Once a Woman Millionaire, Now a Shoe Polisher

October 16, 2006 12:00 am Last Updated: October 16, 2006 12:00 am

Zhang Xiaoqin is 40 years old. She grew up in a poor rural family in Xiushan County of Chongqing City, Sichuan Province. She once took a vow to make big money, so her family would not have to live in poverty. Her dream became a reality when she started her own business in her hometown. But now she has come to carry a little shoe polishing stand on the street to everyone's surprise.

According to Chongqing Evening News , Zhang, dressed in brand name clothes and shoes, waits behind her shoe-polishing stand near the entrance to Xiushan County People's Hospital. She could polish five pairs of shoes in a whole morning to earn five yuan (US$0.63).

Zhang embroiders various pretty patterns carefully on shoe pads, while waiting for customers. Such fine high quality shoe pads are sold for 50 yuan ($6.33) each. She uses her earnings to pay for her rent and utilities. Zhang still owes the bank 30,000 yuan ($3,797) so far.

Early this year, Zhang rented an attic in a worn-out house in the region of the county. Her rooms are packed with boxes containing all the famous brand clothes she owns, some still have the tags on. There are five rows of nails behind her door, where she hangs various brand name shoes. Zhang claims it has been more than a year since she could purchase any clothes. She forces a smile, saying she has enough name brand clothes for the next 10 years.

Zhang was born in a needy family, so she often went hungry for lack of money for food and never had new clothes as a child. She dropped out of school after graduating from junior middle school. She was an excellent student, but her parents could not afford the tuition for both her and her younger brother at that time. She was determined to make a lot of money when she grew up, so her family could have enough to eat and wear, and never live in poverty again.

When Zhang was 18, her mother gave her 90 yuan ($11.39), all the money the family had. This allowed her to find a job in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, along with her elder male cousin. She took a risk and asked another person to buy from Xiushan nine silver coins, each with Yuan Shikai [1]'s head on it [2]. It took all her money, but the coins were popular at that time. She then sold all the coins in Guangzhou in one day for 30 yuan ($3.8) per coin. She gained 180 yuan ($10.12) from her first business venture.

Zhang married in 1986. She and her husband started to run a lumber business in Xiushan. They dominated the market, since they were the only lumber business at the time. They earned 50 yuan ($6.3) per cubic foot of wood and their annual profit was 20,000 yuan ($2,531), through hard work.

Gradually, they left their hometown, when competition drove down profits. In 1994, the couple moved to Yanhe County in Guiyang City to start an entertainment center. They became rich as their business peaked Living in luxury; she was able to buy anything she wanted without any hesitation. She even spent 30,000 yuan ($3,797) a day to buy what she liked.

She found that her husband was using drugs and having illicit love affairs in 1998. Her husband was sentenced to five years in jail for drug trafficking in the year 2000. After getting a divorce, Zhang returned to her hometown with 300,000 yuan ($37,967).

In 2003, she invested nearly 500,000 yuan ($63,279) in three small manganese ore mines in Xiushan. Three months later, the business completely failed and all the money had gone. All that were left were less than 100 yuan ($12.66), and Zhang's jewelry and expensive clothes. She had to live with her parents in their old house. Since then Zhang had sold her jewelry and most of her clothes to live on for two years.

Not wanting to burden her parents, Zhang moved into a rented room earlier this year. She had only seven yuan in her pocket. She ate salted vegetables each meal and drank water to keep from starving for a week. The idea to polish shoes came to her mind, after she starved for a week.

Going from a millionaire to a shoe polisher, Zhang found it very hard to swallow her pride in the beginning. She said everyone looked at her strangely when they saw her polishing the first shoe on the street. She wished for a crack in the street to hide inside. “I did not know all of them, but they all recognized me,” Zhang said.

Now, it has been over six months and she has adjusted to the environment. Zhang said that it is just what she does for a living. “I previously made a lot of money. I relied on this pair of hands. Now I polish shoes and I rely on this pair of hands, too. Thinking in this way, I no longer feel embarrassed about polishing shoes,” Zhang said.


[1] Yuan Shikai (Yuan Shih-kai) (1859-1916), was a Chinese military leader and statesman in the last years of the empire and the early republican period.

[2] The silver dollar bearing the portrait of Yuan Shikai himself, known colloquially as the “Fatman Dollar,” became the most widely circulated coin in China under Yuan Shikai's power. Each bears the date reckoned from 1911 as the start of the Republic. These coins survived his death in 1916 and were still being minted until 1922 or maybe later.