The Craft Business That Trains and Employs Minority Women in China

China
By:: 
Ruby Tan

All they wanted to do was make beautiful things, then the founders of Indigo Art Studio ended up working with village women from the Bai ethnic group in Dali, China, empowering them through craftwork.

Indigo Art Studio is a social enterprise in Dali China

 

Indigo Art Studio sells beautiful, quirky handmade lifestyle goodies like vintage enamel lamps, crochet items, soap, and customised gifts (think hand packed tea sets, postcards, notebooks and silkscreen designs on T-shirts. Affable co-founder Loo Limay is a crafty Singaporean (pun intended) based in China. Limay and her husband and co-founder Arthur Gallice operate out of their home studio in a village in Dali, a history-rich city in China’s Yunnan province. They moved here after working for nine years in busy Shanghai.

Indigo Art Studio makes lamps and other lifestyle goods

“Yunnan is famous for producing top quality tea so there are many tea plantations here. My landlord’s wife picks tea for a day and gets paid 60 RMB (USD 9). Many villagers also work in construction as labourers, getting paid 100-120 RMB (USD 15-18) – females less – for a day of back breaking work. That said, the clear air, clean water and good soil allows them to grow their own vegetables and raise their own animals, so while they’re not rich, they’re never hungry,” says Limay.

Limay currently works with the women in her village, who are of the Bai ethnic group. She teaches them how to crochet, to produce Indigo’s products, giving these ladies a supplement income, and the chance to improve their standard of living.

Indigo Art Studio is a social enterprise that works with ethnic Bai women and teaches them to crochet

We hear more from her.

So tell us about the “a-ha!” moment – why did you start Indigo Art Studio?

When we first moved to Dali, we had just wanted to take a break from it all, finding the time to do the things we’ve always wanted to do. Crocheting was one skill I picked up when I was little which I liked but never had the time for. I started dabbling in sewing, soap-making, clay work, jewellery-making and more. Arthur started experimenting with welding, lighting and woodwork.

When we felt rested, we thought more seriously about work. By then, we had crafted lots of things for fun, and were giving them out as gifts. People loved them so much we got the idea to turn it into a business. We believe in handmade goods – it gives life to a product; a story, and we try our best to not affect the environment with the processes along the way.

[Handmade customised tea for a client's bachelorette party]

And how did you begin employing and training young Bai ethnic minority women?

It honestly was out of necessity. At the start, Arthur ad I did everything within the company, at some point it was physically impossible to meet the quantity of orders.

I reached out to the young women in my village. They’re often married with young children and help out in the home and the fields. They are really good with their hands and they put in a lot of effort to make things perfect – I had to tell them that the beauty of handmade things is that each one looks different.

It's a flexible way for them to earn an income. One of my makers sells her family’s chickens and eggs every day by the road – she crochets while waiting for customers. Another was not allowed to continue her receptionist job – she now crochets at night before she sleeps, when all the chores are done and her daughter is in bed.

Any challenges you faced with starting the company?

As foreigners in China, we had to set up a WOFE (Wholly Foreign-Owned Enterprise). Anyone who has spent time in China will know that these type of things take time, money and lots of patience. It took us almost one and a half years to get the company officially set up.

What are you loving so far about running your own business?

Arthur Gallice of Indigo Art Studio creates silkscreen tshirts

[Arthur creates a silkscreen printed t-shirt]

The first thing: being able to control our schedules and strike a good balance in our lives. The second great thing is the creativity of the job. And we do feel happy that we can provide these girls with options that were not there before. We started with three girls and now we're a small group of 15. We are grateful to be able to contribute in a positive way to the village and community, who have allowed us to share and enjoy their land and their homes, as our own.

Want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia? Check out our social enterprise directory.

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