Ella Zhao was born in the city of Nanyang in the Henan province in Southern China. She was the youngest of five siblings, with two brothers and two sisters. The entire family situation was not adaptable to China’s one-child policy, which is still partly in force, with the option to pay the state to get permission to have more children. Ella’s parents couldn’t feed all their children, let alone afford social security numbers for them. And without a social security number, you cannot attend school or receive medical care and other public services.
Strokes of fortune
Ella was lucky. As a baby, she was adopted by a local farmer family who had only one son of their own, Wenkun Zhao. They had the DKK 2,000, or 270 Euros, to pay for a social security number for Ella. Ella grew up with her new brother and new parents, not knowing that she was adopted until later in her life.
Ella’s adoptive father died when she was only 11 years old. “He might have survived if we had been able to afford medical assistance,” Ella says. ”My brother, Wenkun, needed to start working to support our family when our father died.”
When Wenkun married, his wife wanted Ella to stop going to school and start working so that Ella, instead of Wenkun, could financially support their mother. Wenkun’s wife also thought it a waste to continue school. Ella’s mother, however, decided to move into another house with cheaper rent to allow the young Ella to continue her education. Concerned about Ella’s financial future and wanting the young girl to know all her options, Ella’s adoptive mother told Ella about her biological parents.
When Ella was 16 years old, her mother also died, leaving no more options for Ella to finish her education. Ella needed to find a job. As a last, desperate attempt, she contacted her biological parents. However, they refused her pleas for the money, food and accommodation she would need to stay in school.
Steps toward empowerment
Ella had little choice but to move to Jiangsu Kunshan, close to Shanghai in the northern part of China, where a huge, heartless factory area offered low-paying jobs for those in need. Ella got a job at an assembly line in a Chinese electronics factory, a bed in a dormitory together with her fellow workers, and one free meal a day. Her monthly pay was DKK 2,000, or 270 Euros, for eight hours of work per day, six days a week. Just enough to survive.
After five years in Jingsu Kunshan, Ella, now a young woman, moved to Shanghai. A metropolis counting 18 million inhabitants, a city of hope, and China’s commercial centre. A myriad of expensive high street stores and fancy hotels, and millions of cars and taxis on elevated highways intertwining the skyscrapers that feature breathtaking light shows every evening after dusk.
Here, Ella found a job in a pearl store in the middle of the city’s tourist mecca, Yuan Garden. Ella now earned DKK 2,500 or 335 Euros per month and learnt English from the store’s many foreign customers. In the evenings, she also studied English online.
Ella soon found a boyfriend and planned to get married. However, her boyfriend’s family did not find her good enough for their son. He was an educated programmer. Ella did not have an education.
One day, a woman from Denmark came into the pearl store where Ella worked. The woman was Annette Spanggaard, who had recently decided to found Pearl Stories. She was interested in seeing a pearl farm – and Ella willingly offered her assistance. Annette and Ella met at the enormous Shanghai train station and went pearl fishing. Having discovered a mutual interest, the two women continued getting together, with Ella happily helping Annette with all the pearl knowledge she had.
Ella eventually moved back to her home province and, shortly after, a young man named Jun invited Ella to dinner. Jun ran a tea store and had studied marketing at the local university. He and Ella fell in love, and Ella grew interested in his tea venture. Annette was able to repay Ella’s kindness by helping Ella get a tea education, allowing her to work in Jun’s shop. Ella and Jun got married and had a little daughter, Victoria. Today, they work together in Jun’s tea store – but for Ella, this is just a part of her incredible story.
From survival to dream fulfilment
Ella’s big dream has long been to sell a big European brand in China. Through her growing retail expertise and knowledge of pearls, Ella is now able to help Pearl Stories with the production of part of the collection.
One could say that Ella was dealt a nearly impossible hand. Yet her determination to overcome obstacles step by step, her willingness to give to others, her resourcefulness, and her focus on her big dream have guided her to a place she herself may never have quite imagined. It seems certain that the next time we meet Ella, her optimism and work ethic will have taken her to places we also can’t yet imagine.