arrived there, full of hope, with his “wares.”

“All metal cans? They’re worth next to nothing,” the man said, frowning.

Hong felt his heart sink, but then a woman standing off to one side piped up: “It’s okay. We’ll take them. Two dollars and 60 cents [0.85 U.S. cent] per kilogram.”

“Two dollars and 60 cents?” Hong repeated, thinking that he had heard it wrong. No one had ever offered such a good price for his cans. As his spirits lifted, he said to the woman, “These were all collected by Tzu Chi volunteers. I have a lot more.”

“Bring them all to us,” said the woman. Hong would learn later that her name was Xiao Qian-jin (蕭千金) and that her husband, Xie Fu-en (謝復恩), owned the business. Xiao had known Tzu Chi for a long time and had even donated money to it. She continued: “I know the volunteers worked hard to collect and sort those cans.”

From that time on, Hong would regularly deliver recycled metal cans to Xie’s business. One year later, the Xie family became donating members of Tzu Chi. Xiao even helped solicit donations for Tzu Chi.

Volunteers clean up for Li, a homeless person who lives in an old air-raid shelter. Su Wen-fa

Feelings for the underprivileged

Because his wife can look after their factory during the day, Hong often visits the needy with other volunteers in addition to his recycling work.

One time they visited a homeless person, Li, who suffered from hypertension, diabetes, and cirrhosis. For three years he had lived in a deserted military air-raid shelter. When the volunteers entered the dark shelter, they saw mosquitoes and other insects flying around. Squinting in the dark, they made out several worn blankets and towels under which Li was curled up in a ball, trying to keep himself warm in the cold weather.

The sight aroused a wave of sympathy in Hong. He thought back to his childhood. Life was hard back then for his family, but at least they could still get by. Looking around the cold, dark shelter, he couldn’t imagine how the man passed his days there.

The volunteers immediately set to work. Some went to get a used bed for Li, some set out to purchase serviceable comforters and warm clothes, and some began cleaning up the place. Hong fetched a rechargeable battery, a light, some wires, and a bag of rice from his van. He said to Li, “This battery was donated by a car repair shop. It can keep the light running for over a month. I’ll recharge the battery for you the next time we come back for a visit.” Hong was happy to help make life a little easier for the down-and-out man.

Another aid recipient, Liu, suffered from terminal liver cancer. His wife accompanied him through thick and thin, but they eventually ended up homeless. Hong and other volunteers found an old house for the couple where they could at least take shelter.

Chang, another homeless person, showed up at the Tainan Tzu Chi office one day seeking help. After assessment, Hong talked to Mrs. Liu about partitioning a room in their place for Chang. Mrs. Liu agreed.

Volunteers transported partitioning materials to the Lius’ place and had the house remodeled. The completed house was comfortable, and the three occupants were happy to call it home.

Hong and other volunteers sort garbage collected from Taiwan High Speed Rail trains near the Tainan station.


Untying knots

Juggling work, family, and volunteering, Hong rarely has time to rest. One time, after a particularly busy spell, he was alarmed to find that he couldn’t hear out of his left ear. He was admitted to a hospital for examination. The patient in the bed next to his was an old man who had had a stroke. No family was around to care for him and regularly turn him over in bed, so he had developed bedsores. He constantly sighed and lamented his hard lot. To lighten his heart, Hong chatted with him, told him stories about Tzu Chi, and even sang to entertain him.

That weekend, the old man’s daughter finally showed up at the hospital to check on him. Hong shared with her this teaching of Master Cheng Yen’s: “Never delay in practicing filial piety and doing good.” He gently reminded the daughter that her father could use some company. Even during hospitalization, Hong was eager to help others. He continued to “volunteer” and offer his care and love.

He was discharged after four days. The doctors hadn’t been able to determine the cause of his hearing problem. Miraculously, however, he regained hearing in his left ear about two weeks after his discharge. He couldn’t wait to resume his volunteer work.

Soon thereafter, while visiting a Su family, he noticed that the two sisters in the household weren’t talking to each other. He brought it up with other volunteers. “It must be hard to live under the same roof and not be on speaking terms,” he said. They decided to help untie the knot between the two sisters.

The older sister and her three children had moved back in with her parents after her husband had passed away. One of her children had lazy eye. The younger sister originally worked out of town as a hospital nurse, but to help her sister out and care for their father, a dialysis patient, and their mother, who had had a stroke, she quit her job and returned to their hometown. She settled for a new job that paid only half her previous salary. She also gave up a serious, long-term relationship so she could focus on taking care of her family.

Having given up so much, the younger sister sometimes fell into depression. The older one was poor at comforting others, and she rarely reached out to her sister. Over time, the two sisters became like strangers. It was like a wall had been erected between them; communication all but ceased.

Hong and his fellow volunteers decided to work with the older sister first. On their next visit to the family, the volunteers first talked with the parents and the older sister. They told them about what they had observed and convinced the older sister to reach out to the younger one. Following the volunteers’ suggestion, the older sister went upstairs to invite her sister down to join them in the living room. Then the volunteers performed songs about family love for the family. Their performance—accompanied by graceful hand gestures—was so touching that the father was moved to tears.

When everyone was caught up in this heartwarming atmosphere, the older sister said to the younger one, “We’re grateful to have you around. I know it must be tough juggling work and taking care of the family. Thank you so much.” The younger sister’s heart softened upon hearing those words, and she voiced things that she had never been able to say to her sister. Seeing the two sisters untying the knot between them, the volunteers felt their eyes grow moist.

Hong and his wife, Qiu, both volunteer for Tzu Chi. They also run their factory together. They make a great team.

Keep going

Hong is deeply involved in Tzu Chi work. In addition to recycling work and home visits, he has also taken part in free clinics and international relief work. He always returns home from his volunteering more committed to helping the needy. Seeing the suffering of the needy reminds him of his own hard life as a child, and that spurs him to work harder to help others.

His wife, Qiu, also volunteers for Tzu Chi. When one of them volunteers, the other fills in for the other at work. They make a good team. Hong is thankful to his wife for supporting his dedication to volunteering, and Qiu is happy to see her husband’s transformation after he joined Tzu Chi: “He was rather hot-tempered when he was younger, and he had no patience for people who didn’t do things fast enough. As a result, he was often short with others. However, participating in Tzu Chi work has greatly softened his rough edges, and he now enjoys going around to give love.”

At 70, Hong is no longer young, but the idea of taking life easier has never crossed his mind. He has seen how Master Cheng Yen does her best to serve the world, despite being over 80 years old. That has motivated him to keep doing what he can to inspire more people to give.

Hong is more than grateful that he has encountered Tzu Chi on his life’s path. He doesn’t like to remain idle, but as a Tzu Chi volunteer he will never have to worry about not having things to do. Life begins at 70. He will continue to lead an active, joyful life of giving.

September 2018