Tycoon's villas turned into house of hope for cerebral palsy victims

Lu Shunling sold two luxury Shanghai homes inherited from shipping mogul father, and set up a centre for fellow cerebral palsy sufferers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 5:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 5:53am

Lu Shunling, 80, could have lived the twilight of her life cocooned in luxury, with two villas in the heart of Shanghai  that she inherited from her tycoon father, shipping magnate Lu Jiankang. But she decided to sell the homes 11 years ago and establish a charity institute for children with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder she has suffered since birth. She talks about her work at the Cere Care Wellness Centre For Children, and her discovery of a massage technique she says can lead to profound improvements in some children.

What help does your centre provide?

We use the conductive education approach, also known as the Peto  method, which is acknowledged worldwide as effective for children with cerebral palsy. Teachers use various resources including music to provoke children’s interest and willingness to join in the interaction. Most teachers here are college graduates who majored in rehabilitation. We also invite experts from the Spastics Association of Hong Kong every year to give us guidance. Teachers also perform massages on the children, under my instruction, as I invented this type of massage several decades ago. My own experience has proved it’s useful. It allowed me at age 34 for the first time to stand without help and even walk on the street. The children at our centre also receive some simple cognitive training. On weekends, we have volunteers who play with the children or teach them English or music. We have 32 children, aged from 18 months to about 14, and 50 teachers. The children are not sent home, because it’s not good for their rehabilitation. Instead, their parents visit once a week. After several months’ training, we assess whether a child can leave, and base the judgment on how independent they are, such as whether they can eat or walk by themselves and make simple communication.

What motivated you to establish the centre?

Before it was founded, I helped many children through my massage method. For families that found it inconvenient to get their children out of the home, I drove my pedicab to visit them and, of course, didn’t charge any of them. I remember one patient – she was 15 when I did my massage on her. Her parents adopted my method and kept up the massages. Ten years later, she lives life as an ordinary person, and I heard she became a mother not long ago. In the 1990s, I read a newspaper report about a man who abandoned his wife and his newborn daughter after the infant was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I was shocked and through the  paper got in touch with the young mother. Later, I helped with the rehabilitation of the infant. The incident spurred me to turn the garages of my two villas into a rehabilitation centre. My name was passed among parents  and many sent their children to my home to receive treatment. With the goal of helping more children, I sold my two houses on Anfu Road in Xuhui district for 10 million yuan (HK$12.5 million) and opened the current centre in 2003. My brothers and sisters supported the idea of selling the houses left behind by my father. 

How did you come up with the massage method?

I invented it by combining my own rehabilitation experience, knowledge about traditional Chinese medicine, and skills I learned from seven masters who specialised in either massage or qigong. The children at our centre are given the massage every other day and each session lasts 45 minutes. I don’t want to keep my method secret; on the contrary, I’d like to share it with as many people as possible, so that it can benefit more patients.

How has the disease affected your own life?

I got this problem because of asphyxia when I was born. I was too big and the delivery was not smooth. My father Lu Jiankang, a renowned shipping entrepreneur based in Shanghai during the 1940s, and my mother still loved me deeply. They hired maids to care  for me. Prior to 1949, my family, except myself and an aunt, moved to Hong Kong. Later, my father brought me to Hong Kong for treatment, but the Western medicine there obviously didn’t work on me. I returned to Shanghai and met my massage and qigong masters. Under their instruction, my condition improved gradually and finally I could stand and walk, although I can’t pronounce words clearly. I was among the first batch of students to enrol at Shanghai Radio and TV University [renamed Shanghai Open University] and my major was medicine. In the past I used a typing machine, rather than  writing by hand. Now I can’t type due to  old age, and I can’t stand or walk. When I need to move, I rely on a tall chair.

What difficulties have you encountered in running the centre?

We charge each child 4,800 yuan  per month. But among the 32 children staying with us, only five can pay the full tuition, with the rest being orphans or from poor families. Some parents don’t show up for months and so the fees go unpaid. My sister, nine years younger than me, is engaged in fundraising. I initially wanted to live low key and disliked media interviews. However, my staff persuaded me that media exposure could bring us funds and other resources. That’s why I have accepted a raft of interviews from local media over the past few years. The authorities and  private donors, including companies making donations or sending staff as volunteers, have all helped us and I  am grateful to them.

Do any children stand out in your mind?

I am most impressed with two. One is nicknamed Yang Yang, and has been staying here for a decade. When he was sent to our centre, he was two years old. His arms and feet didn’t respond when touched and he couldn’t swallow. Now his limbs respond to stimulation and he can swallow and make expressions on his face, although he can’t stand yet. Unfortunately his parents have divorced, and each has remarried. As a result, he is seldom visited by his parents and that will affect him emotionally. The other child is Liang Liang, and his progress is encouraging. After receiving therapy at our centre, he can function like anyone else and is studying at a university in Shanghai. His mother has learned my massage method and has worked with us for several years.

Have you ever regretted the decision to sell the houses?

Not at all.  Any effort to help the children is worthwhile, and I should contribute whatever I have to this cause. I hope what I do benefits more people.

What’s your plan for the future?

I am considering opening a technical school for children suffering from cerebral palsy, so that when they grow up they have the skills to make a living. We are still preparing the project and haven’t filed an application.