Tidying up after a passing

Updated: Jun 21, 2021 China Daily Print
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Sica (R), a full-time home organizer, clears up a client's belongings with her colleague in Shanghai. [Provided to China Daily]

It was a phone call that got Sica started. About 10 days before last year's Tomb Sweeping Day on April 5, Sica was visiting a graveyard in Shanghai when documentary director Zhou Yijun called her.

"She saw the photos I shared on my social media platform and she wondered why I was in a graveyard," recalls Sica, whose real name is Wang Zeyu and is a full-time home organizer and "decluttering "consultant.

Then Sica told Zhou about her ideas of helping people who lost beloved family members on how to organize their homes, and especially how to handle the items that once belonged to the deceased. Zhou initiated the idea of shooting a documentary about it and they wanted to highlight people in Wuhan, Hubei Province, who lost family members during the coronavirus pandemic.

But it was not easy.

"We contacted nearly 100 families and most turned us down," recalls Sica. "Death seems to be a big taboo topic among Chinese people. It was also very hard to persuade them to let a stranger work in their homes to help deal with things that belonged to the deceased. Many people just want to burn or throw away those things."

Luckily, they had three families join the project. Throughout last year, Sica and the documentary team traveled to Wuhan several times to visit those families. A 30-minute version of the documentary was recently released online.

"It was not just a process of decluttering and organizing their homes after the death of loved ones. When we worked together and went through the things the dead family members used, the families dealt with them as a way to cope with their loss and reconnect with those deceased family members through those things," says Sica.

She arranges head ornaments for the client. [Provided to China Daily]

Sica, 30, was born in Hebei Province and graduated from Shanghai International Studies University in 2012 after studying English. She was introduced to the art of organizing while working in a Japanese advertising company in Beijing from 2015 to 2017.

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 Marie Kondo, one of the most prominent experts in the field of home organizing and tidying possessions after someone has left. Her 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. Among the students in that year were three Japanese, two Korean Americans, a Chinese Canadian and Sica, the only Chinese person, she says.

Sica now owns her company and her employees are part time, all under the age of 30. Their customers are between 20 and 35 years old and include students, doctors and teachers. Services are charged by the hour and the size of the area that needs to be tidied and organized. Charges can range from 200 yuan ($30) to 500 yuan an hour for each person depending on the volume of work.

A client's room before Sica added her professional touch [Provided to China Daily]

Usually, Sica starts with helping clients draw up plans for their home. She talks with the clients and learns about their ideas, such as what the home should be like after they are finished, what stuff they are willing to throw out and what they want to keep.

One of the people featured in the documentary is Zhang Mingfang whose husband, Tao Kaiwang, died in the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Tao was a music lover and he played various musical instruments, such as the guqin and pipa. Sica, along with Tao's family, laid all his things on the floor and categorized them.

"For example, there are things which were used by Tao and things shared by Tao and Zhang. There are things that the families want to get rid of and things that they want to keep for memory," says Sica, adding that during the process of organizing, Zhang told her many stories about her husband.

"He knew that I didn't like him spending too much money on buying musical instruments, so he only played when I was not at home. His wish was to form a band in our neighborhood," says Zhang in the documentary. "Now, when I sweep the floor, I think of him because he never let me sweep the floor. When it rains, I also think of him because he always waited for me with an umbrella before I returned home."

A client's room after Sica added her professional touch [Provided to China Daily]
Sica clears and categorizes items in a room. [Provided to China Daily]

A boy, named Ao Mulin, was featured in the documentary. His father died but he has kept his father's cellphone. Ao's mother keeps the tea set her husband used, which reminds her of the moments when they drank tea at home together.

"They are ordinary families but there are many stories that touched me," says Sica. "There are lots of memories though people died already. The things left in the families build a bridge between the people who are still alive and the people who are dead."

The documentary's director Zhou says on her social media platform: "It's an experience of exploring 'what do we leave behind after we die?' It also inspired us to gain a new understanding about life and respect each life.

"It took us over a year to finish the shooting and for those families, the coronavirus pandemic means a great change of their lives."

In April last year, after a forced break because of COVID-19, Sica returned to work and started to consult online. She 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 that became worse over the previous three months. Having a comfortable living environment has become all the more pressing for people who were forced to work from home, and for families having to spend long hours together under one roof, to whom the appreciation of the importance of everyday order and comfort has grown.

"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," she says.

After her trips to Wuhan, Sica made contact with senior care organizations, hoping to continue her services about arranging items left by deceased people and organizing for senior people.

"Though the idea is not appealing to the majority of people, I am happy to see some changes," says Sica, mentioning a popular South Korean TV drama, titled Move to Heaven, which is about the story of Geu Roo and his uncle, Sang-goo. The two meet after the death of Geu Roo's father and end up running a trauma management business together. When a loved one passes away, a team arrives and clears out the room, collecting up valuables while getting rid of everything else.

"Many people shared the TV drama with me and told me that they are interested in the job," says Sica.

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