Life took an unexpected and ultimately more fulfilling turn for 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Chung To.  Work brought him from New York to the lucrative shores of Hong Kong where he eventually changed careers as one of the region’s staunchest AIDS advocate.  His Greatness of Spirit transformed him from a rising star in the finance world to one who has given light to thousands of AIDS orphans in China.

Chung To was only 28 years old when his investment bank in New York assigned him to Hong Kong to expand the Asia market. He was to be Associate Director of the Swiss investment bank in Hong Kong, not a bad career move for this business graduate of Columbia University with a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard. He was definitely a young star on the rise. Little did Chung To know that his return to Hong Kong, his birthplace, would actually steer him towards an entirely new and more fulfilling focus in life.

Chung To and his family migrated to the United States and settled in San Francisco in 1982 when he was 15 years old. It was a time when people were dying from a mysterious disease and San Francisco was one of the badly hit areas. Chung To recalls that the disease was in the front pages of newspapers almost everyday and that people referred to it as the “gay cancer” since most of the victims were gay.

He was deeply moved when his own high school math teacher died of the disease, identified later as AIDS. While still a student, he joined volunteer groups that raised funds for AIDS. He reportedly lost several friends to AIDS while working in New York.

In Hong Kong, Chung To found most of the homosexual community ignorant of AIDS. Though about a third of HIV/AIDS cases were gay men, unprotected sex among them was very common. He realized that the situation was not any better in rural areas in mainland China where people thought HIV and AIDS are inborn diseases.
Concerned that an AIDS epidemic similar to what he saw in San Francisco could hit the highly populated China, Chung To and some friends put up the Chi Heng (meaning wisdom in action) Foundation (CHF).

Volunteers of Chi Heng Foundation
Volunteers of Chi Heng Foundation

The CHF aimed at educating the Chinese on HIV and AIDS to protect high-risk groups including homosexuals and sex workers. It enlisted the help of brothel owners and volunteers to distribute condoms and safe sex kits in gay bars and clubs. It set up a helpline which delivered frank and factual information about HIV and AIDS; linked victims to doctors; offered counseling and legal advice. Eventually, it reached the gay community through internet. Its operations started in Hong Kong and later expanded to the mainland.

By 1999. Chung To divided his time between his job as Vice President of Credit Agricole Indosuez in Hong Kong and the CHF. On one of his visits to the villages in 2001, someone advised him to look into the AIDS situation in Central China where poor farmers had been selling their blood to earn extra money. They also contracted AIDS due to the unhygienic methods used in blood collection.

Chung To and CHF volunteers visited several villages in central China and found areas where, according to South China Morning Post, “young children have had to grow up too fast and take on the chores and responsibilities of adulthood. These are villages where a whole generation has been wiped out and children are looked after by their elderly, emotionally devastated grandparents.”

An entry in Chung To’s diary reads, “In one of the villages, out of tens of families almost every family had someone with AIDS. In dark and airless houses lay young but critically ill AIDS patients. They, who should be in their prime yet have to struggle with death daily, unable to care for their very young children, become old and ailing like a candle fluttering in the wind.” Noting that the AIDS victims were dying without medical attention, he wrote, “Admittedly death is frightening but dying with no dignity is even worse. Even though it was a hot summer day, one cannot but feel the chills.”

Chi Heng Foundation volunteers
Chi Heng Foundation volunteers

An equally serious aftermath of the AIDS epidemic in the villages were the thousands of orphans of AIDS, some of them HIV-positive. In 2004, Shanghai Daily cited a government report claiming over 60,000 AIDS-registered HIV carriers as of 2003 and noted that experts estimated the actual number to be about 840,000.

Chung To realized that the situation needed his full attention. He gave up his job at the bank and launched AIDS Orphans Project. “I figured that the world could do with one less banker, but these children, they couldn’t wait,” he said. He now devotes all his time to CHF. When he is not raising funds, he is in the villages attending directly to the needs of victims and the orphans.

The CHF operates in the villages throughout Central China, giving support to children who have lost at least one parent to AIDS or are living with an AIDS victim. The matter of how to take care of the children was carefully studied. Giving them up for adoption was not considered as CHF would not be able to find homes for thousands of orphans. Besides, it did not have the resources to monitor the quality of care being given each child. Putting up an orphanage and a special school for orphans was also not the answer as CHF had never managed a school. Besides, such a closed environment would limit the socialization of the orphans.

In the end, CHF chose to have the children live with grandparents or relatives within the same village and to attend the regular village schools. Such a scheme was thought best to minimize the orphans’ isolation.

Children of Chi Heng Foundation
Children of Chi Heng Foundation

The CHF pays for the education and living expenses of the children. Its largest aid project is in Shangcai County in Henan province where more than 3,000 children are given assistance. The Foundation has extended its assistance to the children in the provinces of Anhui and Shandong as well.

Chung To devised a procedure wherein the child’s parent or relative advanced payment for the school fees and then presented the receipt to the CHF for reimbursement. This system ensured that funds for a child’s education were not used for other purposes by the family. Chung To himself would go to the villages to distribute the scholarship funds. It is his way of interacting with the children and to look into their academic records. He would give additional funds to those who would be in the top ten of their class.

Aside from scholarships, CHF offers psychotherapy sessions to allow the children to express and eventually reconcile with their feelings on their experiences through drawings and essays. The South China Morning Post relates the story of a boy whom Chung To met during one of his village visits. He had lost his father to AIDS and his mother was now dying. With a clenched fist, the boy said, “I’ll kill this blood hand when I grow up,” referring to those who operated the blood bank to which poor farmers sold their blood.

Another CHF program is the Memory Book Project which encourages AIDS victims to put together their family tree, personal stories, practical and moral advice, photographs, letters, and other memorabilia for incorporation in the Memory Book. With the Memory Book, the AIDS orphans have a record of their personal history and intimate memories of their parents.

Chi Heng Foundation now operates in ten cities in China including Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. Its offices are manned by staff and volunteers like retired investment banker Brenda Li. Among its donors and partners are agencies of the United Nations, The Global Fund, Clinton Foundation, Home Affairs Bureau in Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong AIDS trust fund. Private individuals who believe in Chung To’s work have likewise committed themselves to the cause. In 2006, Patrick Poon and his wife Dora, helped raise HK$2 million for CHF. They hope to raise HJK$3 million this year.

Chung To with some AIDS orphans of Chi Heng Foundation
Chung To with some AIDS orphans of Chi Heng Foundation

Chung To is the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership for “his proactive and compassionate response to AIDS in China and to the needs of its most vulnerable victims.” This is the latest of the recognitions accorded the man who now lives on his savings. Among his other awards are: Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World, 2006 (Junior Chamber International); 50 Most Charismatic Persons in China, 2006 (People’s Weekly Magazine); Rotary Club Centennial Award for Professional Excellence, 2005 (Rotary International); AIDS in Hong Kong 20 Years: Ten Most Inspiring Persons, 2004 (Hong Kong Government Department of Health); and Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Hong Kong, 2003 (Junior Chamber of Hong Kong).

The Orphans Project started with 127 students; today, about 4,000 children are under its fold. Some of the orphans have completed university education and have joined Chung To on his visits to the villages. These graduates get further support from Chung To who helps them look for a job and arranges for their job training. As he lets go of some of the children, Chung To is reaching out to more in other provinces in China.

In an interview with Shanghai Daily, Chung To expresses no regret for giving up corporate life saying, “My former job can easily be filled by others but not my current one…Actually, I’m quite proud of what I have been doing—before, now, and in the future.”

This is one star over China whose light is as intense as ever.