A new band of professionals is bringing peace to people's minds as it declutters their homes.
The instant Wang Zehu stepped into the apartment in downtown Shanghai she knew she had her work cut out for her. Before her stood a mountain of clothes, under which she would eventually find cleaning products, facial masks, hand sanitizers and disinfectants. That was in addition to the chaos that seemed to inhabit almost every wardrobe, cupboard and drawer of the home－all this mess packed into a relatively small 90 square meters, the living space for a family of five.
Wang, who uses the name Sica professionally, is more than your run-of-the-mill ayi, those blessed souls who seem to spend their lives cleaning up other people's mess; she is a home organizer and decluttering consultant who, with two others, spends six to nine hours a day transforming disorder into order.
"During the coronavirus pandemic in particular, many people have hoarded a lot of stuff, including supplies, which is totally understandable," Sica says. "Still, what I came across in that home was a real eyeopener.
"There were enough hand sanitizers, facial masks and cleaning products to last for 10 years. After talking with the family we removed 70 percent of them, saving a lot of space. The family had also hoarded food, especially of the instant variety, and most of it had passed its use-by date," she says.
In April, after a forced break because of COVID-19, Sica returned to work and started to consult online and realized that the pandemic had produced one more side-effect: people feeling they needed to use her services because of the clutter that had sprung up or become worse over the previous three months.
Having a comfortable living environment has become all the more pressing for people forced to work at home, and for families having to spend long hours together under one roof the appreciation of the importance of everyday order and comfort has grown.
"People are fearful of the future, especially with this pandemic," Sica says. "Will it get worse? Will it return? … I reckon it is a good idea to clear your home as a way of clearing your mind. This is an ideal time to tidy up and give some thought to what we have and to be grateful for it."
Before she became a professional home organizer and decluttering consultant, Sica, 30, who was born in Hebei province, graduated from Shanghai International Studies University in 2012 after studying English.
Working in a Japanese advertising company in Beijing from 2015 to 2017, she was introduced to the art of decluttering and organizing.
One of the most prominent experts is Marie Kondo, whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold millions of copies worldwide and has inspired countless numbers of people to reorganize their homes and lives.
Although Kondo focuses on the tidiness of physical surroundings, the psychological benefits of it are said to feed into the goal of adding joy and sparkle to one's life. The book has struck a chord with many middle-class readers and fueled their enthusiasm for joyful lifestyles.
Sica has worked part-time as a decluttering consultant since 2018 and in March last year traveled to New York to study with others who wanted to become professional home organizers with certificates issued by Kondo. Among the students were three Japanese, two Korean-Americans and one Chinese-Canadian, and Wang was the only Chinese, she says.
"Kondo not only teaches about the method of tidying but also about finding joy in tidying. By tidying we're allowed to reorient ourselves; we're able to discover our sense of value. I'd like to bring the positive aspects of tidying up to Chinese people."
Sica now has customers not only in Shanghai, where she lives and from where she runs her company, but throughout the country. She even has a customer 4,000 kilometers away in Lhasa, in the Tibet autonomous region, she says, with whom she is in frequent contact.
Services are charged by the hour and the size of the area that needs to be decluttered. Charges can range from 200 yuan ($30) to 500 yuan an hour for each person doing the work.
"We help clients draw up plans for their home. We'll talk about what kinds of things they have in mind, such as what the home should be like after the tidying-up is finished, what stuff they are willing to throw out and what they want to keep.
"Once some clear direction and effective methods have been set they can either do the tidying-up themselves or have us do it."
After decades of rising purchasing power in China, many Chinese have decided to get off the consumerist bandwagon to pursue minimalist, and even ascetic lifestyles.
Han Yi'en, founder of the company the Yi'en Organization in Beijing, which trains home organizers, says factors such as better living standards, the growth of online shopping and delivery services have resulted in more and more people buying more and more things.
"Without regular decluttering, homes are liable to fill up with unnecessary items very quickly," says Han, who says her company has trained nearly 400 professional home organizers from about 80 cities across the country since 2017.
"The process of tidying up my house brought peace to me and made me feel organized at heart," says Liu Zhen, 35, a full-time mother in Beijing. Liu, whose sons are aged 6 and 2, says she and her husband, two children and a nanny once lived in an 80-square-meter apartment in the downtown area. Early last month they moved into an apartment of 120 square meters.
Before moving she consulted a home organizer, and the result was that she discarded 50 percent of her clothes, decorations, shoes, cookware, furniture, books and some of the toys her children no longer play with, she says.
"Everyday I'd wake up and start taking care of the family, feeding the children, sending the older one to school and cooking. I was always so stressed out. The house was getting crowded after my first son was born, and I had neither the time nor inclination to tidy up.
"When we were about to move house I decided things should change, so I brought in this home organizer. I've found that by reducing how much I own, life has become a lot better and I'm now in a much better frame of mind."
Because of COVID-19 she did not get the home organizer to visit her new home, she says, communicating through the internet instead, and with the consultant's guidance it took Liu a week to figure out how her ideal home should look.
"As I did all the tidying up I kept a diary, most of the time tidying up after the children went to bed. I was exhausted but felt really satisfied and at peace with myself once it was done."
On April 8, the very day that the government lifted the lockdown on Wuhan, Hubei province, another home organizer, Ma Chunyan, who prefers to be called Yezi, received orders from clients.
In one day she helped three tidy up their homes. All were working in Wuhan when the coronavirus struck, and before the city was locked down they were able to return to their own hometowns in various parts of China for Spring Festival.
Some decided not to return to Wuhan so Yezi and her team packed up their belongings and forwarded them to the clients.
"Each of the projects took us about four hours. We filmed the tidying up and showed it to the clients."
From April to June orders were mostly from people who had not returned to their homes in Wuhan, including medical workers who cared for those with COVID-19.
One reason why orders after the coronavirus pandemic increased greatly was that "people want to put their lives in order especially after the upheavals of the pandemic", Yezi says. "Tidying up is much more than sorting things and putting them away. The goal is to begin a conversation with yourself and reflect upon your life."
Yezi, 27, was born and raised in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, and moved to Wuhan after marrying in 2018. Being a home organizer is something she had prepared for since she was a child, she says.
While other children would throw their schoolbags on the floor and run out to play with their friends, Yezi preferred to put her books and pencil box in order on the desk once she got home from school. She also enjoyed helping her mother fold shirts.
In 2015, after graduating from a local university at which she studied preschool education, Yezi became aware of a home organizer in Chengdu, Sichuan province, said to be earning 100,000 yuan a month from the occupation.
"I didn't know what a home organizer was back then. I started looking into it, hoping to turn my interest into a career."
In 2018, after moving to Wuhan, she became a full-time home organizer. The first phone call she received from a potential client was particularly memorable because the person referred to her as an ayi, she says.
"The business is still in its infancy in China and many people still have no idea about it," says Yezi, who employs 17 people.
"Even my parents didn't understand what I do as a home organizer until they saw before-and-after pictures I showed them. But things are changing, and more and more people are willing to give it a try."
Most of her clients are from Wuhan and are women aged from 30 to 40. She also trains people who wish to become home organizers.
"Home organization is not home cleaning. It's completely different. Decluttering is not merely about getting rid of stuff and sorting things out. It's a way of improving relationships between people, their belongings and their space, which can help lead to a tidy and comfortable life. It's about education and bringing beauty and harmony into one's living space."
In addition to reading books by Kando to get inspiration she has developed many of her own ideas about home organizing.
"There's a tradition in China of treasuring possessions. Most people aren't in the habit of throwing out useless things unless they're worn out. So we try to get our clients accustomed to the idea and make it much more acceptable."