Hong Kongers' largesse

(Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2006-12-22 10:51

Hong Kong - When Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan announced he would leave half his fortune to his charity for helping young people, the news created barely a ripple in his home city.

The kungfu star named this year in Forbes magazine's list of 10 most generous celebrities - took his cue from US billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who have pledged large legacies to charity.

Chan's estimated wealth of US$128 million hardly puts him in the billionaire league, but his largesse is typical in Hong Kong.

The city's residents are also among the world's most generous donors to charity, a trend that is accelerating.

"We've seen a huge increase in donating in Hong Kong in the past five years," said Terry Farris, the Asian head of philanthropy services at investment bank UBS.

In Hong Kong, letters requesting donations from the general community yield an average cash gift of US$60 compared with US$10 in the United States and US$5 in Britain, Farris said.

Ahead of Christmas, the charity gala season is in full swing.

At a fund-raising dinner hosted by the Changing Young Lives Foundation at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel, the silver and red decorations on Christmas trees atop tables in the ballroom are as lavish as the designer dresses adorned by many of the guests.

The event brings out the region's glitterati, who preen for photographers from Hong Kong Tatler magazine.

Generous donations

But fund-raising at the dinner was not confined to the rich and famous.Sandra Yu, a 30-something marketing executive with a finance company, is also there with a few co-workers.

She might not make it into Tatler - or have Jackie Chan's sort of money to give away - but she has been donating HK$200 (US$25) a month to World Vision, which aids people in poor countries, for the past three years.

"I feel it's a tiny amount, but it's a lot to those people," she said. "In Hong Kong we are very lucky. We live well and we seldom have any disasters like earthquakes or flooding, so it's good to help people who suffer."

Charitable donations by Hong Kong companies surged 83 per cent between 2000 and 2004 to HK$1.28 billion (US$164 million), while donations by individuals jumped 56 per cent to HK$2.89 billion, according to latest data from the Inland Revenue.

Donations by registered charitable funds are not disclosed.

Charity-giving is expected to increase in Hong Kong, analysts say,explaining that the abolition of estate duty this year is likely to boost legacies to charities.

They say charities are also gaining support from a younger generation that is travelling, witnessing first-hand the huge gap in living standards between Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.

A new generation of businessmen is behind the recent surge in donations,said Farris.

"In the past few years we've seen a new breed of givers, the social entrepreneurs who would want to be more engaged," he said.

"Typically they are aged between 40 and 55. Unlike previous generations of entrepreneurs, they've been to business school and are taking a businesslike approach.

They are saying, `How can my gift make the greatest difference?'" The region's economic rebound in the past few years and the Asian tsunami in December 2004 have been catalysts for higher donations to charity,analysts say. Hong Kong was the biggest fundraiser for tsunami relief after Australia.

At a cocktail party in the region to raise funds for San Francisco-based literacy charity Room to Read, founder John Wood showed photographs of smiling children at Room to Read schools in Nepal. Whipping up the crowd, he raises US$75,000 in 10 minutes.

"Anywhere else, it would take weeks," he said.

Truffles for charity

Hong Kong's commitment to charity is at odds with its laissez-faire economic policy that encourages self-reliance.

Young people are digging deep because there is no volunteer organization like the Peace Corps.

That suits Wood: volunteer work often ends up costing more than it saves,
he said.

"Hong Kong is a culture of performance and results," he said. "People want to know that if they give, they can see a direct result."

Hong Kong's richest man, Li Kashing,who has funded research at Cambridge University in England as well as the University of California, recently vowed to leave at least a third of his estimated US$19 billion fortune to his charitable foundation.

Much of the region's fundraising is discreet, although Sir Gordon Wu,chairman of the infrastructure group Hopewell Holdings, made headlines last month when he paid a record US$160,000 for a 1.5-kg (3.3 lb) Alba white truffle.

Outbidding connoisseurs from Italy and France for the delicacy even though he doesn't even like truffles, Wu said the money would go to a charity that supports adoptions for unwanted babies.

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