Philanthropist Zhang Yidong triumphed cancer thanks largely to donations from kind-hearted strangers when he was 16 years old. Ever since, he has wanted to help others. Now 32, Zhang runs a small hotel that welcomes the homeless and says he has donated more than 1 million yuan (HK$1.26 million) in raised funds. But his charity work has been at times overshadowed by controversy over his decision to undergo plastic surgery to look like his role model, Lei Feng , a selfless People's Liberation Army soldier who posthumously became the icon in Mao Zedong's "model citizen" propaganda campaign in the 1960s.
Why did you want to look like Lei Feng?
Lei Feng has been my idol since I was a child, especially after I received donations for treatment that helped me overcome bone cancer at age 16. It was my dream to look like Lei Feng, and now that I look like him, it motivates me to help more people. Even though I have recovered from cancer, I have developed a chronic blood disease in recent years. I never thought I would live long, so why should I care about what other people say when they look at me? This is a separate issue from what I do. I don't think the Lei Feng resemblance will make charity work any easier or harder for me. I am just glad that my dream to look like him has finally come true.
What do you think of criticisms that you underwent plastic surgery to become famous?
There is a lot of criticism in today's society, especially when you are a public figure. It will not affect how I do things. I don't think criticism is helpful. For example, it has been reported that people will not help the elderly and children who meet with accidents on the streets because they are afraid it may be a scam. If there is more publicity about people willing to help others … people might become more willing to do the same.
How do you help people?
I help individuals who have complex diseases and need support. I donate my own money, which I make mostly from running my hotel. I help the patients find hospitals that are willing to treat them for free or to charge them affordable prices. I also introduce patients in need to organisations and wealthy donors. I like to make direct human contact with the people I am helping. It is rewarding to see them get better. I make friends with the patients and keep myself updated on their lives. It makes every minute of my life feel worthwhile.
Any memorable experiences in your charity work?
Last year, I tried to help a man with haemophilia, a genetic blood disorder. But when my fund-raising plans fell apart and I could not help the patient pay for his medical bills, his family sued me for donation fraud. They later withdrew the case for lack of evidence, but it broke my heart. I cared deeply about the patient and treated him like my own brother. But after the lawsuit, the family and I cut off communication. I heard they had to leave the hospital because of mounting expenses. I was sad it did not work out. I had to go to a temple in Fujian province for a while after that.
How do you view the charity sector and do you work with other groups?
I enjoy doing things on my own. I do not like rules created by others. I have never registered with or involved myself in any charity organisation. I don't like the way many organisations do things. They often ask volunteers to dress in the same T-shirts, wear the same caps or even carry flags for a public event and they make a lot noise going about it. I like one-on-one interactions. I don't need a crowd. When an organisation gets larger, it has to face a lot of regulations and prepare tonnes of documents. I work more efficiently when I work as a one-man band. I don't have to deal with all the documentation that large organisations have to.
Why is charity important?
I think doing charity is noble and that people should be aware of it. Times like Lei Feng's, when he could perform acts of kindness to hundreds of people without leaving his name, are gone. He became more meaningful as a role model when people learned about his stories from his diary, which was published only after his death. I like helping people and I like to tell stories about what I have done. I think what I am doing can inspire more people to help others. If we all act together, there will be far fewer cases of people not helping those who have met with accidents on the streets. If we all act together, we could save more lives and help others get a better life, too. That is what charity should do.