LAST SUNDAY AT a Yau Ma Tei wet market, an unemployed woman paid $1,500 for two packets of noodles and a lettuce. Another spent $500 on several bunches of vegetables. Throughout the day, a female stall holder, whose goods were donated by various vegetable wholesalers, kept calling out: 'Have money, give money: have strength, give strength.' The money collected from the day was given to Red Cross to aid victims of the Asian tsunami. The weekend before, local singers performed two different concerts and raised $52 million. On Tuesday, several movie stars, among them Cecilia Cheung Pak-chee and Dicky Cheung Wai-kin, rushed to Indonesia to offer their support to people who lost their homes and families. Today, more than 100 celebrities - including some of Canto-pop's biggest names - will take part in the seven-hour Crossing Borders Fund-raising Show at the Hong Kong Stadium in Happy Valley, to raise even more. Every day, people stream into Jockey Club branches across Hong Kong to give money. Donations are also coming in to relief funds set up by local newspapers. Schools, convenience stores, shops, bars, clubs and restaurants have all handed over boxes full of cash. The government has given $17.5 million from its Disaster Relief Fund for international charities and helped various fund-raising activities. Private companies have drawn donations from staff members. Donors include the rich and the poor - from Asia's wealthiest man, Li Ka-shing, who gave $24 million, to security guard Hui Wan Lam who donated $20. 'I am not wealthy, but my living conditions are much better than those who have applied for social security,' Hui says. 'I just try my best to help them [the tsunami victims].' As of yesterday, worldwide donations amounted to US$4 billion, with Australia ranking the top donor with a contribution of US$764 million, followed by Germany with US$664 million, Japan with US$500 million and the US with US$350 million. Hong Kong's 6.8 million people had donated more than $450 million (or $67 for every citizen). The local donations include $243 million to the Red Cross, $48 million to Unicef, $96 million to World Vision, $40 million to Oxfam, $17 million to Medecins Sans Frontieres and $11 million to the Salvation Army. The warmth and generosity shown by the Hong Kong people has surprised many international fund-raising organisations. 'It is unprecedented that we could raise so much money in one week, and donations are still coming in,' says Chong Chan-yau, executive director of Oxfam Hong Kong. 'Many places are very fast [in donating], but I believe that, if counted on population base, Hong Kong's donation per capita is one of the top in the world. Hong Kong people have shown they are part of the world village.' It's not the first time this has happened. After flooding on the mainland in the 1990s, Hong Kong people donated millions of dollars to help affected regions. And their enthusiasm and determination to help others in crisis was praised by the UN Development Programme in 2003, when 6,000 people responded in several days to an appeal by the Agency for Volunteer Service (AVS) for helpers during the Sars outbreak, some taking on such high-risk jobs as transporting medicine from hospitals to house-bound patients and cleaning homes for the elderly. You can also see an army of volunteers on street corners every weekend helping raise money for the needy. And their ranks are swelling. According to the AVS, the number of volunteers registered with it has been growing rapidly in recent years, jumping from 4,746 in 1996 to 19,625 last year. 'Some academics say Hong Kong people have a double character,' says Flora Chung Woon-fan, the agency's chief executive officer. 'They rarely do things that aren't in their own interests and are generally mean with money. But, on the other hand, whenever there's a disaster or crisis, Hong Kong people show a strong passion to help. Academics still have no answer to why they're like this.' Some psychologists suggest that Hong Kong people have turned out in force to help tsunami victims as a way of relieving their worries about the recent economic downturn: that they're seeking happiness by helping others. 'Research on negative state relief psychology suggests that people help others to feel happy and reduce their own unhappiness,' says social psychologist Winton Au Wing-tung, associate professor at the department of psychology of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 'When people help those who are vulnerable, they feel they themselves are capable.' Au says that the psychology of empathy - which suggests that people feel happy if others feel happy - also helps explain the willingness of locals to dig deep. Other forces at play, he says, include peer pressure, the urge to compete with other countries in donations as a matter of national pride, and an element of pack mentality. Sociologist Chan Kin-man of the Chinese University of Hong Kong says this giving culture is rooted in the fact that this is a refugee city. The million or more refugees who sought asylum in Hong Kong since the end of the Pacific war had no money and had to rely on each other to find work and a place to live. Charities that rose up in the 1940s handed milk powder to the poor and set up roof-top schools for uneducated children - all of which helped create this culture of giving. With the development of social welfare in the late 70s and early 80s, and Hong Kong becoming more urbanised, scenes of people helping each other became less frequent, as many became more selfish, money-oriented and materialistic. But the tsunami has rekindled the city's giving spirit. 'I felt so much pain when I read the heartbreaking reports and saw the pictures that I could no longer look at them,' says housewife Ma Man-wah, 60. Like many of her friends, she donated $50 to help out. 'I haven't taken part in any charities before, but this time I felt in my heart that I must do something.' The extent of the catastrophe isn't the only thing that has triggered locals such as Ma to help, says Chan Kai-ming, secretary-general of Red Cross Hong Kong. He says the fact that many people have spent vacations across the region means they have an emotional attachment to those affected. And, of course, there is the fact that Hong Kong has lost many of its own in the tragedy. Apart from the emotional factors involved, Chan says higher efficiency in how fund-raising organisations set up hotlines, bank accounts and money boxes immediately after disasters has helped speed up the cash flow. 'In early 1990s, when there was flooding in China, organisations reacted slowly and came out only a week later to raise funds, and got $140 million in two to three months. 'But now, with more experience, we all reacted quickly and started raising funds immediately after the incident,' Chan says. Media coverage also has an impact on how people respond, according to Oxfam's Chong Chan-yau. That explains why few locals respond to ongoing problems that attract less intensive media attention, such as world hunger or the spread of Aids. Chan of the Red Cross sees the same pattern, saying that blanket media coverage has been the trigger for the massive local response. There's no doubt that the event has had an enormous impact. Comparing herself with disaster victims, the housewife says she realised just how good life in Hong Kong is, even though her family's income fell because of the economic downturn. New migrant mother Ah Zhen says the disaster has taught her to remain positive. 'I often complained about the difficulties I had adjusting myself to the new environment before, but now I have learnt to treasure what I have,' she says. International fund-raisers and academics agree that the disaster has changed Hong Kong people for the better and further strengthened the 'culture of giving'. Chong suggests the government establish policies on disaster prevention and relief. The incident could increase Hong Kong people's sense of global responsibility. 'I expect Hong Kong people will learn more about the role we have to play as an Asian world city, to know that our relationship to others is not only of trade, finance and tourism matters, but of a truly global responsibility,' he says.