Lending a helping hand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am

When the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province last May, it devastated the lives of millions - killing families, injuring the helpless, and destroying nearly every home in its path. So when Allan Zeman, chairman of Lan Kwai Fong Holdings and Ocean Park, was asked to help Homes for Hope, he couldn't say no.

'The earthquake in Chengdu was devastating for the whole world, especially Hong Kong,' Mr Zeman said. 'The destruction of the earthquake was something beyond your imagination. Children lost their parents and Mother Nature bestowed devastation upon us. When [managing director and chief executive of SCMP Group] Hui [Kwong Kuok] called me, I couldn't say 'no', so I said 'yes' to go on the steering committee and be behind the scenes and to make a difference.'

Organised by the South China Morning Post, the Homes for Hope project aims to rebuild 1,000 homes in Qingquan village in Mianzhu city, which was hardest hit by the quake, and to build 11 infrastructure projects in the Tibetan village of Shengnan in the Majia township of Jiuzhaigou.

Homes for Hope also set up a steering committee to monitor the project and oversee the fund set up earlier this year.

Mr Zeman is part of the committee which includes SCMP Group chairman David Pang Ding-jung, National People's Congress deputy Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, former KPMG partner Valiant Cheung Kin-piu and Ms Kuok. The committee is chaired by David Li Kwok-po, chairman of Bank of East Asia.

Mr Zeman said: 'I admire the SCMP for attacking [the relief efforts] from a different angle. Instead of collecting money and sending it out to an agency, the SCMP is taking it a step further by identifying towns [in need] and helping them rebuild homes. They are getting involved in the inner workings of the project and setting it right.'

Mr Zeman knows the Sichuan capital city of Chengdu and its surrounding area well. 'It is a special place for me. I love the area, and its people are very artistic and know how to enjoy life,' he said.

The Ocean Park chairman is directly involved in rebuilding the badly damaged Wolong Panda Reserve in southwest Sichuan, which housed about 86 giant pandas at the time of the earthquake. Ocean Park's newest giant pandas, Le Le and Ying Ying, came from the Sichuan reserve in 2007.

In helping the Homes for Hope project, Mr Zeman said: 'We've had meetings and brainstormed what can be done in the most effective way. We came up with different ideas and suggestions of what we should do with the funds once they are raised.'

With the project involving the partial reconstruction of two towns and co-ordination between hundreds of people, Mr Zeman said: 'It's always difficult to get the people and children into homes and shelters that are actually built and up-and-running. It's not a big team, but you want to make sure it gets built right and you are using the money in a way that is most effective.'

When former KPMG partner Mr Cheung heard about the Homes for Hope project, he was only too happy to help. 'I've been doing some volunteer work, and most of these organisations need an accountant. I wanted to contribute my knowledge in this area and help a good cause. Most accountants are very busy, so they get retired accountants to help out,' said the retired accountant, who is deputy chairman of SA Hong Kong, a non-governmental organisation that supports physically and mentally challenged people who have suffered neurological impairment.

As the steering committee comprises members with expertise in different backgrounds, Mr Cheung said the committee tried to ensure that the earthquake victims benefited from what they were given. 'It's easy to raise funds immediately after the earthquake, but how do you ensure the money or material donated actually reach the end user, or the people that you want to help? It's a big challenge,' he said.

As both Qingquan and Shengnan villages are located in remote areas, Mr Cheung said the project was a time-consuming and tedious process, which involved organising donated material to build houses and infrastructure. However, he feels confident that with the SCMP's connections in Hong Kong and the mainland, the media group has the experience and local people on the ground to 'actually roll up their sleeves and do something on-site'.

'We are buying the relevant building materials and ensuring that the money is spent wisely. We aren't just going to give money; the central government is already giving money [to these victims],' he said. 'And, if you give them bricks, they might not know how to build a house. So you need local expertise and on-site people to give some advice on how to build the houses for themselves.'

With the first batch of houses due for completion next month, Mr Cheung said he hoped that the affected families and households would have a base to start life over again. 'We give them the materials and assistance, and the plan is for them to build it. We are not the only organisation in the area doing something, but we hope our project achieves its aim,' he said.