Former HKEx chairman Charles Lee busy building Chinese culture website

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 11:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 5:56pm

At the age of 77, Charles Lee Yeh-kwong is in retirement mode after stepping back from public office in 2012. And on the face of it, the current focus of his energy - a website devoted to Chinese history and culture - seems modest compared to his many previous ventures such as setting up the Mandatory Provident Fund and introducing H-shares to Hong Kong.

But building the Splendid Chinese Culture website is no small task: aims to cover 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture, dividing the wealth of material into 18 categories covering some 200 topics.

Some foreigners want to learn about Chinese culture to facilitate their businesses in China. Our website can benefit [them]
Charles Lee

Launched in 2002 by the Academy of Chinese Studies, which itself was set up by Lee with backing from a group of Chinese culture advocates including scholar Jao Tsung-I, it was funded by about HK$100 million in grants from the government and donations from philanthropists.

"When the central government saw our website, they were very impressed. They said even the mainland didn't have such a comprehensive website and asked us to make a version in simplified Chinese characters," Lee recalls. "I originally thought it would be an easy job as software can help convert the original Chinese characters to simplified Chinese. But it turned out we needed to get people to rewrite all the picture captions and text as the mainland and Hong Kong use different turns of phrase when writing. Eventually, the simplified Chinese version was launched in 2005."

Even though it is more than 10 years old, the site is still a work in progress, he says. The website has drawn more than 54 million visitors from over 130 countries and regions so far, and features contributions from more than 1,000 scholars from the mainland, Taiwan and around the world. However, there are another 100 topics to be added, including sections about Taiwan, famous lakes on the mainland and the development of Zen culture in China.

Moreover, all the material is being translated into English, a process which is expected to take another two years.

The genial Lee says he became interested in Chinese culture after returning from his legal studies in London. "When I studied in Wah Yan College, English was the main medium of instruction. I had only a shallow understanding of Chinese culture. I took history in the public exam, but it covered the French Revolution and nothing about Chinese history. After I began to work as a lawyer, I started reading Louis Cha's books, which helped me understand the different dynasties in ancient China."

It was the approaching handover, however, that inspired the idea for a website on Chinese culture.

"Tung Chee-hwa and I thought that as Hong Kong's sovereignty returned to China, the people should be reconnected to Chinese culture, too. There was not enough emphasis at local schools on Chinese culture. We talked to principals and teachers who said they lacked comprehensive teaching resources on Chinese culture and it took a lot of time for them to put together information when preparing for lessons. So we got the idea of making a website that [could] be easily accessed by both students and teachers." All the same, Lee says the website does not take a political stance and does not cover contemporary Chinese history beyond 1949.

"We don't have any religious or political background. We just want to put the best aspects of Chinese culture online. We got mainland experts to write on topics on which they are considered authorities."

Despite having been up for more than a decade, the website is relatively unknown beyond school circles, but Lee plans to change that.

"We haven't done much promotion. The targets are secondary and primary students and teachers. It's a free website with no advertising. We have been approached by many advertisers, but we turned them all down as we don't want students to be distracted by the adverts. But we will launch publicity drives when the English version is ready."

The project to translate content into English is part of a drive to reach out to non-Chinese audiences, Lee says.

"An estimated 60 million people abroad, including overseas-born Chinese, are learning the Chinese language now. But the Chinese-language content on the website is beyond the grasp of such learners. A bilingual website can help such people learn about the culture," he says. "Some foreigners don't necessarily want to pick up the Chinese language, but they want to learn about Chinese culture to facilitate their businesses in China. Ignorance of Chinese culture can put them at a big disadvantage in business dealings. Our website can benefit such people."

The central government, which decided to make promoting Chinese culture overseas a part of national policy, put him in touch with the China International Publishing Group (CIPG) last year. The mainland publishing giant was keen to help with translation as it employs an army of 1,000 translators, but Lee had reservations.

"I don't want people to think this is a government website. So in the end we agreed that we would pay for their translation service; we got a HK$20 million donation from [property tycoon] Lee Shau-kee for the work."

Even so, translation proved to be far more difficult and time consuming than they anticipated.

"One topic might run to tens of thousands of words. If we got several people to work on a topic, there would be different styles and standards among the translators. We had to assign one person to translate all the material for each topic," Lee explains. "The drafts are then sent to experts overseas to make sure the English is up to standard. Then editors at CIPG will go through the text to ensure there is a uniform style. The translation work is in full swing now."

Another labour of love for Lee is fundraising for the Journalism Education Foundation, which plans to set up a museum in Central devoted to the Hong Kong media industry. It is scheduled to open in 2016.

"It will be the first such museum in Asia. There's a big news museum in Washington. Hong Kong should also have one. Besides running the museum, the foundation will subsidise local journalists to go on short trips overseas to expand their horizons."

Even with these projects on the go, Lee's life now is relatively relaxed compared to his previous schedule.

"I served on the Executive Council for a total of 12 years under the administrations of Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang. This work gave me a lot of mental burden as I had to attend weekly meetings and peruse reams of documents every week," Lee says.

"The most hectic time in my career was around 2000. In addition to Exco duties, I was serving as chief of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, which took up 80 per cent of my time. The MPF was being set up around the same time. And I was helping the government to merge the city's stock and futures exchanges."

Once dubbed the king of public duties because of the many posts that he has held since the 1980s, Lee now just retains a couple of offices. He serves as the pro-chancellor of the Open University of Hong Kong and remains chairman of the Hong Kong-Taiwan Economic and Cultural Co-operation and Promotion Council.

Shedding most of his public duties has freed him for more pleasurable activities.

"Now, I get more time to travel with my wife. Last year, we went to Ningxia. Before we went, I checked out the section on our website on the Western Xia dynasty, which I found interesting."

He is also eager to spend more time with his family, including his son, daughter and six grandchildren.

A keen scuba diver and sailor, Lee is usually out on the water at the weekends. "I get a yacht and head to the sea every Sunday," he says. "We also have a house in Phuket, Thailand, where we often spend our holidays."