Starfish And Salmon Appear on His Philanthropic Genome Map
By Manling, China Plus Host
Chung To takes an interview from China Plus. [Photo: China Plus]
The number 127 was a signpost in the career of the former investment banker turned NGO founder Chung To. He’s now the head of the Chi Heng Foundation, the NGO he established in Hong Kong in 1998 with a mere 100 Hong Kong dollars. His decision was driven more by instinct than logic: He had an impulse to help people whose lives were turned upside down by the raging AIDS epidemic. This instinct grew stronger and stronger until, in 2001, he left the world of finance and invested everything he had – money, time, and care – into running Chi Heng. The following year, Chi Heng would rescue its first group of AIDS orphans, 127 in all.
Today, Chi Heng has saved more than 26,000 AIDS orphans. Since Chung To invested that first 100 Hong Kong dollars 21 years ago, the foundation has received more than 300 million Hong Kong dollars in donations and Chi Heng has evolved into a substantial player in China’s charity sector. It is dedicated to helping AIDS orphans on the Chinese mainland, with a headquarters in Hong Kong and 13 other offices nationwide. Among the 80 paid staff, 15 are home visit officers, who function as Chung To’s antennae to collect first-hand knowledge about how the kids are doing and what they really need, so Chi Heng can tailor assistance to them. Every year, university students who grew up with support from Chi Heng come back to help younger children. They provide these kids with a family, a role model, a teacher, and a social worker. All year round, Chi Heng people are looking for donors, seeking cooperation with governments, interviewing applicants, organizing activities for children such as art therapy lessons, psychological consultations, summer and winter camps, job hunting sessions, and even match making for the ones who want to start a family of their own.
Chung To visits the students supported by his Chi Heng Foundation. [Photo: courtesy of the Chi Heng Foundation]
After speaking with Chung To, I was left wondering how he manages to hold down what seems like such a hectic job. Take the Chi Heng summer camps as an example: Dozens of them are organized each year across the country, but despite the distances he manages to show up for at least one day at each of them. And no matter where he is, he comes back to Zhengzhou in Henan Province to celebrate the Spring Festival with his children, because he knows how important family reunions are to the healthy growth of a child. As a mother, I have to applaud his understanding of parenting. It’s about daily care, mentoring, and being there to accompany kids as they grow. In this sense, he is a more qualified parent than the many who have neglected these roles.
In Chung To’s eyes, Chi Heng is a family. Its members are not only AIDS orphans, but also donors, staff, volunteers, and all those who contribute to their cause in one way or another. The one thing that differentiates this big family from your average one is that they don’t share DNA. Instead of a bloodline, the Chi Heng family is bound together with a unique kinship. Chung To proudly told me that his family has its own philanthropy DNA that he tries to share with all of his children. He never asks them to come back to serve Chi Heng, but many have chosen to do so. In fact, 70 percent of the staff and many volunteers are former recipients of Chi Heng support, which shows that they are inheriting the philanthropic DNA.
The definition of a healthy ecosystem of philanthropy, Chung To says, is an upward spiral of kindness and persistence. His experience as a migrant in the United States taught him that when you’re a minority, opportunities and resources are limited, so being mediocre comes at a high cost. That is why he struggled to become a straight-A student in high school, and why his then high school history teacher, who was also his mentor, predicted that he’d succeed in whatever field he turned his mind to.
Chung To named his foundation Chi Heng because Chi stands for wisdom and Heng for action. In his personal philosophy, wisdom and compassion are two indispensable qualities a person should have. If someone has wisdom without compassion, their skills may be put to the wrong use; someone who is compassionate but lacking in wisdom can cause unintended negative consequences when they try to do good. Although he’s discovered that philanthropy is his life’s calling, Chung To said he’d never write off his training in finance and the years he worked in the banking sector. His previous job has endowed him with knowledge and skills he later would use in the field of philanthropy, including corporation management, negotiation, networking, and presentation.
Chung To visits the kids supported by his Chi Heng Foundation and their families. [Photo: courtesy of the Chi Heng Foundation]
So much of his time has been spent working towards his cause that he hasn’t had the time to establish his own small family. Until today, he remains an extremely busy single man. Has he ever wanted a family of his own? Does he regret not having one? He said that he always wished he could have met the children in his big Chi Heng family earlier. Besides this, he has no regrets and could die tomorrow a happy and fulfilled person. A post of his on WeChat seems to sum up his view of life: “Sometimes I see a vast sea of people busy going to work, busy commuting. They eat, and they excrete. They make money to pay off their mortgage. Then they get old, fall sick, and die. What’s the meaning in their life? For me, the meaning of life is to bring happiness to people. What’s the meaning of your life?”
Chung To considers himself lucky to have been born into a family that could pave the way for him to pursue his dreams, and wants others to have this same opportunity. At a very young age, he asked his parents why people want to give birth to more babies when there are already so many who need love and care. I pointed out that there is a Buddha in him, and he reminded me that there is one in everyone. He calls himself “a humble student of Buddhist thinking.”
Can his Buddhist thinking defy the diehard tradition Chinese people place on continuing the family bloodline? Children are expected to grow up, marry, and have kids of their own. But Chung To has outgrown this conventional belief, and chosen not to biologically father a child. Nonetheless he has fathered his own unique family, his big Chi Heng clan. It doesn’t have a genetic heritage, but it is caring and passes down values that make life better for future generations.