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Shanghai Young Bakers: Wang Li

 

Writer

Sonia Su

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Wang Li, a teacher at Shanghai Young Bakers, poses with a smile in front of the SYB booth at the Jiashan Market.

Five years ago, Wang Li would have never imagined that she would go from working in a toy factory in Guangdong Province, to teaching other disadvantaged Chinese youth how to bake French bread and pastries.

'I find that I can relate a lot to my students, because we come from similar backgrounds,' Wang said.

Wang still recalls fond memories upon beginning at Shanghai Young Bakers, a charity program that launched in February 2009 by a team of 12 French volunteers aiming to French bakery training to those who need it most. SYB held its opening ceremony for the program’s first students at luxury hotel Sofitel Shanghai Hyland, adding to what Wang describes as one of the many good first impressions.

‘I had never been to Shanghai before, and I was very happy,’ she said. ‘I was very impressed by the dorms, and the French teachers were all very polite.’

SYB students practice how to make French treats and then sell them at the Saturday markets.

Wang still keeps in touch with Chung To, the founder of the Hong Kong-based charity Chi Heng Foundation who helped connect her with the opportunity to escape the life she said she didn’t want to live.

‘He is someone very important to me,’ Wang said.

One of the first students to be recruited for SYB and to receive help from the Chi Heng Foundation, Wang has earned a French bakery diploma from France’s top-ranked bakery school, Ecole Française de Boulangerie et de Pâtisserie d'Aurillac. Thanks to sponsorships from the Carrefour Foundation, Accor Foundation and yeast producer Lesaffre, students are able to train in French and Chinese bakeries with four- to five-star hotels while taking classes. Upon graduation from SYB, students are equipped with the skills to follow their baking pursuits, with the top three graduates sent to study further and earn coveted diplomas in France.

In 2012, 80 percent of the students had one to three bakery job offers even before graduating, and within two weeks of graduation, all students had started their careers as either bakers or pastry chefs.

As a student, Wang thought both the classes and the internship experiences continue to be the best parts of the program. She now finds it amusing that students often begin the classes not liking French bread, being more accustomed to the soft sponginess of most Chinese bread. In time, though, Wang said they all learn to love French bread. In fact, Wang said one of her favorite items to bake (and eat) is the baguette.

‘You learn a lot of skills through making a baguette,’ Wang said. Her next favorite indulgence? Chocolate mousse cake, which sells for 258 RMB at the Saturday market.

Every first and third Saturday for the past few years at the Jiashan Market, Wang and other SYB members sell a variety of breads, pastries and cakes (5 RMB for croissants to 258 RMB for 20-cm. cakes). These items rotate every two weeks, depending on what the students practice baking.

Shanghai Young Bakers make and sell a variety of French breads, pastries and cakes every first and third Saturday of the month.

In addition to training in classes, students gain real-world experiences through internships at hotels, bakeries and markets throughout the city. During her time as a student, Wang interned at the international French chain PAUL Bakery and Patisserie, Boulangerie Daniel in Shanghai and a pastry shop.

Nowadays, Wang teaches anywhere from 20 to 30 students the skills she herself developed through SYB. Wang said her favorite part of being a teacher is the students.

‘Even as a teacher, I learn a lot from the students, too,’ Wang said. ‘They are very hard working and remind me of who I was just a few years ago.’

As for the future of the program, Floriane Lemoine, SYB’s program manager, said it hopes to achieve financial autonomy through a social enterprise model, under which the program would increase its sustainability. One step it has taken toward this goal include using its best graduates as SYB teachers. SYB also hosts open baking classes in Chinese, English and French, the proceeds of which go toward training costs.

For a particularly sweet treat, try the vanilla eclair (10 RMB).

Lemoine said that she also hopes to provide this social enterprise model to other NGOs adopt to their own needs. One example includes Braille Without Borders, which provides Tibetan youth training in a variety of fields, including baking.

Wang remains a powerful example of the program’s success in providing disadvantaged Chinese youth the skills necessary to lead independent, joyful lives.

For more information on Shanghai Young Bakers and to learn how you can contribute to its program, please visit www.shanghaiyoungbakers.com.

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