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Cafe with a cause trains hearing-impaired youths

By Zhang Yi | China Daily | Updated: 2023-08-22 06:53
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Lee Shao-hwa (center), founder of the Rainbow Angel Cafe in Beijing, and the cafe's employees pose with Taiwan-style snacks they made. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Customers entering Beijing's Rainbow Angel Cafe can't miss the colorful, hand-painted sign at the entrance: "Our pastry chefs are hearing-impaired. Please communicate with patience."

Speech-to-text software has been installed on a tablet at the front desk to aid communication. When a customer places an order, the hearing-impaired servers use the tablet to read their request. Should they wish, customers can even consult a small booklet on basic sign language, and learn to extend a thumb and bend it twice to express their gratitude.

This "silent" cafe in Changping district is run by five hearing-impaired bakers from different parts of the country. Customers leisurely sip cups of coffee in quiet corners, or sample some of the dozens of Taiwan-style snacks available.

Founded by Lee Shao-hwa, who comes from Kaohsiung in Taiwan, the cafe trains for free young people with hearing impairments to make Taiwan-style snacks, a skill that could help them acquire a stable job.

Lee's journey to the Chinese mainland began in 2011, when her husband was transferred to Beijing from Taipei for work. After their arrival in the Chinese capital, she gave up her job in the financial industry to become a full-time mother to her daughters.

In 2016, Lee began taking her daughters to volunteer at a nearby rehabilitation center for hearing-impaired children as part of a primary school assignment.

The girls made a number of good friends, and afterward they continued to visit the rehabilitation center once or twice a week. After a year or so, Lee began thinking of ways to help the older children at the center find a way to integrate with society.

Around 60 youths trained

In 2017, she launched the cafe with friends to teach the children from the center how to make Taiwan-style cookies and snacks. Over the past six years, they have trained around 60 hearing-impaired youths for free.

The cafe currently has five employees. Manager Zhao Leilei, who comes from Qingyang, Gansu province, joined in 2017. He is in charge of making pastries and coffee, receiving customers and overseeing operation of the shop.

Zou Yan, a Beijing native who joined in 2021, is the only female employee. She is head of baking, and is in charge of training new employees and developing new pastries. The other three team members mostly work as bakers but have recently been trained to make coffee and serve customers.

"Staying in the kitchen all the time gets in the way of them connecting with the outside world, so we encourage them to work with customers and spend more time outside," Lee said. "Hearing-impaired people are not that different. They want to live fulfilling lives. They don't just need a job and an income, they also need to feel respected and accepted by others."

In addition to rolling out group and individual memberships for customers who purchase snacks from the cafe regularly, Lee encourages the employees to sell their baked goods in shopping malls and at events.

From August 2020 to November 2022, the bakers rented a small shop in a mall in central Beijing, but on some days, they made only 6 yuan ($0.82), and sometimes they made nothing. "I remember that in the early days, sales were poor. But they didn't get frustrated. Instead, they felt they had made it," she said.

Lee often carries snacks from the cafe to her hometown in Taiwan, and many of her friends there buy them to show their support. "My friends and relatives in Taiwan have never come to the mainland. Their impression of it comes largely from the media and our cafe."

Initially, the cafe's sponsors were mainly from the island, including Taiwan-funded companies on the mainland and Taiwan people living in Beijing. Now, mainland companies also sponsor the cafe, and their support is even greater.

"It is a big source of encouragement," Lee said. "I find that our understanding of charity is becoming more and more similar. I think this is the only way our cafe can take root here and continue to prosper."

Over the past six years, the Rainbow Angel Cafe has struggled to break even. To accommodate more hearing-impaired youths, it moved to larger premises in Changping's Xinzhuang village in April.

It was the cafe's sixth relocation. With yellow wooden exterior and floor-to-ceiling windows, the money to decorate the place was sponsored by people from both sides of the Strait.

Every weekend, volunteers gather to help the bakers pack snacks, carry ingredients and even hold sign language concerts.

Lu Yao, a working mother, takes her son and daughter from their home in central Beijing to volunteer at the cafe almost every week. "The children like the place very much. We feel so relaxed there," Lu said.

Lee said the cafe is filled with the aromas of coffee and baking, and makes her feel at home in Beijing. "As small as our cafe is, it is a place full of love," she added.

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