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January 31, 2012

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Offering charity and free hugs

BASED in an old house in downtown Shanghai, a small group of people tries to make the world a warmer place by giving clothes and books to poor rural kids and free hugs to Shanghai pedestrians. Nie Xin reports.

It began as personal therapy to help herself recover from a broken wedding engagement, but today Banniang Book House on Huashan Road in downtown Shanghai has become a gathering place for people from all walks of life to reach out and share their warmth.

"We gather to chat, watch movies and read books. People need a cozy atmosphere to communicate," says Miss Huang, owner of the book house who declines to give her full name and prefers to call herself Banniang, which can mean landlady, hostess or boss lady.

The 32-year-old Shanxi Province native, a certified psychology consultant, says her fiance broke off their engagement three years ago after they had been together for three years. She arrived in Shanghai in 2001.

"We almost got married - almost. The wedding photos were taken and the banquet was booked," Huang recalls tearfully.

Her ex-fiance loves philosophy, travel and doing charity, she says. All the books, furniture and DVDs in the book house were left by him. A shelf is filled with books on psychology, sociology and art. Huang opened Banniang Book House in 2009 in hopes that one day he would return.

"My initial aim was purely to find people with similar interests and hobbies," she says. "Then I started to organize activities with them."

The book house held its first charity activity in October 2010 when more than 30 Shanghai people took clothes and study materials to poor students in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

So far around 10 such activities have been held.

"I don't call it 'charity'," says Huang. "People get together and it's power. We can feel warmth from them. People always say that society today is cold, but I don't think so. Sincerity and kindness exit in everyone's heart."

Today the book house, which itself can accommodate around 20 people, has more than 300 members, mostly aged from 20 to 35.

Their backgrounds, personalities, lifestyles and interests vary. Some are students, some senior managers and some housewives. Membership is 500 yuan (US$78).

"Everyone has his or her own reason to join - birds of a feather flock together," Huang says.

You Tingting, a 30-year-old Shanghainese beauty salon owner, says Banniang Book House events have changed her outlook on life.

Last fall, she joined 14 other people to visit three primary schools in Zhanghua County, Fujian Province, giving out clothing, books and study materials. Most of the children are "left-behind," since their parents went to cities to find work, leaving them behind at home with grandparents or other relatives.

"It was the first time I did something like this and I was deeply moved," You says. Today she's a regular and helps Huang organize events.

On Christmas Eve, more than 30 people, members and nonmembers, went to Shanghai's downtown area for an event called "Free Hug," part of an international campaign started in 2004 in Australia.

It aims to break down barriers and alienation; people hold signs offering "free hugs" - they don't actually rush up to strangers in public places and put their arms around them.

In China, embracing strangers is considered peculiar and impolite. The activity by Banniang Book House and other groups has received mixed reviews. It was posted on the Internet three weeks in advance.

The book house group divided into teams went to Jing'an Park on Nanjing Road W. and Parkson Department Store on Huaihai Road M. to offer hugs to strangers in the holiday season.

"The hugs are meant to be random acts of kindness, selfless acts performed just to make others feel better," You explains. Feedback was fairly positive. They started in Xiangyang Park in the afternoon where members hugged each other to warm up.

"I believe most of us are open-minded, but we still needed to warm up and have the confidence to hug strangers," Huang says.

Some passersby stopped when they saw the signs. They hesitated and members approached them.

"The passersby mostly accepted our hugs, only very few couldn't understand," You says.

"Helping others is helping yourself," says Sese, a member in her 20s. "When you help people in need, you can also feel strong and recover yourself in your heart."

She hugged a young woman in Jing'an Park. "Soon she came back to me and said she felt warm after we separated."

An elderly woman in the park came up to Sese and touched her. "I hugged her and she looked so kind, she said 'thank you, daughter'."

In the park Huang hugged a middle-aged cleaner, who kept saying "Thank you." She can't remember how many people she embraced on that cold, sunny afternoon. "Free hugs are far from enough."

Banniang Book House activities involve discussions about psychology, including watching movies, reading books and putting on a little theater. Sometimes professional psychologists join he gatherings.

Founder Huang says she doesn't know what will happen tomorrow, but the return of her ex-boyfriend isn't that important to her now. She's busy planning the next activity.

Banniang Book House

Address: 1/F, Bldg 10, 285 Huashan Rd

Tel: 1347-2618-785

Check or for more.


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