Buddhist role model finds beauty in giving, not receiving

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2008, 12:00am

Thousands of Hongkongers have lost money during the financial meltdown - but former beauty queen and singing star Cally Kwong Mei-wan is not among them. She left the market last year when prices were climbing but had not peaked.

A devout Buddhist and philanthropist, Ms Kwong uses the principles of her religion to guide her through the treacherous shoals of the investment world.

'The Buddha tells us not to be too greedy. If you are, you will lose everything. This year, bankers invited me to buy Lehman Brothers bonds and accumulator stock contracts, but I refused. If it was so easy to make money, then it must be dangerous to invest. My rules are: only use spare money to buy shares, do not borrow or mortgage your house to raise money and do your main job wholeheartedly.'

From this spring, she sensed that Hong Kong had become hypnotised by the endless rise in the stock market.

'People did not want to work properly - cooks did not want to make food and waiters did not want to serve people. Everyone was waiting for their shares to go up. People forgot everything except money. It could not be like that: it meant that society was in trouble.'

Ms Kwong is an example of Hong Kong's growing number of philanthropists, at ease in talking of the material as well as spiritual side of being wealthy. More than just a pretty face, she has made a fortune through clever investment - and has given much of it away.

Born into a poor family, she grew up in a tiny apartment in Mong Kok. She was first runner-up in the Miss Hong Kong contest in 1982 and became a singer, popular in Taiwan and the mainland as well as here. She opened a jewellery shop in Central and has made a fortune from stocks and property. Since 2007, she has written an investment column for the East Week magazine.

In 2000, she became a Buddhist, joining the Fo Guang Shan (Mountain of Buddhist Light) of Master Hsing Yun, whose headquarters is near Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan.

Since then, she has funded the construction of 26 primary and secondary schools in China, most of them in poor areas of Jiangxi province, with a total enrolment of 30,000, and each year gives scholarships for 150 students at Nanchang University, Jiangxi. In 2007, she was chosen as a Jiangxi representative to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

'It is this giving which gives me the greatest happiness. I aim to reach 100 schools within a few years. I have no children, except my dog. I will continue this philanthropy until my last day, mainly for education and some for Buddhist organisations and old people.'

On December 2, Christie's in Hong Kong will auction 15 of her jewellery pieces, with the proceeds going to victims of the earthquake that devastated Sichuan and Gansu in May.

Her story of rags to riches and enlightenment has made her a role model for thousands of people. She grew up in a 320 sq ft apartment in Mong Kok with her father, an accountant, her mother and brother. Ms Kwong was only 11 when her mother contracted cancer.

'One day, when we were returning from Macau, my parents had a bitter argument over the fact mother had used our apartment as collateral to raise money. As I listened to them, I resolved never to borrow money nor use my home for this purpose.'

When she was 14, her mother passed away. 'Everyone said how pitiful I was. But I said that I am not pitiful. I was mature and resolved to overcome this. No one loves you all your life, except yourself. Everyone else will pass away. I was healthy and happy, and luckier than many others.'

Now she lives with her brother and his family and her white Bichon Frise dog named Cash, who is something of a celebrity himself.

In 1982, Ms Kwong entered the Miss Hong Kong contest, finishing as first runner-up, and that led to a career in singing. She made her first big money from a tour of mainland China in 1989: she was the first outside singer to perform there after the Tiananmen crackdown. She also performed in Taiwan and Singapore as well as Hong Kong.

She was married, briefly, but has been single since her divorce in 1997.

She took up jewellery studies and obtained a diploma in gemology. In 2000, she opened her own store, Cally Jewellery, in the Far East Finance Centre. She later moved the shop to the 32nd floor of Convention Plaza Apartments in Wan Chai.

'As a girl, I liked jewellery. It suits me. I realised that I needed a licence, to be convincing. So I studied and obtained the qualification. It is a good job for a woman, in which you must pay great attention to how people feel. There are many details to attend to - for example, some ears are large and some are small. The most important thing is to buy genuine goods and to be honest. Some people wear a ring their whole life and find it is fake - how hurtful!'

She has made a lot of money from property. 'I always buy at a low point in the market, such as during Sars. I sell high but not at the peak.' In 1998, she made HK$1 million from a 2,000 sq ft unit in the Lippo Centre: the price had plunged from HK$20,000 a sq ft in 1997 to HK$4,500 in 1998, when she bought it, before unloading it just 10 days later.

She got her first taste of being a volunteer as a child when she sang in old people's homes and orphanages. As an adult, she has supported children in China, and countries in Africa.

During the opening of a Buddhist temple in Hong Kong, in 2003, she accepted an invitation to visit schools in Jiangxi. There, she was shocked by their poor condition and gave money to rebuild them.

The 26 schools she has funded also include ones in Gansu and Anhui provinces, as well as in Zhengzhou , Chongqing and Shanghai. They bear the name of Fo Guang (Bright Buddha) and her own name, either Kwong Mei-wan or her Buddhist name, Ru Yue.

Her schools have been unscathed by the earthquakes which struck the areas. She has also paid for clothing, computers and basketball courts.

'When I visit the schools, the students thank me for what I have done. I tell them to follow my example and be a good person and give to society. That way the circle of goodness will expand,' she said.

Master Hsing Yun, a monk and scholar from the mainland who moved to Taiwan after the communist victory, established Fo Guang Shan in 1967. The order promotes 'humanistic Buddhism', aiming to bring the religion to the world and into the lives and hearts of people. Its headquarters, near Kaohsiung, is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan.

Since then, it has established temples and monasteries in 80 countries, with more than 3,500 monks. It runs universities, colleges, libraries, publishing houses, translation centres, art galleries, tea houses and medical clinics. It has about 4,000 members in Hong Kong.

Hsing Yun is the only major Buddhist monk in Taiwan who has been active in politics. He is an advocate of unification with the mainland. He was given a piece of land by the government in his native Jiangsu to build a temple complex.