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Noble cause

A group of young entrepreneurs from prominent backgrounds decide to use their wealth and connections to help others, writes Vivian Chen

 

You can't always have it all and do it all. "I'm a terrible multitasker," claims Alan Lo, as he returns from another phone conversation during our interview in the backseat of his ride rushing to his next appointment.

In fact, Lo is actually quite the expert multitasker. He juggles several jobs as the owner of food and beverage empire Press Room Group and co-founder of Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design - an NGO responsible for the city's much anticipated cultural events, including Detour and Pecha Kucha.

Sharing Lo's multitasking lifestyle is a young crop of entrepreneur-cum-philanthropists, who grew up attending glamorous fundraisers, thanks to their prominent family backgrounds. But they are dedicated to promoting their causes in a new manner.

Being born with a silver spoon didn't leave them spoilt rotten. Their Western upbringing and Cambridge or Ivy League education equipped them with the morals and methods to be aware, to care and make a change. Rather than simply getting a seat on the board of their family's charity organisations, their good deeds all stemmed from something close to their heart.

Architect by training, Lo embraces the cause of arts and culture. Buddhist and vegetarian David Yeung encourages the city to adopt green eating and living. Having witnessed countless confused teenagers in court, barrister Brandon Chau reaches out to the underprivileged. Sisters Charlotte and Robin Hwang were inspired to feed the poor with surplus food from their family's hospitality business. And, as her family's textile business brought her to the rural corners on the mainland, Dee Poon decided to dedicate herself to helping education-deprived children.

The starting point of their charities, however, was more or less related to family influence.

Robin Hwang reckons that charity runs in the family. "The idea of charity work has always been with us as we were growing up," she says. Her grandfather, Hwang Chou-shiuan, founder of the Hong Kong Parkview Group, was an exceptional role model for her.

"He was very charitable," she recalls. "I remember strangers showing up at his funeral to pay their respect, saying he had paid for their education. But he never told us about these things - he did charity work for charity's sake."

Also not far from where his family stands is Green Monday's founder Yeung, who followed the footsteps of his Buddhist father and his uncle, founders of Glorious Sun Enterprises. He became a vegetarian about 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, Poon was also introduced to charity work because her family - which owns Harvey Nichols and Esquel, one of the world's biggest manufacturers - established the Y.L. Yang-Esquel Education Foundation. "We have operations in remote areas on the mainland. We started helping because we saw a need," says Poon, who is actively involved in several charities, including Teach for China and the Y.L. Yang-Esquel Education Foundation, which offers education programmes to ethnic minority children in Xinjiang.

While Lo naturally hopped on board Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design, an affiliated arm under Hong Kong Design Centre chaired by his father Victor, the calling didn't come so smoothly for Brandon Chau.

The soft-spoken heir of flamboyant tycoon Chau Kai-bong didn't give the cause much thought until two years ago when he was invited to star in RTHK's reality show, Rich Mate, Poor Mate. The show follows the lives of real-life tycoons roughing it like the poor in shabby neighbourhoods. Chau was obviously the perfect candidate. In the show, Chau bids farewell to his customised suits and Maserati and lived on HK$200 for four days, taking on minimum-wage jobs, such as a courier and a teahouse assistant.

The reality show served as a reality check for Chau - he began to understand the plight of the city's underprivileged youth. "It was the hopelessness and despair that moved me," he says. After months of preparation, he teamed up with YMCA and started A-Life Academy to provide leadership consultations, mentorships and job placements.

Echoing Chau's sentiments, Poon says: "When you live in an ivory tower, you have [no idea what life is like]. You won't know what the problems are if you don't get involved."

Rather than just writing a cheque to donate money to others, Poon and her staff "do everything ourselves", she says. "People often donate money to a charity organisation and that's [the end of the story], but we are actually involved."

The hands-on approach really strikes a chord with the younger generation of philanthropists who firmly believe in taking action.

The Hwang sisters are not only the face of their charity Foodlink. They take care of the finer details, such as arranging food delivery schedules.

Instead of throwing lavish fundraising balls, our philanthropists turn to creative and fun programmes to engage the younger generation - their generation.

Yeung's Green Monday, for example, lines up celebrities, such as singer Louis Cheung and TV show host Janis Chan, to design slogans on T-shirts and host cooking competitions.

"It's more than being trendy - we have to lead the trend," Yeung explains. "Nowadays, people are bombarded with messages. To get a message across, you need good packaging."

The Hwang sisters' Food Fighter dodge ball team beats the notion of a star-studded fundraiser.

"All the money that goes into organising a fundraiser can instead be used to run our operations. We resort to more creative ways to raise money," Robin says.

And even when their charity does reach a point in fundraising where a gala event appears to be inevitable, they find a way around it.

Lo explains: "When we did our Ambassador's Ball in 2008, we made it a point to [deviate] from the traditional black tie events that are all about socialites. We invited designers and creative directors to come up with an installations-filled venue. And the ball became an annual event which people look forward to."

Its 2010 edition, for instance, was hosted by Douglas Young, creative director and founder of lifestyle brand G.O.D.

As our young philanthropists strive to raise funds for and awareness of their causes, their business resources and connections come in handy.

"There's no doubt that my existing connections and networks help," says Yeung, whose Green Monday partnered with a string of local celebrities and established corporations such as City'super and SSP, which operates restaurants at the Hong Kong International Airport.

"When you partner with companies and organisations, you can channel the resources to a good cause."

From logo designing to event planning, the Hwang sisters look to their friends and family for help. Their family-owned property, Parkview, provides the venue for Foodlink's fundraising bazaars. Poon's relationship with the local Xinjiang government developed through the family business helps to ease her charity work.

Chau's family friends offer internships and mentorships to underprivileged youth, while Lo provides a platform for the city's aspiring creative talent at the various hospitality venues he and his friends own.

Their connections and networks certainly help, but in the world of philanthropy, there's always another closed door to be knocked on.

Like Lo says, "after all, if you [don't make the cause strong], you won't last very long, no matter who you are."

 

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