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China’s Marie Kondos give Japan’s art of clearing clutter a Chinese twist

An emerging band of personal organisers are bringing order to the domestic chaos of their clients’ lives

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 9:32am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 10:57pm

Grace Gao’s turning point came when she got pregnant.

In just three years, she and her husband had turned their newly decorated Beijing flat into a giant storage room.

Clothes were piled high on the sofa. Clothes were piled high on the window sills. And clothes were piled high in the guest bedroom.

Shopping bags and suitcases remained unpacked from holidays to the Maldives and Australia.

“I bought too many things and they took up all the space. I forgot where I put them and even if I remembered I couldn’t get to them because the wardrobes were blocked by piles of stuff. I ended up just buying more things,” Gao said.

But with a baby on the way, it was time to act. Gao called one of China’s emerging band of declutterers and paid the team 20,000 yuan (US$3,165) to tidy up her flat.

For Gao, there were two goals.

“I hope I can learn from the professionals how to arrange my living space, but more importantly I hope the experience will curb my enthusiasm for shopping,” she said.

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As incomes rise and shopping becomes as easy as a smartphone swipe, teams of tidiers are offering their services to Chinese consumers fighting for space with their purchases in their own homes.

In big Chinese cities, these professionals are prepared to bring order to domestic chaos, charging anything from 5,000 yuan to tens of thousands of yuan for two days of life-changing tidying-up.

The approach is similar to that of Japanese declutterer Marie Kondo, who has written a series of bestselling books on her organising principles.

The KonMari method involves holding on to things that spark joy immediately and sending the rest on their way. Kondo also suggests folding up clothes and storing them in drawers in boxes so that things can be seen in an instant.

But Chinese declutterers are finding their own ways of putting their clients’ lives in order.

Shao Shuai has been offering her services as a home organiser in Beijing for seven years. She said her clients came from various backgrounds but they all had one thing in common: a passion for shopping.

“They have too many things. When they can’t find them they tend to buy more. Eventually they end up having many things of the same kind,” Shao said. “It is very common for food and skincare products to pass their use-by date before they are even unpacked.”

She said a lot of people were interested in getting into the business and she had trained more than 100 the tricks of the professional decluttering trade. The busiest times were April, May, October, November and the Lunar New Year.

She said her service was not expensive, given the savings she helps clients make in terms of preventing future purchases.

“When everything is stored properly and clients can see clearly what they already have, they will not buy unnecessary things,” Shao said.

But Shao disagrees with Kondo on folding – she prefers to hang as many clothes as possible to “display them respectfully”.

“Many Chinese find folding inefficient. For example they might have a dozen black T-shirts with different patterns. Folding them into a roll and arranging them in a box makes it difficult to tell which is which. Eventually they give up,” Shao said.

Instead, she uses very thin hangers and hangs almost all clothes except underwear.

She also does not recommend leaving clear surfaces spotless, with everything stored in wardrobes.

“As professionals we can achieve that and make the client’s home look like a display room in a property project. But in practice, most Chinese people need to find things quickly and store them properly. Most of them haven’t reached the stage of ‘refuse, dispose and separate’ as the Japanese decluttering discipline suggests,” Shao said.

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Tian Yuan, a declutter in Chengdu for two years, also stresses the need for flexibility.

When clients find it difficult to part with belongings, Tian has them categorise the objects based on how much they like them and how frequently they use them. Those that aren’t used are packed into bags for sale or to give away. But the clients are allowed to keep the bags until they are ready to let them go.

“Some love clothes and accessories. Some love to collect ashtrays. Even though as an outsider I see the excessive nature of it I can’t just have them throw them away. They represent the clients’ values and it is very painful for them to part with them, even if they are unnecessary. Instead I help them to store the objects and find them easily,” Tian said.

Gui Siyu, a former video-game programmer who trains mothers to declutter, agreed that the process was not about throwing things away.

Gui said people should not aim for clean surfaces everywhere because people who love life have belongings around them.

“They can store 80 per cent of their stuff and put 20 per cent out, or 70 per cent in and 30 per cent out. Decluttering is about people realising what they truly need and freeing themselves from chores so they can have more time to do what they want,” Gui said.