When life gives you pickles ...

Updated: 2011-10-12 08:22

By Guo Anfei and Li Yingqing (China Daily)

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DONGCHUAN, Yunnan - Before the sun even rises, Auntie Lei is surrounded by waist-high jars, adding various seasonings and stirring up her special pickles.

At 6 am she greets her customers with a smile and casual conversation.

"Miss, you don't need to buy so many pickles. Half a kilo is enough for your family of two."

"If you want some pickles to cook fish, then try this one. It will add a special taste to the dish."

When life gives you pickles ...

Her shop is considered a "must-go", not only because her homemade pickles are a daily staple on the dining tables in Dongchuan, Yunnan province, but because Auntie Lei is a bit of a local hero.

She was one of the first women to work underground in the mines, where she carried out backbreaking work alongside the men - and where she learned to make pickles, a skill she would fall back onto to support her family after retirement.

"Auntie Lei's pickles look natural and taste better," said regular customer Guang Xingfa.

"My family has eaten her pickles for four years. We eat them as side dishes or when we have rice noodles," Guang said.

Business is booming and at times her customers - some from neighboring cities - have to line up outside the door.

They affectionately nickname her "Auntie Pickle".

In what must seem like a previous life, however, Lei Changping - as she is otherwise known - was a well-known miner.

Five decades ago, representatives from a copper mine in Dongchuan, then one of China's major production bases, came to Lei's village to recruit workers.

Only 16 years old and too young to legally work there, Lei lied about her age.

"We young villagers had no idea of what a copper mine was. We applied for the job out of curiosity," Lei said.

She first worked on construction and then asked to go into the pit.

"She was very impressive. She could carry two cement bags of 50 kilograms upstairs," said Liu Shifu, deputy chairman of the Yinmin Mine Workers Union.

He said women normally did supporting jobs, such as carrying explosives, delivering food and driving cars.

Lei, however, did the same jobs as men, punching holes with drills that weighed between 25 and 45 kgs.

"Everyone at the mine admired her," Liu said.

Lei was later promoted to lead a six-member team with her husband.

Her enthusiasm was also motivated by her family, as she and her husband had five children to raise.

"Compared to most people at that time, my salary was rather high. I was very proud of it," she said.

However, when the couple retired and lived on a monthly pension of 900 yuan ($141), with three children still in school, life got harder again.

Lei tried various small businesses without success until she eventually set up a shop selling the pickles she learned to make as a miner.

"I will keep working. My kids are not living well and I also need to save money for my husband and me," she said.

Yet the sun is starting to come up over the horizon again: Her husband plans to register "Auntie Lei's Pickles" as a trademark and open a branch store.