HEFEI, April 23 (Xinhua) -- Sitting in front of his smartphone, Zhang Chuanfeng touts dried sweet potatoes to viewers on China's popular video-sharing app Douyin, also known as TikTok.
"These are made from the sweet potatoes I grew myself," said Zhang, as he eats the products in front of the camera. "They are sweet and have an excellent texture."
Zhang might seem like an average businessman reaping success in China's booming livestreaming industry. But his road to success has been a lot bumpier: he suffers from dwarfism.
At a little more than 1.4 meters, Zhang has a baby-face, making him "look like a junior school student," he said. But in reality, the man is already 38, with a 9-year-old son.
Zhang's hometown is located in the township of Tangjiahui in the county of Jinzhai, east China's Anhui Province. Tucked away in the boundless Dabie Mountains, the township has the biggest poor population in the county. Jinzhai is among the last nine counties along the Yangtze River Delta to shake off poverty.
It was Zhang's first time selling things in a live session, but he said he was not nervous at all.
"It felt like talking to people at random," he said.
Zhang said he has switched to live-streaming selling amid the coronavirus epidemic.
"In the past, there were many tourists, and sales were pretty good in reality," he said.
"Pretty good" was an understatement. Last year, the specialties in his shop sold more than 5 million yuan (705,800 U.S. dollars) in revenue, with a profit of 500,000 yuan. Zhang became known as the "Big Brother Selling Local Specialties" in the vicinity.
But the success would have been unimaginable for Zhang six years ago.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
As a dwarf, he was deemed "disabled" in the past.
"Nobody wanted me because of my 'disabilities' when I went out to look for jobs," he said. "I was turned down again and again and again."
Most of the bosses told him that he was "way too small."
"They saw my 'baby-face.' They thought I did not have much strength and could not do my job well," he said.
Labor work did prove too much for Zhang, and despite hard work, he couldn't do these jobs for a long time.
Devastated, Zhang had to start from scratch at his doorstep.
"I tried many things, but it seemed that life liked to play jokes on me."
In 2010, he opened a breakfast shop near a school, and business was good at the very beginning.
"But then the school opened two canteens of its own, and my business just plummeted," he said.
After that, he began to sell vegetables but went nowhere. He then decided to sell trees and failed again.
Meanwhile, prejudice was not uncommon against his short stature. Some people even gave him nicknames, such as "Mr. Little" and "Mr. Kid."
After failing in every venture, Zhang was put on the government's poverty list in 2014.
"I lost confidence," he said. "Do you know what it felt like to have the whole world turned against you? That was exactly how I felt."
At that time, China had started to implement targeted poverty-relief measures, and government officials went to Zhang's house to give him support.
"You are just like everyone else," they told him. "You have both hands and legs, you are young, and you are full of hope."
But Zhang would reply that even though he has legs, they were "way too tiny."
"They would say to me: it doesn't matter whether your legs are tiny or not, as long as you are willing to take that step forward," he said. "I felt encouraged."
The officials promised loans and subsidies if Zhang would start again. So Zhang decided to give it another try. He applied for a loan of 10,000 yuan and bought 22 lambs.
LITTLE MAN, BIG DREAMS
To make it in the sheep business, he tended the animals whole-heartedly in the day and slept in the sheep pen at night, especially "when the mother lambs were going into labor." He would help the lambs deliver their babies.
"The baby lambs are usually born on winter nights, and if nobody takes care of them, they die easily," he said.
Whenever experts came over, he would immediately lead them to the pen and ask them for advice on how to raise the lambs more professionally.
Within a year, he became a lamb expert himself, and the number of his lambs would expand to hundreds. He even formed a home farm to raise them.
In 2016, Zhang's earnings exceeded 100,000 yuan, more than enough to cast him off poverty.
"It gave me a morale boost," he said. "It made me believe that my legs may be tiny, but each step counted."
Zhang might not be as tall as others, but now he believes he is nothing out of the ordinary.
Riding on the lamb success, Zhang began to seek new opportunities to bring his life to the next level.
In 2017, the local government decided to develop the township into one focusing on e-commerce. Officials encouraged villagers to jump on the bandwagon. Zhang seized the opportunity. He rented a shop and started selling products online.
At first, he couldn't even type characters properly. So he joined in any internet training he could find while touring around the country to study e-commerce. To enrich the types of specialties in store, he would hop on his tricycle and go door to door with his town-fellows to collect honey, tea leaves, dried sweet potatoes and noodles from local villagers.
With wide varieties and high quality, Zhang's products won public recognition and good word of mouth. Online orders flooded in.
On Zhang's WeChat, he has more than 3,000 friends, many of whom are customers, salespeople and even foreigners.
"I never thought that the specialties of the Dabie Mountains could go beyond the mountains and reach other parts of the world," he said.
Zhang is very attentive to the products he sells.
"At first, I just promoted the products with simple pictures and descriptions," he said. "Then, I would record promotion videos myself and upload them online."
With the money he made, Zhang bought a car and a big house. He often helps locals sell honey, eggs and fish on his WeChat account to lift them out of poverty. So far, he has helped more than 40 families increase their earnings.
Now Zhang is testing waters in live-streaming.
"I will accumulate experience first," he said. "If I am successful, I plan to bring locals along."
During his first broadcasting session, Zhang managed to sell seven products, and the viewers gave him an award of more than 100 yuan.
"The sales were not quite impressive, but I got more than 200 followers online, which made me quite happy," he said. Enditem