Inspired by Silicon Valley, two entrepreneurs set out to disrupt China’s seedy funeral industry. Could they succeed in the face of decades of corruption and bureaucracy?
Wang Dan is a genial 34-year-old man with a soft, bulldog-like face and a quiet enthusiasm for the next thing coming. His heroes were forged in garages, dorm rooms and cheap flats. They are the Chinese strivers who have transformed Beijing into a city of startup dreams – entrepreneurs such as Robin Li, who rose from peasant roots to found the search giant Baidu, andJack Ma, the former English teacher who founded the internet trading company Alibaba. Now, they’re both worth billions. Wang was inspired by their stories. They taught him to think big.
Wang’s own creation myth began in a Beijing hospital in early 2012. After doctors diagnosed his mother with cancer, Wang paid a vast sum to secure her a bed at the Beijing Cancer hospital, perhaps the city’s finest. Weeks became months, and Wang’s mother underwent 17 rounds of chemotherapy. She deflated like a balloon – 5kg down, then 10, then 20. Seeing his mother suffer, Wang grew depressed. He lost his confidence. He lost weight. He worried he might lose his job as a marketing director at Lashou, a Beijing-based online company. His mother’s sickness was like a powerful lens, focusing his frustrations – the city’s choking air pollution, his own stagnating career – into a single, stinging beam.
Eventually, a doctor recommended that Wang begin “making preparations”. Wang quit his job. Like most of his generation, he was born under China’s one-child policy, and with no siblings, he forced himself to begin planning for his mother’s death. A hospital worker recommended that he call the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the city’s best-known resting place. An employee picked up the phone. “Where’s the body?” she asked. Wang said that his mother was still alive, though she could pass away at any moment. The employee put him on hold, and after a few minutes, another picked up. “Where’s the body?” he asked. Wang gave him the same answer. “Then why are you in such a rush?” he said. Wang hung up and returned to his mother.
Written by Jonathan Kaiman – Picture: James Wasserman/Demotix