Starfish And Salmon Appear on His Philanthropic Genome Map
Chung To visits the kids supported by his Chi Heng Foundation and their families. [Photo: courtesy of the Chi Heng Foundation]
Chinese people value education and hard work. Chung To’s great grandfather, a wealthy businessman, sent his children to universities and got them well educated. His grandfather was a graduate from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and his father had a chance to study in Britain. After war erupted in 1937, the family left Canton and took refuge in Hong Kong. Chung To’s parents later immigrated to the United States in search of better educational opportunities for their kids, joining relatives already settled down in San Francisco. The year was 1981, and Chung To was 14 and his sister 11. He says that it was a good age to immigrate to the United States. He was already a teenager, and so had bonded with his native land. But his outlook on life, and his personality and value system, were still being shaped, so he was easily able to absorb new ideas from his new environment.
His arrival in the United States coincided with the world’s first reported case of AIDS, which emerged in San Francisco. This strange new deadly disease caused a panic. It was quickly called “gay cancer” because, at first, it seemed only to spread between gay men, who were scarred as a result by a rare form of skin cancer before they died. In high school, Chung To was focused on study and earning pocket money to go on tours. AIDS seemed like a distant worry, until it took the life of his math teacher. To my surprise, he said the math teacher’s death made AIDS less frightening, not more, because the experience taught them that it was not easily transmissible among people. But the experience definitely changed him: He became more sensitive to the impact that the disease could have after he saw it take the life of someone so close to him.
In 1981 when Chung To was 14 years old, China was three years into its policy of opening up to the outside world. From time to time, he visited the Chinese mainland to see his grandparents, who had built a house in their native village. Waiting in line to get through customs with a flushing toilet bought in Macao for his grandparent’s new home – a luxury at the time – was embarrassing for this teenage boy. But looking back, he can appreciate the chasm between the life he was used to and the poverty he saw in China’s countryside.
Chung To visits the students supported by his Chi Heng Foundation. [Photo: courtesy of the Chi Heng Foundation]
There is a Chinese idiom, luo ye gui gen (落叶归根): Fallen leaves stay close to their roots. It describes the enduring connection that Chinese people feel for their hometown. Whether they’re in another city, or another country, there is a deeply held wish to return to that patch of earth. Chung To describes his grandparents retiring to their hometown as being like salmon swimming back upstream when they have matured, and it strikes me that this also applies to Chung To. In 1991, he graduated from Harvard University with a master’s degree in finance and later came back to China not as a tourist, but as a young banker in Wall Street working on investment projects. He was like a salmon that had grown up and was swimming back upstream to where he came.
The decision to pursue a career in finance, he said, was taken not because it was a passion. Rather, it has always been one of the most sought after majors for Chinese students, because it offers money, and with it, the promise of improved living standard, security and material comfort. It was also something in which he excelled: After graduation, he joined Lehman Brothers as an analyst, and went on to become vice president of a European bank. By the time he left his finance career behind entirely in 2001, he had earned himself a penthouse and a good name in his trade.
It was 1985, a few years before he arrived in China, that the country had its first recorded HIV infection. When he arrived in the early 1990s, the epidemic was quietly gaining momentum but the public were not paying it enough attention. But Chung To was observing the situation in his own way, and during his many business visits to the mainland, he became more and more aware of people’s ignorance about HIV and AIDS- people in large cities might have heard of it, but they didn’t believe the disease would make any impact on their lives; in rural areas, most people never heard of HIV or AIDS at the time, not to mention how to prevent from it. And indeed, some of the people hardest hit were those living in rural China. Due to poverty and ignorance, farmers sold their blood to illegal blood traders who went from village to village to make a little extra money. To cut down on costs and maximise their profit, unscrupulous traders used the same needle again and again. HIV was transmitted through blood, so after a donation was taken from someone who was infected, the virus was spread to the donors that the same needle was used on afterwards.
Having seen this tragedy unfold, Chung To started to ask himself: Do I want to continue helping to make rich people get richer, or do I want to save these innocent children orphaned by AIDS? He knew the answer when he was confronted by a dying father who begged Chung To to take care of his son. He was the man’s last hope. He returned to Hong Kong in 1995, and three years later he started his own NGO.
China Plus host Manling interviews Chung To, founder and chairman of Chi Heng Foundation, [Photo: China Plus]
When we first met at a Chi Heng social event before our interview, I was there to get firsthand knowledge about Chung To and the bond he has with his children. He interacted with them so naturally that you could easily mistake them for family. At these moments you can see a sense of purity of spirit in him that is rare in people his age. He is an idealist, but not one who lets the perfect be the enemy of the good: he keenly goes out into the world to put his ideas into action as best as he can. I asked him what he would do with the rest of his days if one day there were no more AIDS orphans who need saving. He explained that Chi Heng has already expanded its goals to look after children whose parents are serving time in prison or who are living in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers.
Idealism has given Chung To strength, but it has also made him vulnerable. His strength comes from achieving his goals; his vulnerability comes from being confronted with the reality that there is not enough money, medicine, and manpower for all of the children who need saving. This is why in 2002, although Chi Heng helped 127 AIDS orphans, this wasn’t enough to stop Chung To from sliding into a deep depression. He says that during those three years, there are no photos of him smiling, and many a night was spend sleeping on a pillow soaked in tears.
Chung To credits three people with helping to pull him out of his depression. They are Leslie Cheung, Hong Kong superstar; Iris Chang, the author of “The Rape of Nanking”; and John Nash, the mathematician featured in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. Leslie and Iris died as a result of their depression, and their stories are warning for him not to repeat their tragic endings. And John Nash’s visit to Hong Kong was an inspiration to him: If Nash could use his willpower to overcome his mental illness (he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia) , Chung To could conquer his depression. He also credits his naturally upbeat personality as playing a decisive role in helping him to bounce back. But the resilience he’s developed hasn’t made him immune to the pain and suffering of the people around him. In a recent message he wrote on WeChat to all his followers, he said: “On many nights, whenever I think of the people it was my destiny to meet who would pass away, especially the kids, I tell myself that I need to let these memories go, but sometimes people are irrational.” He then quoted a line from a Chinese fable about a young girl with a broken heart who asks a god for the recipe for a tonic that will let her forget her heartbreak. The god gives her a cup to fill with her tears, which she drinks in desperation – and never cries again. “Who can give me a cup of water that will let me forget?”, said Chung To.
Oscar Wilde once said, “It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it.” And this is what Chung To has managed to do, and he is doing all he can to ensure his children don’t give up hope either. A popular story he loves to tell illustrates how he teaches us to seek hope in the face of enormous adversity. One day a grandfather was walking along the beach with his granddaughter. Along the beach were starfish that had washed ashore and were succumbing to the scorching sun. As they walked, he picked them up one by one and threw them into the ocean. His granddaughter asked, what difference does it make, when there are so many? He picked another one up, threw it back into the waves, and said: “It makes a difference to that one.”