Bai Fang Who?
You have probably never heard of him, given the media’s obsession with the rich, famous, racy and popular. He wouldn’t warrant a headline, the way two boxers recently hogged the headlines weeks before, during and after their multi-million dollar fight. His photo would not grace the cover of a magazine the way an actor’s polished smile or a sexy bikini-clad starlet could. His story would be buried beneath the pile of entertainment gossip and scandals — who slept with whom and in what position, who broke up with who, who slapped who, and so on.
After all, Bai Fang Li was an old man, a poor man, and a pedicab driver. He was born poor and he died poor, which is hardly interesting or inspiring, or so I thought when I first encountered his story. That impression would be shattered as I read more about this remarkable man.
For most of his life, he ferried people back and forth as a rickshaw and pedicab driver in Tianjin, China. In 1987, he decided to retire and go back to his hometown. He was 75 years old. When he arrived at the small, rural village where he grew up, he saw children hard at work in the fields. He asked why these children were not in school and was told that they had no money to pay for tuition.
He was so distressed by this that he donated 5,000 yuan (roughly PHP35,000) to the schools in his village. His daughter, Bai Jinfeng said that money was “all he owned,” so he practically gave away his entire life savings.
But Bai Fang Li wasn’t done yet.
He came out of retirement and returned to Tianjin to once again ferry passengers on his pedicab. But this time, he used his earnings to continue supporting needy children from his village. He would only wear old clothes, mismatched socks and shoes and a hat that other people discarded. He would even eat food that other people threw away. When his children confronted him about this, he picked up a bun and said, “What is so hard about this? This bun is the product of a farmers’ hard work. People throw it away; I pick it up and eat it; isn’t this a way to reduce wastage?”
Every day, he would wait for passengers near the railway. His daughter recalls, “He went out at dawn and wouldn’t return until darkness fell. He earned 20 to 30 yuan each day (around PHP150 to PHP200). After returning home, he put his earnings in a place carefully.”
He continued driving his pedicab until 2001, when he was 90 years old. He drove to the Tianjin Yaohua Middle School, to deliver one last payment and to tell the students and teachers that he couldn’t work anymore. By this time, he had donated 350,000 yuan (around PHP2.5 million) and had helped 300 students go to school. He asked for nothing in return save that these students “study hard and get a good job, and then make contributions to our country.”
But he still wasn’t done yet.
He was no longer strong enough to drive a pedicab, but he offered to watch over people’s cars that were parked in the station. He was able to save 500 yuan (around PHP3,500) from that and still he gave that away.
Bai Fang Li passed away in 2005 shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer, but not before he had been recognized as a “virtuous man” and selected as one of 20 candidates of the “People Who Moved China” award.
Today, I share his story because it deserves to be heard by more people. It deserves a bigger audience than those funny cat videos or dance fails or sex scandals.
In a world dominated by the glitz and glamour of superficiality, we need to remember that there are people like Bai Fang Li who are selfless, humble and full of love and compassion for humanity. The world would be a better place with more people like him.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.