BERNARD VAN ZUIDEN stepped off a boat in Hong Kong in 1946, looked around and made a decision that was to change his life - and continues to change the lives of thousands of people today, 25 years after his death. The Dutchman was on his way back to Holland, having been interned in Shanghai during the second world war, when his boat docked for a stopover in Victoria Harbour. When it set sail some days later, he wasn't on board. According to his nephew, Peter van Zuiden, his uncle took one look at Hong Kong, fell in love with it, and made it his home until his death 33 years later. Today, Peter van Zuiden, 57, oversees his uncle's legacy: the multimillion-dollar Van Zuiden Charity Trust that helps charities and organisations throughout Hong Kong. Since making a donation to its first recipient (the Helping Hand charity for the elderly, in September 1984), it has gone on to donate millions of dollars to almost 40 organisations, including the Red Cross, the Hong Kong Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied Association (PHAB) and the China Coast Community - and all virtually unnoticed. This month, Van Zuiden was guest of honour at the opening of the Aileen Bridgewater Rock Garden at the Helping Hand's Cheung Muk Tau Holiday Centre for the Elderly in Sai Kung, designed by Peter Tsang Hon-man, a retired social worker with an interest in rock formations. The garden, funded by the trust and named after one of Helping Hand's founders, provides a peaceful environment for the elderly. Tsang travelled through China to gather rare and unique rocks for his creation. Pride of place goes to a dragon-shaped natural stalagmite he donated, having had it for more than 30 years. Even before its opening, elderly visitors could be seen walking through the garden and resting in the many shady seating areas it offers. Bridgewater says she asked the Van Zuiden trust for help with the respite centre because, 'I'd seen, in my own family and outside, elderly people with dementia treated with impatience, rudeness and downright cruelty. My hope is that this centre will act as a little pebble in a pond which will spread when other agencies come and learn from it.' Yvonne Tong Yuen-yee, an administrative officer at Helping Hand, says the trust had already helped fund two exercise rooms, complete with equipment and a nurses' station for one of their care and attention homes. It's believed the trust has contributed more than $2.7 million over the years to the charity. Van Zuiden, who visits Hong Kong twice a year to help administer the trust and distribute its funds, acknowledges the legacy of his uncle. 'I'm getting a lot of credit for what my uncle did,' he says. Bernard van Zuiden died in Hong Kong in 1979, just before his 80th birthday. Since making Hong Kong home - the Peninsula hotel in later years, no less - he set himself up importing cloth from Europe, a young Hari Harileila being among his customers. Peter van Zuiden, a management consultant now based in Amsterdam, spent part of his childhood in Hong Kong, when his father came out to join Bernard to set up what's now called the B. Van Zuiden Brothers company, no longer in the family's hands. He attended Kowloon Junior School before returning to Holland to complete secondary school and earn his degree in economics. He returned for a period in the 1970s only after he'd worked a few years as a merchant banker and knew he'd be an asset to the firm. Van Zuiden says he remembers his uncle, who remained unmarried, as a man who refused to lend money, but who would give it away. He was 'thrifty, a tremendous miser', Van Zuiden says. Upon his death, the bulk of his estate, boosted by canny stock market investments, was earmarked to form a charity trust he'd asked Van Zuiden to establish in conjunction with the Hong Kong Bank Trustee. The trust is run by managing director of the Hong Kong Bank Trustee and Van Zuiden. They have equal votes, and, if one of them is in doubt about a potential project, it's dropped. Van Zuiden admits it hasn't been easy. His uncle left no instructions about how to administer 'quite a nice fortune', except that the money should benefit Hong Kong's needy. Van Zuiden was left to experiment until he found a formula he was comfortable with. Over the years, he moved from handing out cash to recipients to paying for specific items. 'In the beginning, we gave fixed amounts because I wasn't well informed,' he says. 'The hands-on approach started because I felt that system wasn't working. I wanted to know why potential beneficiaries wanted the money, and to see what they'd do with it.' So, he began twice-yearly visits to Hong Kong to personally assess requests, discuss and approve projects, follow up on previous donations and open or hand over completed projects. Beneficiaries appreciate the effort, and an easy camaraderie has developed between them, with some referring to him as 'Peter the Great'. Van Zuiden admits that selections are based on his own preferences. He has helped physically and mentally handicapped children, such as those at the Hong Chi Association's Pinehill Village in Tai Po, by donating work-experience training equipment such as bar-code scanners and a supermarket cashier system. Nora Wong Pui-ha, general secretary of the Hong Chi Association and superintendent of Pinehill, describes Van Zuiden as more a friend than a donor. 'He actually comes all the way out to Pinehill to look and listen,' she says. 'He understands and helps me without my asking. What's best is the way he comes back later to see how you're doing.' Pauline Tong Fung-kwan, executive director of PHAB, says Van Zuiden's major donations to them over the past 20 years have been seven special vans to help transport the mentally and physically handicapped to and from their homes to attend programmes and classes, job interviews and training. The latest cost about $500,000. Dr Simon Leung Leung Man-on, principal and chief executive of the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired, says the trust's donations have transformed the way children at the school have been able to progress with their studies. He says a Braille display and electronic embosser have helped the school keep up with technological advances over the past 20 years. Van Zuiden says he loves the dynamics of Hong Kong: the excitement, the culture, the mix between west and east. But, more importantly, he loves being able to help some of its less fortunate residents. 'In a way, I feel like Santa Claus even though, in charitable trust terms, we're small,' he says. 'We don't grow so much because we give all our income away.' He is reluctant to talk figures, but says that, after 20 years, the trust has grown 500 per cent through good investment. And what of the family legacy? When this dynamo decides it's time to bow out, will it be passed to one of his three children? 'It won't be for a while yet, because I'm selfish,' he says. 'I enjoy what I'm doing. When the time comes, my son, Jorrit, who is a medical doctor, has already told me he will take over. But I've learnt a lesson from it all. If ever I want to give money to charity myself, I'll do it while I'm alive, not when I'm dead. The benefit is to see what people are getting, and what you've done with your money.'