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'Silent' coffee shop lights up life of hearing-impaired youth

By ZHANG YI | | Updated: 2023-08-21 07:00
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Beijing cafe teaches hearing-impaired youth skills, and delights palates at the same time

Customers entering Beijing's Rainbow Angel Cafe can't miss the colorful, hand-painted signs 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 young people with hearing impairments to make Taiwan-style snacks for free to teach them skills that could help them acquire a stable job.

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

In 2016, Lee began to take 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, 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 find a way to integrate with society.

In 2017, she lauched the Rainbow Angel Cafe with friends to teach the children from the center how to make cookies and snacks from Taiwan. Over the past six years, they have trained around 60 hearing-impaired kids for free.

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

Beijinger Zou Yan, 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 have encouraged them to work more with customers, and spend more time outside," Lee said.

"Hearing-impaired people are not that different. They also 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," she said.

In addition to developing company and individual memberships for customers who purchase pastries regularly, Lee also encourages the bakers to sell their wares in shopping malls and at events.

The bakers rented a small shop in a mall in central Beijing but on some days, they made only 6 yuan ($0.83), 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," Lee recalled.

Many of her friends in Taiwan buy cafe snacks to show their support, Lee said. "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 here. Now, mainland companies also sponsor the cafe, and their support is even greater.

"It's 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 cafe has struggled to break even. To accommodate more hearing-impaired youth, it moved to larger premises in Changping's Xinzhuang village in April, and the bakers now live on the building's second floor.

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

Every weekend, volunteers from the mainland and Taiwan gather to help the bakers pack snacks, carry ingredients, and even to 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," she said.

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

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