Saturday 30 June 2012

Factory janitor among Taiwan's big givers

Doing good is a way of life for many, even the poor
By Lee Seok Hwai, The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2012

Mr Chao Wen-cheng (fourth from left)
TAIPEI - A vegetable seller donated NT$10 million to children's charities. A factory janitor gave away NT$4 million over 30 years despite having to raise five children. A veteran soldier, 82, gave his life savings of NT$6 million to other veterans.

Such stories of extraordinary generosity from the underclass of Taiwanese society have emerged in recent years, drawing international attention and making waves on the island.

The latest is that of Mr Chao Wen-cheng, 68. The factory cleaner from Taichung, central Taiwan, earns a mere NT$15,000 (S$645) a month, and collects scrap for recycling to supplement his income. Yet, he has donated NT$4.05 million (S$174,000) to orphanages and other charities since 1979.

For his acts of kindness, Mr Chao was named by US magazine Forbes last week as one of its 48 'heroes of philanthropy' from Asia this year, alongside such big-name philanthropists as Evergreen Group founder Chang Yung-fa, Chimei Group founder Shi Wen-long and restaurateur Steve Day, all of whom have donated billions of dollars to charitable causes or foundations.

'I've been through hardship and never completed my studies,' Mr Chao told Taiwanese reporters, who flocked to interview him at his spartan home after the Forbes citation.

'As long as I see children fed well, have clothes on their backs, are healthy and studying well, I'm happy.'

Mr Chao's generosity is matched by that of Mr Hung Chung-hai, an 82-year-old military veteran who donated his life savings of NT$6 million to the Cabinet-level Veterans Affairs Commission in 2010.

Mr Hung, who never married and now lives in a nursing home in the eastern county of Hualien, said that he wanted to help veterans' families living in poverty.

A nurse at the home told reporters that Mr Hung lives frugally. 'He would use a towel until it disintegrates,' she said.

Then there is Ms Chen Shu-chu, a vegetable seller in the south-eastern county of Taitung.

Like Mr Chao, she grew up in poverty and had to drop out of school. And like Mr Chao, she has donated millions - NT$10 million as of 2010 - to charity while earning a modest income and living a threadbare existence herself.

Mr Hung and Ms Chen have been honoured by Forbes and Time magazine as notable charity-givers too.

Beyond such headline-making acts, there are frequent reports of ordinary Taiwanese going out of their way to help others.

Earlier this week, for example, five-year-old Soong Hsin-ni was one of those honoured at a press conference by the Taoyuan county government for donating NT$200,000 - from years of saving up money from her Chinese New Year hongbao - to schoolchildren whose parents are too poor to give them pocket money.

The Taiwanese have displayed similar generosity to the less well-off beyond their shores: In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster last year, Taiwanese donated US$260 million (S$335 million) to the victims, more than anyone else in the world.

Commenting on the Taiwanese reputation for charity, President Ma Ying-jeou said that humanitarianism has become a part of Taiwan's international image.

'We have more than 40,000 non-profit organisations, up to a million volunteers providing services at home and overseas... and our people donate over NT$35 billion to charity each year,' he said in his speech at the centennial celebration of the founding of the Republic of China, Taiwan's official name, on Oct 10 last year.

Sociologist Peng Huai-chen sees the widespread altruism as the product of historical immigration and reliance on oneself instead of the government.

'Taiwan is an immigrant society. So, unlike in traditional agrarian societies where family and social networks are relatively stable, people here have learnt to be nice to those beyond their immediate circles,' said Associate Professor Peng of Tunghai University in Taichung.

'Moreover, whereas in Singapore where the people tend to expect the government to take care of the less fortunate, in Taiwan the government is less highly regarded, so many Taiwanese feel that they can rely only on themselves.'

For people like Mr Chao and Ms Chen, who give disproportionately more, charity has become the meaning of life, said Prof Peng.

As Mr Chao, who has won himself the moniker 'Glory of Taiwan', said: 'I will never retire from my job, or from helping people in need.'

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