Nelly Fung unravels her grandfather-in-law Fung Ping-shan's past

Nelly Fung's project retracing the extraordinary life of Fung Ping-shan has given her a renewed admiration for her husband's grandfather

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 September, 2013, 9:54am

Cornelia "Nelly" Lichauco Fung never met her grandfather-in-law, but they would probably have hit it off: they both share a passion for promoting education and philanthropic work.

In any case, she has come to feel a strong sense of kinship after spending a couple of years gathering material for Fung Ping Shan, The Man, His Life and His Library. The book was recently published in Chinese by Commercial Press, following the release of the English original at the end of last year.

He was a very old-fashioned man with modern thinking
Nelly Fung

"After learning a lot about him, I have this warm feeling. If I met him, he would be a nice grandfather," says Nelly, who will give a talk on her project to Chinese University's Friends of the Art Museum on Thursday.

Until she embarked on the book project in 2010, there was nothing published in English on Fung Ping-shan, who helped lay the foundations of modern Hong Kong in the 20th century, as one of the first-generation Chinese entrepreneurs in the city.

Nelly felt the younger generations of her family should know about their illustrious ancestor.

"My children speak Chinese but they don't read and write well. For my grandchildren, there's a need for his story to be preserved," she says.

Because Fung Ping-shan provided the funds to set up the University of Hong Kong library's Chinese-language facilities, she began her research there. It was opportune timing; last year, the university was celebrating its centenary and the library its 80th anniversary.

To mark this, librarian Dr Wan Yiu-chuen was invited to write the chapter on the history and development of the Fung Ping Shan Library.

Nelly's job of telling the man's life story was a bit more tricky.

Firstly, "there were very few personal recollections of him" in the surviving family, she says.

Her father-in-law, the late Kenneth Fung Ping-fan, was a quiet man who didn't speak much about his dad; Fung Ping-shan's other children were either dead at the time of writing the book, or too little when their father died in 1931 to remember much of him.

With just two years until the anniversary, Nelly and her collaborators had to work fast. Moreover, access to primary sources on Fung Ping-shan were limited, particularly as she did not read or write Chinese.

"There might be other interesting [Chinese] documents related to his business and some of the schools [he set up] ... I couldn't find sources even for that.

"A lot could have been destroyed during the war … In terms of his business, when they demolished the old Shiu Fung Hong building [where the family business was based] in Sheung Wan, lots of papers were lost."

With the help of a historian, she gleaned information from translations of Chinese material, English newspaper articles, minutes of HKU council meetings, correspondence between the university and his son Fung Ping-wah, who wrote in English on his father's behalf.

A native of Xinhui in Guangdong, Fung Ping-shan was a trader on the mainland before settling in Hong Kong, where he set up Shiu Fung Hong, a company dealing in Chinese medicinal herbs, which later became one of the city's biggest suppliers of dried seafood.

Fortunately, he was in the habit of writing a journal whenever he sailed abroad, and these recollections formed the basis of her research.

"We were lucky to find that Fung had written a small autobiography. I found a copy, which was translated into English by a professor, in the HKU archive. At the beginning of the journal, he said: 'I am sitting on the boat, I have time and am going to write down a few things in my life'," Nelly says.

Making sense of the entries, however, was difficult as they were not in sequence, so it was up to Nelly to try to put them in order.

Achievements aside, what fascinated Nelly most were the anecdotes which showed her grandfather-in-law to be a family man of great integrity.

On a trip to Thailand, for example, Fung Ping-shan was particularly troubled when a business associate of his uncle's offered a daughter to him as concubine.

"He refused ... He was very young at the time but felt it was not fair to his wife," Nelly Fung says.

However, the businessman had been very helpful to him and his uncle, and Fung Ping-shan racked his brains about how to reject the proposal without offence. At the same time, he avoided being drawn into the local opium trade.

"It would have be very easy for him to get involved and he would have made lots of money. This kind of information made for interesting [characterisation]," Fung says.

She has developed respect and admiration for her relative.

"He believed that if he made money and enjoyed good fortune, he must share it with others. He had foresight, he was the first to use the telegraph in his trade, as he realised he had to be ahead of his competitors. He was a very old-fashioned man with modern thinking."

The book is her second foray as a raconteur of family history. She made her debut with Beneath the Banyan Tree: My Family Chronicles, an account of five generations of her family, which was instrumental in the Philippines independence movement.

Nelly's grandfather, Faustino Lichauco, joined Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo in the 1898 revolution against Spanish rule. Following the Spanish-American War, her father Marcial, a Harvard-trained lawyer, continued the struggle against colonial rule and was made the Philippines' ambassador to Britain after the country gained independence from the US in 1946.

"I wrote about my family within the context of the Philippines' history to show what was happening at the time. It gives you a sense of your roots."

Researching family histories "is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together", she says.

Her grandfather lived in exile with Aguinaldo in Hong Kong in the late 19th century, and two uncles were born here, so she wanted to know where he lived and to find her uncles' birth certificates.

She was delighted to discover that her grandad lived in Morrison Hill in Wan Chai. "This is wonderful," she says. "It's a very small thing, but it is important to me as it's part of my history."

But the process of tracing her Filipino family history was far easier than retracing the footsteps of Fung Ping-shan. There were plenty of documents, along with Spanish records in the Philippines, she could tap into. "My dad captured us [on camera] all the time, so I had lots of material."

Her Filipino lineage is quite mixed: "There's Chinese, Filipino, Spanish and American in our family," she says.

Her mother, Jessie Coe, was Cuban-American, but Nelly also learned that one of her paternal ancestors came from Fujian - Thomas Lichauco left Tongan, in Fujian province, for the Philippines in the late 19th century.

She met Kenneth Fung Hing-cheung when he visited Manila as part of a Harvard student choir in 1961, and their marriage five years later reconnected her to her Chinese roots. "I wonder whether it is fate," she says.

Her parents were at first dubious of the union: Hong Kong spoke a different language, it suffered severe water shortages and was awash with refugees.

"Still, Kenneth and his family won over my parents with their warmth and sincerity," she says.

Sharing a deep love of music and the arts, Nelly and Kenneth helped found the event that grew into the Hong Kong Arts Festival and became active patrons of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

And, like Fung Ping-shan, she became an energetic promoter of education. In 1983, she set up the Chinese International School with two co-founders and, 20 years later, established the ISF Academy.

Her difficulties researching Fung Ping-shan's past has convinced Nelly of the need for a proper system to protect Hong Kong's documentation history.

Since then, she has joined former director of the Government Records Service, Simon Chu Fook-keung, in setting up the Archives Action Group to lobby the government and raise public awareness of the issue.

"The administration keeps saying we don't need a law; that guidelines are good enough. But there are no legal sanctions.

"In 100 years, people will want to find out things about Hong Kong. The records may be incomplete, important documents may have been lost, shredded or tampered with," she says.

"China, Macau and Taiwan all have an archive law. Hong Kong should also have one."

Fung Ping-Shan, The Man, His Life, and His Library lecture by Nelly Fung, Sept 26, 6.30pm, Club Lusitano, 16 Ice House St, Central