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The Taiwanese vegetable seller turned philanthropist

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Media captionTaiwanese vegetable seller turned philanthropist Chen Shu-chu has known poverty much of her life

Wearing a thick support belt and hunched over thanks to back and leg problems, 63-year-old Chen Shu-chu puts peppers, taro and mushrooms into bags for customers at her vegetable stand in eastern Taiwan.

She does this for up to 18 hours a day, six days a week. But no matter how much money she makes, she spends no more than a few dollars a day on herself so that she can give away the rest.

Meet one of the world's most unlikely and humble philanthropists.

Over the past two decades, Ms Chen has donated over 10 million Taiwanese dollars ($350,000; £210,000) to the building of a school library and a hospital wing.

She has also donated to a local Buddhist organisation and orphanages.

The donations included money inherited from her father, royalties from a book written about her and cash prizes for her work.

To some people, it might seem like madness to give away most of your wealth. But Ms Chen insists it's not that difficult.

"Everyone can do it. It's not just me. It's not how much money you make that matters, but how you use your money," she says.

"I don't see money as being that important. After all, you can't bring it with you when you start a new life and you can't take it with you when you leave this life."

Image caption Chen Shu-chu works for up to 18 hours a day, six days a week

But how has a woman with such a modest profession accumulated so much money to give away in the first place?

What has helped Ms Chen, a Buddhist, save so much is her austere lifestyle. She is a strict vegetarian and eats simple meals of cured tofu and rice.

She also has little desire for material goods. When asked if she has ever purchased anything extravagant for herself, she says she once bought an imported piece of clothing, but regretted it later.

"When I wore it to the market, a customer said she had the same item of clothing and that mine must be a fake. I felt bad and I realised no matter how I dress, it doesn't change the fact that I'm a vegetable vendor."

Personal motivation

Born in 1950, Ms Chen has struggled with poverty for most of her youth but credits it as a source of motivation.

When she was still in primary school, her mother died after a difficult childbirth because her family could not afford proper treatment at a hospital.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chen Shu-chu at Time's 100 most influential people in the world gala dinner in 2010

To help make ends meet, Ms Chen quit school and began working at the family's vegetable stand in the Taitung Central Market.

But that wasn't enough. A few years later, her younger brother died from the flu because the family was unable to raise enough money to pay for advanced medical care in Taipei, Taiwan's capital city.

Instead of making her angry, the experience motivated her to help other poor people.

Ms Chen, who has never married, also never forgot the kindness of her brother's teacher and classmates, who had tried to raise funds for him.

"I feel I owe people a lot. I feel I have to make more money to help others," she says.

"I feel very happy after donating money. I feel like I've done something right. It's a feeling that comes from the inside. It makes me so happy that I smile when I go to bed."

Because of her modest means, her generosity often surprises others.

Daniel Lu, director of Kids Alive International, a non-profit organisation that received a donation from Ms Chen, says she challenges the common belief that you have to be rich to help others in a big way.

"She's a vegetable lady, alone and single. It's not easy for her," he says. "I thought if she gives T$5,000 that would help."

"When she gave me T$1m, I was surprised. [I said:] 'Wow, you give me T$1m? What can I do?' She said: 'Whatever you had planned, you do it; you help the kids.'"

Global recognition

Image caption Chen Shu-chu received an award from Philippine President Benigno Aquino

Ms Chen's good deeds quickly gained attention, with local authorities dubbing her the "Model of Philanthropy". Globally, the accolades started to come in as well.

She was selected as one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine in 2010. Reader's Digest named her Asian of the Year and Forbes Asia selected her as one of their 48 heroes of philanthropy.

Two years ago, Ms Chen was also named one of six Ramon Magsaysay Award winners for helping the poor and given a $50,000 cash prize.

She promptly donated the entire amount to Taitung's McKay Memorial Hospital, which inspired an outpouring of donations and enabled the hospital to build a new medical wing.

Even tourists now come to visit her vegetable stand. One visitor from Hong Kong did not want to bother her so simply left a note of admiration amongst her vegetables.

However, Ms Chen dreads the media attention her fame has brought, and only agrees to be interviewed if she thinks the reports will motivate people to donate.

She remains obsessed with spending her time selling vegetables so that she can make more money to help others.

Most nights she can be seen packing unsold vegetables into a refrigerator as late as 8pm, long after other vendors have left.

Despite the hard work and her own health problems, Ms Chen has no plans to retire, saying she hopes to "do this forever".

"My wish is that I can work till the day I collapse. Money is only useful if you give it to people who need it."

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