Hong Kong stay-at-home mums regain their self-worth through work

Getting a job with a social enterprise making terrariums - miniature gardens in a bottle - has given housewives renewed confidence and a social network

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 8:10am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 10:28am

Social entrepreneurship is in Rainbow Chow Choi-hung's blood. Over the years, the former social worker has set up a child development centre, an online magazine promoting positive parenting, along with a dessert shop that employs mentally disabled people and donates sweet soups to the poor.

Her latest venture, MicroForests, combines her love for making terrariums with her commitment to empowering the disadvantaged. She teaches stay-at-home mums from low-income families how to create and sell miniature gardens as a way to generate additional income. MicroForests also runs workshops on terrarium-making as a fun activity for hobbyists or a team-building exercise for companies.

Since starting MicroForests last September, Chow has trained a handful of women. They all live in Sham Shui Po - some are on social security, others are single mothers or recently arrived migrants. After training, they are offered flexible deals under which they can make terrariums to order, either at home or at the 200 sq ft donated studio space that MicroForests occupies at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC) in Shek Kip Mei.

"The stay-at-home mothers are competent and love to work. The biggest obstacle is finding flexible employment that caters for their need to care for young children and get household chores done," says Chow.

After school or during the summer holidays, their children can accompany them while they work and while they deliver terrariums to customers. If the team runs big workshops, Chow will hire a babysitter to look after her trainees' children while they work.

Chow's social mission doesn't stop at giving the housewives a new set of skills and an allowance. "It's all about life engineering," she says.

When they first started at the social venture, the women were very shy, anxious and unwilling to make eye contact. One woman had been so socially isolated she hadn't made a friend since she arrived from the mainland seven years ago.

But the transformation in their personalities was evident as training progressed, Chow says.

"Over time, the mothers found their voice and self-worth again. They have also gained a support network of friends with whom they can share parenting advice. It's encouraging."

The women have also gained new respect from their children, who sometimes looked down on their mothers for not being well-educated and therefore unable to help with their homework

"One mother told me that her child used to ask her to stop ordering her around because she could not speak a word of English," says Chow. "It hurt her feelings because she has devoted her life to her family. Now she can say she is a terrarium designer who has had her work featured in an exhibition."

The experience has been just as uplifting for Zhu Siaofeng, who relocated from her hometown in Hunan province eight years ago after she married a Hongkonger.

"I spent my time on household chores and child-rearing and couldn't afford to take up a hobby or work part-time. Somewhere along the way, I lost myself," she says.

Joining the terrarium-making venture has given her confidence and a new sense of achievement.

I spent my time on household chores and child-rearing and couldn't afford to take up a hobby or work part-time. Somewhere along the way, I lost myself
Zhu Xiaofeng

"I realised that I am still a competent person and can make my own money," Zhu says. "I am happy to have recovered my self-belief too. I didn't think I could lead workshops at first because I loathe public speaking and Cantonese is not my mother tongue. But through Chow's mentorship, I'm pleased I did it."

A great believer in the therapeutic effect of greenery, Chow reckons low-maintenance bottled gardens can be a good stress reliever for busy Hongkongers, whether they create their own or care for one that has been designed by someone else.

"Hongkongers lead too hectic lives. We have no time to visit the countryside and few have the space for gardens - just like me. I hope to spread positivity and spiritual fulfilment through terrariums."

Their workshops can also help foster communication between social classes.

"When my team conducted a workshop for an aviation company in Central, one member told me it was the first time she had been to the business district - she never had a reason to visit before," says Chow. "I hope that when the office workers and our trainees get to know each other, the exchange can help bridge the social gap between the rich and poor."

There are misconceptions about social enterprises, however. Many think such ventures operate on grants and donations, and therefore expect low prices for MicroForests' terrariums, Chow says.

"Often customers would say that we are pricing ourselves out of the market by charging HK$490 or more for a terrarium," she says. "The truth is, customers aren't paying over the odds for our designs because we have invested extra to create social impact. We have to train our team of a dozen mothers and coordinate their work schedule, whereas a business operating on the conventional model would just hire two full-time staff."

It has been a bumpy ride for MicroForests. It has yet to break even after a year and Chow still cannot afford her own salary. And with the lease on their studio coming to an end, the future seems full of uncertainties.

But while some friends think she was wrong to give up her stable and well-paid job as a social worker, Chow believes the sacrifice for her dream project has been worthwhile.

Likening entrepreneurship to farming, the optimist says: "When you sow a seed, it takes time to flourish."

"We're still at the initial stages, trying to establish our brand … I believe we can balance the books soon. Plus I think it's more blessed to give than to receive."

Trying to keep one step ahead, Chow is already planning to expand her project, to see whether terrarium-making workshops can benefit elderly people with dementia, or young female offenders.