It has been 15 years since former investment banker Chung To set up the Chi Heng Foundation.
Since then 16,000 children from central China whose lives have been adversely affected by HIV/Aids have had the chance of an education. The foundation currently supports 9,000 of them.
It’s quite a legacy, and one that Chung, 46, continues with quiet dedication. He perhaps could have been a rich banker, but as he watches these thousands of children grow into young adults with opportunities they would never otherwise have had, it makes him optimistic.
“You don’t have to have a lot of money to be content,” says Chung, “especially when you see so many villagers in rural areas who are happy and content in themselves. It’s not about material wealth.”
Chung spent his childhood in Hong Kong before attending high school in San Francisco, where his first experience of Aids was when his high school teacher died. He spent eight years as an investment banker in New York during the 1990s and watched several friends die.
When he returned to Hong Kong he saw the work of Aids campaigner Dr Gao Yaojie on the mainland, which inspired him to set up the foundation. Gao now lives in exile in New York.
Thousands of children in central China have been affected by the Aids epidemic, which rampaged through rural communities as a result of impoverished farmers selling their blood to unscrupulous agents for government-funded blood banks in the 1990s.
So the farmers could donate more regularly, the plasma needed for transfusions was removed and the blood – put into a communal vat – was injected back into the farmers.
Now, in villages throughout Henan and Anhui provinces, an entire generation of parents has been affected, many of them dying.
Children have been brought up by devastated grandparents. While most of the children were not infected, some were.
“We now have 530 HIV-positive children,” says Chung, who has been the recipient of both local and international awards for his work.
“Most of them got the virus through mother-to-child transmission. Ten years ago I quite frankly thought many would die. Some have now turned 18 and are getting married. They met through our matchmaking programme. Many met their partners at summer camps.
“As well as education we also provide psycho-social support in the form of summer camps, art therapy and home visits,” says Chung, who spends his time on the mainland visiting the Aids-impacted villages that the foundation helps in Anhui and Henan, as well as the foundation’s offices.
Chung promised his mother after setting up Chi Heng that he would return to work within six years. He tried for two years “but my health deteriorated. I was doing two full-time jobs, so I’d go to bed at 4am and be back up at 8am.”
His mother frets that Chung is not saving for his retirement. But despite the stress of his work, there is nothing he would rather be doing.
These days far fewer people are dying from illnesses brought on by Aids. But the situation is still complex.
“Many people are being denied operations as soon as they are diagnosed as being HIV-positive,” he says.
“I don’t think it is the intention of the central government, but when you go to the local level there is a denial of services, certainly a denial of education. We have kids going to college who are locked out of the school or have to live outside the dormitory. Now you don’t necessarily die but there is a stigma that needs to be broken.”
Chung has witnessed a troubling phenomenon n the villages. “They are ending up like ghettos in the United States, consisting of old people and people with HIV,” he says. “The kids have left. The crime rate is going up. There’s petty crime and drug taking.”
So Chung and his team are setting up social enterprises.
“We’ve been setting up small manufacturing workshops with sewing machines built in the middle of the village so that women don’t have to come far. They make laundry bags for Marriot and Accor hotels.
“We only hire women because men can find work elsewhere. The women might not be bedridden but they can’t do intensive labour in the fields. Now they feel they are not useless people waiting to die but can earn an income for the family.”
Chi Heng also runs a micro-finance programme and Shanghai Young Bakers – supported by Accor – where students learn baking. After the internship, some go on to work at the Peninsula, Waldorf Astoria or Grand Hyatt hotels.
About 700 graduates who were supported by Chi Heng “work in society” as Chung puts it. “I don’t’ want them to be recipients. I want to empower them to help others as well”. So many went to help the children who lost parents in the Sichuan earthquake, providing comfort and empathy.
Chung believes that those helped by his foundation should help others.
“I tell them one day when you are in a better position, you should pay it forward.”