A Capitalist Makes Bags of Money in China

In the popular CBS News series "Everybody Has a Story," a dart was thrown at a map of America every two weeks. CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman then went wherever it struck, flipped through the local phone book, and picked a name at random. He then did a story on someone at that house.

With the help of space-age technology, Hartman has gone global to begin a new spin on the series - "Everybody in the World has a Story."

As we continue our mission to boldly go where no news network has gone before, we once again turn to Space Station Commander Jeff Williams. Although Jeff selects all our locations by chance, safe to say no random sampling of humankind would be complete without at least one visit to the most populous place on the planet - China. Specifically, China's 4th largest city, a city of 11 million called Chengdu.

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They don't have any white pages in Chengdu so we're going to have to use yellow pages this time. Of course, the basic idea was still the same -- to profile whoever picks up the phone in the place we call.

Xiao Hua Yu, 24, works at the Lucky Bag Company. The company actually makes reusable shopping bags. In China, you have to pay for bags at the store, so people often bring their own.

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I could tell right away that Xiao Hua likes working here. But it wasn't until she started on her story that I began to appreciate why. Growing up, Xiao Hua's family was about as poor as they come in China.

"Poverty back then is something one cannot describe in words," she said. "It has taken me one grueling step at a time."

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Like so many Chinese, after high school Xiao Hau moved from the countryside, where she was born, to the city -- where the money is. She started as a secretary then moved into sales. An impassioned capitalist, she networked with everyone she met, read everything she could on business, and saved everything she made. She lived on nothing but instant noodles for months on end.

"So every time I see noodles now I'm just terrified," she said.

But her sacrifice paid off. She's now the first person in her family to own both a car and a company.

Four years ago, Xiao Hua started the Lucky Bag Company. It's now a $1 million-a-year business with 40 full time employees. So what's it like for a 24-year-old woman to run a company in a traditionally very male-dominated society? Xiao Hua says it's been her experience that in China today, it's perfectly acceptable for a woman to wear the pants at the office -- just as long as she changes before she goes home.

"In other words, men are like 'I am God' or 'I am the emperor,'" she said. "You're supposed to do everything for me."

Xiao Hua speaks from experience. After getting married in 2007, she says she and her husband started battling over gender roles. It all came to a head last March, and they're now divorced. "All of my family and relatives don't know. I don't want them to know," she said.

Although divorce is rising sharply in China, there's still a huge stigma -- especially for women, and especially if the woman initiates it, like Xiao Hua did. Of course, she can't keep her divorce a secret forever and she'd even like to remarry someday -- but not if it means playing the role of submissive housewife.

She says if her story proves anything, it's that once women anywhere discover what it feels like to be independent they're hooked for life.

"It's like America. It's very powerful. I can decide what I want," she said.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.