Zhang Yongqiang， a grocery store owner turned miner， prepares to go above ground after a day's laboring in Chongqing.
By Xu Wei in Chongqing
In others' eyes, Zhang Yongqiang has every reason not to be a coal miner. But Zhang, 39, the owner of two grocery stores and several apartments in Chongqing municipality, has a simple yet adequate reason for working underground: to abstain from gambling.
"I only want a pure life, and that's what being a miner could offer," he said, explaining that he used to harbor a mania for gambling.
Zhang started his business trading fruits and vegetables in the 1990s in Chongqing.
Through frequent business trips to other provinces, Zhang made a lot of friends, both for business and gambling.
"Gambling was necessary to make friends and maintain business contacts," Zhang said. "I neither smoke nor drink. I needed at least one thing to melt into the circle."
However, he soon found that his addiction was getting beyond control.
"As soon as we arrived at business destinations, we locked ourselves into our hotel rooms and started to gamble," Zhang said.
Zhang used to gamble for three days and nights without sleep. But he was not a good gambler, and in 2002 he lost 70,000 yuan ($11,000) in one night.
"The more you lose, the more you want it back. The desire is unstoppable," Zhang said.
Zhang said due to his gambling he was unable to hold on to the fortune he made in business.
His family members started to get annoyed.
"My wife would complain to my parents and my father would scold me," he said.
However, it was the financial crisis in 2008 that forced Zhang to give up his trading business and spurred him to quit gambling.
"Although I no longer made business trips, gambling friends were still making their phone calls, and I found their requests hard to refuse," Zhang said.
But he was already determined to quit gambling.
Zhang said he seriously considered moving his family to a neighboring province to keep himself away from gambling.
"I was afraid we couldn't adapt to the local culture, so the idea was dropped," he said.
In September 2009, Zhang decided to become a miner in the Fengchun Coal Mine.
"I noticed the miners that passed by my grocery shops every day after work. Their lives seemed easy and pure to me," Zhang said.
"More importantly, I have reasons to turn down gambling calls as I have a regular job to do."
But when Zhang announced his decision to his family members, it came as a shock.
"They thought I was crazy. My parents said they would never let me do it. But I said I had already decided."
However, when Zhang started his job as a miner and was responsible for the gas emissions at the pits, he found the miner's job was not as easy as he had imagined.
His initial days were difficult and he got no respect from his superiors and co-workers due to his lack of skills and the fact he wasn't forced to be a miner.
"There was a drastic difference between an experienced miner and a green hand," Zhang said.
"One mistake could lead you to regret it for your whole life," Zhang continued. On most occasions, Zhang has to stay for more than 10 hours in the pit several kilometers down.
Due to his inexperience, Zhang's life was endangered on several occasions.
However, over the past three years, Zhang has risen from a fresh hand to one of the most experienced workers in the mine.
He has developed a reputation among the miners for his endurance and courage, and is now the best-paid miner in his team and has been entrusted with difficult and dangerous missions.
"The best way to speak is through actions. For me, I gave no conditions when I was given a task. The only thing I wanted to give was the result," Zhang said.
Zhang's wife, Yang Chonggui, said she initially voiced strong objections to Zhang's decision.
"I'm still concerned about his safety. But the good thing is he finally dropped his gambling," she said.
Even today, Zhang is still an odd figure among his co-workers.
"Usually, people are forced into this trade, and most miners tend to face difficult economic conditions and have a large family to support," said Peng Ming, one of Zhang's co-workers. "But we were shocked to know that he owns two large grocery stores and several apartments."
Even so, Zhang said he'd never dare to get involved in gambling again, even with his relatives and family members.
"Now the maximum amount I gamble with friends is 2 yuan. If they gamble larger amounts, I'm responsible for serving them hot beverages," he said.
"It was like a black hole: so easy to get in and so difficult to get out."