Gobi March ultramarathon ignites running passion in Hong Kong lawyer turned philanthropist Agnes Cheng
Volunteering at gruelling desert race in China inspired Cheng to hit the trails. The running enthusiast now mentors young people and helps them explore the sport’s benefits
Former commercial lawyer, successful career woman and innovative philanthropist Agnes Cheng is also a runner. Her motivation is not to stand on the podium or set a personal best, though. “I find inspiration through the people I meet when I run. It makes me better and makes me want to make the world around me better,” Cheng says.
The 42-year-old is the head of the Esquel-Y.L. Yang Education Foundation, and one of its projects in Xinjiang, China, first brought her into contact with the sport. “It all started with a race called The Gobi March in 2012,” she says, referring to a 250km, seven-day stage race. “Our foundation works with children in the area, and I volunteered at this race for a new, fun experience,” she says.
“During the race, I discovered not only running. I also discovered why people run. I met inspirational people, and this Chenged how my life panned out.”
Cheng now weaves a career, social and philanthropic initiatives, and a great deal of racing into her schedule. She says running is the thread that stitches all her efforts together.
You are always out on the trails running, even in the summer heat and humidity. What race are you training for?
The CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix 101km trail race in France and Switzerland) on September 1. Last year I did not finish. Stone Tsang, with whom I work on the programme to keep Hong Kong trails free of concrete, helped me draft a plan for my training. Now, for the first time, I am training properly. I am even doing hill repeats. Also, I will be doing the 4 Deserts series Atacama 250km stage race in Chile this October.
I understand you have already participated in three of the 4 Desert series races (week-long races of around 250km held in the different deserts)?
Actually, I walked these three races, but now I want to complete them running. In 2012, I met Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson who lives on Lamma Island. He was 72 and he finished the Gobi March race. That’s more than 200 kilometres, running – at 72. This was very cool, and also very inspirational.
So, no more walking at races?
No more walking. In Atacama it gets so hot, you don’t want to be walking, you want to get out of the sun as fast as you can.
Did you run before Gobi March 2012?
You were a successful commercial lawyer. Why did you switch to philanthropy?
I was working on a WTO (World Trade Organisation) trade-capacity-building project and this experience made me switch to Esquel (textile manufacturer) to head the Esquel-Y.L. Yang Education Foundation. We build schools, provide scholarships, introduce new learning tools, and also provide free eye screening and glasses to underprivileged rural children. We work in rural China, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
You are also involved with young offender rehabilitation in Hong Kong. How is running part of that?
In my spare time, I volunteer at the Christian Zheng Sheng Association, a rehabilitation school for young offenders. I first met the school principal, Alman Chan, and a student, Chris Tang, at a race in Jordan.
What do you do at the school?
I act as a mentor. I try to motivate the students to achieve, and one way to do that is to take them running. I brought Stone Tsang along to talk to them and train them. The students had seen documentaries about him. He is a world-class trail runner and a hero in Hong Kong, so there was no better person to bring in to motivate and inspire.
I also took two graduates, Macy Wong and Edwin Lee, to the 2015 Gobi March, and they completed the race. This was the third consecutive year that the Esquel Foundation sponsored the school graduates to do the Gobi March Race.
Is this effective, taking young people to do these extreme races? What does it achieve?
I understand that people can have doubts about the practical value of this. This cannot be a mass programme. As a mentor, you only have the capacity to help individual people to effectively Chenge their lives. I know that the young people that took part in these races, we did get through to them. They have found a deeper sense of purpose. Also, now they are all far better runners than I am.
You have also set up a social enterprise called Sew Much Talent. How does it work?
We have a unique heritage in textile manufacturing here in Hong Kong, but it is disappearing. Factories have moved to China and highly skilled sewing workers have had to move to low-income, unskilled jobs.
In 2011, when Esquel closed down the last Hong Kong factory, I knew that this meant the end for the skills and the craft of the sewing ladies that I got to know in Tuen Mun. So I set up Sew Much Talent – a platform for these displaced sewing professionals to keep their trade and livelihood alive.
What did you do for them?
Sew Much Talent basically gives them sewing work. Think about it: they are professionals, who are now stuck in manual labour. They just … shine when they get a chance to do their real work. It makes them happy. Also, being able to bring in 20 per cent extra income doing what they love, this is a good thing.
In the past couple of years, we also started working with younger sewing ladies based in Sham Shui Po. Many have young kids and extra income is vital for them. The social enterprise is about to launch a children’s wear label working with these sewing ladies, using fabric samples companies dispose of.
What is the campaign you are involved in with trail runner Stone Tsang?
We campaign against the excessive use of concrete on trails in Hong Kong. Last year, Stone and some other running friends formed a Concern Group on Concretization of Hong Kong Natural Trails. We now have 6,000 followers on Facebook and we have persuaded the government to modify and even stop several concrete projects.
It seems running has a role in everything you do.
This is true. Running makes things happen.