They were notoriously called the "dying rooms" where mostly unwanted or orphaned baby girls were sent within state orphanages until the mid-1990s. These babies were a by-product of the mainland's one-child policy.
Chan Kit-ying, 50, now director of services at Mother's Choice in Hong Kong, spent more than a decade helping to change policy in one state orphanage in Nanning, in the Guangxi Autonomous Region. Her dedication led to hundreds of babies being adopted abroad and a change in mindset among officials there.
Chan has spent more than 25 years working for Mother's Choice, mostly in unpaid roles. The charity was set up in Hong Kong in 1987 to promote loving, nurturing care for single girls facing crisis pregnancies and babies and children needing permanent homes.
From an early age Chan was drawn to the idea of working with children, and she majored in child psychology and sociology. The divorce of her eldest brother when divorce was still a source of shame in Chinese families, led her to observe the impact it had on her 18-month-old nephew.
"I volunteered with Mother's Choice and I remember walking in and seeing all these Western women," Chan recalls. "I would help with translating, going to the market, going to the hospital, cooking for young women. The [founders] were non-Hong Kong people, but they loved Hong Kong people, so I just enjoyed being in that environment."
By September 1988, Chan had been hired as Mother's Choice's first social worker, although really her job title could have been expanded to house mother, childcare worker and more as she started out her journey with the charity in the early years, with a hostel for young women, counselling for families, childcare and adoption services.
"I joined Youth with a Mission [on the mainland in the early 1990s], run by an overseas missionary guy," she said. "I helped with translation and then in 1992 he asked me to help escort [prospective] parents. China's adoption law had already started."
Working with the mission, Chan ended up in Nanning, where she made an impromptu visit to the state orphanage and was permitted to look around inside. She was appalled by what she saw.
Five babies would lie squashed together in cots with rusty bars. Many were malnourished, with running sores and rashes. Harassed staff concentrated on the healthier babies, as others arrived, sometimes in boxes, in overwhelming numbers. Some babies, as reported in an earlier Readers' Digest interview with Chan, stared glassy eyed at the ceiling, not noticing the flies that landed on them in the squalid conditions. Many did not survive.
Picking up a little girl with a bleeding nappy rash and sores, Chan asked the director if she could take her home to her hotel for the night. There she tended to her sores and cuddled her. By the morning, she was horrified by the idea of returning her to the orphanage, so she rang her friends in Hong Kong and asked them to find parents to adopt the girl.
"The early 1990s were the worst time," says Chan, "the death rate was very high." Through her friends and Mother's Choice's support, Chan found an American couple to adopt the girl. Then, for a year, China froze international adoptions. But determined to take more babies out of the squalid conditions, Chan started going around the neighbourhood to look for foster parents.
"I knocked on doors and asked: 'Can you look after a baby?' I couldn't face being in the main room of the orphanage any more, so I asked the state orphanage director if I could have a separate room. He found me an old apartment and I looked after some babies there. When I look back, that was the beginning of what became known as Mother's Love. I just had a plastic bucket to wash the babies and I gave them formula every three hours. I had people sewing nappies from cheap material."
Chan's fostering service expanded to 20 households, including some foster mothers who were blind. When she didn't feel she could cope any more, she would take a reality check.
"I would go and sit with one of these women and watch them handle the baby, despite being blind, and I would become calm and think, if they can do it, so can I," said Chan.
So a joint venture began between Mother's Love and Guangxi's Civil Affairs Department. After a year, foreign adoptions began again, and Chan worked in co-operation with an adoption service in the US state of Oregon.
For the next decade, Chan would work on bringing babies out of the orphanage, nursing them back to health and putting them up for adoption. She was funded by Mother's Choice.
"I didn't know that at the time, I was just working and working, but I knew there was some money coming from Hong Kong," she said. She laughs as she recalls that people in the neighbourhood thought she was very rich as she was "selling babies to foreigners".
Chan, who is single, says her Christian faith helped her through some of the dire times.
She says: "Even my faith was severely tested at times".
Mother's Love was closed down in 2005 and was replaced by local non-governmental organisation Radiant Hope. Chan decided it was time for her to return to Hong Kong and new projects. These days as Mother's Choice director of services, she oversees all services including in China. She is contemplating writing a book about her experiences.
It's a source of great satisfaction to Chan that the babies she saved went on to better lives with their adoptive parents. But also there were some changes closer to home. Chan says the woman who now heads Radiant Hope was previously an official with the state orphanage. "She told me that through Radiant Hope she was able to start her life again."