‘Appreneurs’: A Taste for Change in China

In China, entrepreneurship has only been legal for 35 years. While red tape and legal obstacles for new businesses still exist, the Internet has opened up a wealth of opportunities for individuals, particularly women, to become ‘appreneurs,’ running successful businesses from home.

App-based microbusinesses, known as weishang (微商) are one of China’s fastest growing forms of e-commerce. WeChat, a texting app that hosts many of these businesses and allows electronic money transfers is ubiquitous in China; there are over 550 million active WeChat users around the country. Weibo, a microblogging site, and Taobao, China’s answer to Amazon and eBay, also allow small business owners to sell their goods through the apps. The goods can be picked up in person or delivered via courier.

Little Qing, an expert coffee roaster, initially sold her roasted beans to her network of friends on Weibo and built a trusted clientele through word of mouth. “It started with just friends, although I didn’t want them to feel pressured to buy anything. I wanted them to want to buy my coffee and then enjoy drinking it, otherwise it wouldn’t become a sustainable model.”

China is still very much a tea culture, so Little Qing first had to introduce many of her friends and relatives to coffee basics: how to brew it (no need for an elaborate steeping process; a drip machine will work) and drink it (sugar is optional; try it black first), helping them find their favorite taste. “Now my friends introduce other friends to my coffee. They may not have been coffee drinkers before but they like the concept of it and brought their friends to sample my coffee, discovering they actually liked the taste.”

Jasmine, another food appreneur, first started baking for family and friends. “Chinese bakeries generally only sell sugar-laden white bread, and I wanted to be able to provide my daughter with something healthier.” Jasmine, who’s self taught, only uses locally sourced ingredients from trusted vendors and imported French or German flour.

China’s numerous food scandals in recent years and growing rates of obesity and diabetes have made consumers more health conscious, which has also attracted customers. “I know it’s not cheap, but this bread is made from the best ingredients and people appreciate that. Gradually people’s preferences change.”

For the first time since China’s opening up, the middle class is enjoying the convergence of a disposable income, increased travel ability and an internet-savvy society. Together, these factors have made it possible for women entrepreneurs to pursue interests beyond what was once imaginable, introducing new flavors and tastes to consumers in the process.

In 2014, Premier Li Keqiang announced promoting entrepreneurship was a long-term goal for the government, but until recently microbusinesses were in a legal grey zone. They are currently exempt from charging sales tax and VAT through 2017, but beyond that, the government has adopted a surprisingly lax ‘wait-and-see’ approach to regulating this part of the market.

But while the government looks on, customers are already queuing up; Jasmine’s bread normally sells out before it’s even risen, and Little Qing’s coffee beans before they’ve even been roasted.

Sight Unseen: Harbin’s Blind Masseurs

Massage (anmo, 按摩) has been long been used as a treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and in Mainland China it’s both accessible and affordable.


Some of China’s best masseurs are blind. China’s cities lack handicapped-accessible infrastructure and social support services for the disabled, yet blind masseurs are able to earn a living wage and support themselves, taking the burden off their families who would otherwise be their only financial resource. 


The masseurs at the Blind Xuewei Massage Center in the Nangang neighborhood of Harbin are all legally blind or visually impaired.


They live onsite, sleeping on the massage beds at night. “It’s very convenient for us. We just go upstairs after work,” says Zhao Shengquan, 32, known as Little Quan among his colleagues and regulars.


He’s been working at Blind Xuewei Massage Center for three years, which was preceded by stints in northern Heilongjiang province and Liaoning province. “I worked in a lot of places before here, but my family is in Harbin; I have three older sisters here who look out for me.” 


Despite the long hours and laborious work, there’s a visible camaraderie at Blind Xuewei Massage Clinic. With classical Chinese music on the radio in the background, and exchanges between masseurs and regulars on everything from China’s gender imbalance to the best street food around, it’s a lively atmosphere. 


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