After Quake, Entrepreneurs Do Business In Tents

Li Jin i i

Li Jin waits for customers at her tent beauty salon. She had just invested $15,000 in a new beauty salon in Beichuan, China, due to open the day the earthquake struck. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Li Jin

Li Jin waits for customers at her tent beauty salon. She had just invested $15,000 in a new beauty salon in Beichuan, China, due to open the day the earthquake struck.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Li Guimin i i

Li Guimin set up a tent supermarket. The quake flattened his four supermarkets, leaving him with losses of around $300,000. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Li Guimin

Li Guimin set up a tent supermarket. The quake flattened his four supermarkets, leaving him with losses of around $300,000.

Louisa Lim/NPR

China estimates its massive earthquake this spring caused economic losses of $150 billion and left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing.

Local officials now say they hope to restore the living standards of quake survivors in just three years — but those living in tent cities aren't just sitting around waiting for help.

Displaced Don't Waste Time

Li Jin, 21, was supposed to be cutting hair in her brand-new salon, not where she finds herself now: in a blue tent, its sides open to the elements. Her salon was due to open on the very day the earthquake struck; instead it was flattened, killing one of her business partners.

Now she cuts hair for the homeless and displaced for a fraction of her normal charge, earning just a couple of dollars a day.

"To be honest, it's very difficult," Li Jin says. "I feel a lot of psychological pressure. So many people died, including my friend. I'm at a loss what to do. But I just tell myself, I need to stand up by myself."

A surprising number of businesses have popped up in this temporary tent city. Even though its residents are due to move into prefabs, local businessmen haven't wasted any time. There are drink shops, accessories stores, hot pot restaurants and lawyers' offices — all under canvas.

One Man's Business

Li Guimin, 59, helps a customer find a toothbrush in his tent supermarket. Once close to retirement, he is now starting from scratch, but with $300,000 in losses.

"I had four supermarkets before," says Li Guimin, shaking his head. "They were destroyed in the quake, and I donated any goods I could salvage to earthquake relief."

But Li Guimin is determined to make a go of it. For now, he is targeting the quake survivors' government stipends of just over a dollar a day.

So he stocks cold drinks, tins of food, mosquito repellent, toilet paper — things people may need — and he hopes the business district will be back to normal in just three years.

That may sound extraordinarily optimistic, but one tent-based credit union is reporting some surprising financial consequences.

"Savings have gone up by $1.5 million since the quake," says employee Xu Yongjun. "It's because people no longer have ... houses to hide their money in."

Looking To The Future

Xu is confident the local economy will bounce back to prequake levels. It will take five years if things are good, he predicts, but 10 years if they are bad.

At Jiang Sunfa's tent restaurant, the woks are blazing. She started with money made from salvaging scrap metal from the ruins of her house, then selling it. She says the busy trade shows a certain devil-may-care attitude.

"People here are saying, 'If you have money, you may as well eat it now,'" Jiang says. "They say there could be another earthquake tomorrow, so you may as well spend all your money on food."

This hints at the psychological trauma many quake survivors are suffering. And psychologists warn that this period — two months after the quake — is when reality sets in and the suicide rate may begin to spike. But the tent entrepreneurs tell another tale, one of sheer resilience and determination.

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