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The Globe and Mail

Why billionaire Li Ka Shing thinks of his charity as a 'third son'

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, chairman of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd, looks on during a news conference after an annual general meeting in Hong Kong Thursday, May 18, 2006.

Kin Cheung/AP/Kin Cheung/AP

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Li Ka Shing, 83, the chairman of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and the world's 11th-richest person, according to Forbes, visited St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto this month to tour a new research and education building, the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, to which he contributed $25-million. During the stop, he spoke to Mihnea Moldoveanu, the associate dean of MBA programs at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

MM: Can we reflect a bit on the idea behind the Li Ka Shing Foundation? You have referred to it in the past as your 'third son'

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LKS: It is one of the ideas I am most proud of. Maybe even the idea I am most proud of. I had made donations before [the Foundation was set up in 1980]and giving had been part of my life ever since my companies had achieved enduring success. But, I was worked over by thoughts about what would happen if times would turn bad and cash would be tight and scarce, and by the fact that without a system and an independent entity that implements it, this philanthropic work could not develop and grow on its own. Running a business is difficult work and takes a lot of time and attention, and there are additionally many temptations which could lead one away from the hard work that philanthropy requires. Then, early in the morning, I had the thought of creating the Foundation and thinking about it as a 'third son,' an independent, autonomous entity that would pursue its mission, stay true to its course and have the resources to do so.

MM: The 'third son' metaphor is particularly suggestive for Asian cultures – educational, even.

LKS: That is true. In fact, I refer to the Foundation as a 'him' in some of my messages, to reinforce the imagery of personhood. It is a powerful metaphor in a culture where wealth is passed predominantly along family lines. Thinking about an instrument for doing social good as a child – as your child, in particular – focuses you as the giver on building an entity that is robust, one that has inner strength.

MM: It is relevant that the over-arching goal of the Foundation is 'to promote a culture of giving' for which the Foundation itself is a paradigm example.

LKS: This is true. There is an example in the act of setting it up, especially in a culture in which these organizations are unusual. But, the Foundation tries to develop and nurture a culture of giving within its projects as well. For example, we have built and are supporting hospices for terminally ill cancer patients in China. To date, we have built 42 hospices that care for 20,000 terminally ill patients every year, enabling them to spend their last days in comfort and dignity.

MM: I sense a strong commitment, a bias, even, towards projects – such as the hospice for the terminally ill and the surgical cleft lip and palate repair centres that address, and redress slights to human dignity. Would you agree?

LKS: I do feel a special commitment to helping people lead their lives in dignity. As is often the case, it relates to a personal experience. I was 15, and my father had passed away a year earlier. A relative whose circumstances were even direr than mine and who was having a very difficult time making a living in Hong Kong said that she needed to bring her children back to Chaozhou. I gave her enough money for food for her whole family during their long boat journey back to mainland. This was a heavy burden for me at the time, as I was poor, and had to work hard to support my own family. But she had no one to turn to except me.

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On the day that they were to depart on the ship, she came to me, crying. She said that all the food they had prepared for the six-day journey had been stolen. I had no other resources. But I felt compelled to help her. So, I took the clothes that my father had left behind and pawned them for cash. It was my first and only time in a pawn shop. I took the cash, bought food, and returned to the pier only to see that their ship had just raised the first sail to set off. I hired a sampan to go after them, but a sampan is no match for a sailboat in terms of speed, and we fell farther and farther behind. But, I noticed that everyone on their ship had gathered on one side, waving to me and yelling something I could not understand. I was too far away to hear what they were saying.

The ship finally raised all three sails and gained greater speed. We went after them for over an hour to no avail. Finally we had to give up and turn back. I was certain I had disappointed my relative and I felt heavyhearted. Later, I received a letter from her. She had returned to her home village. She said that my attempt that day to catch up to them to give them food had touched the captain and all the passengers. They all shared their own food with her family. My attempt had gained her their respect. The passengers on the boat were shouting at me to go back because they wanted to let me know that they would themselves take care of my relative and her children. They took care of her, because they saw that she was cared for by someone else. This episode will always stay with me. It shows how care can restore and even create dignity, which, once created, begets more care.

MM: Is there a similar experience that guided your gaze towards caring for the terminally ill cancer patients and the creation of the hospice system?

LKS: There is. In 1997, a good friend of mine was, as it turned out, in the last stages of his struggle with cancer. He was wealthy, and he could afford the best health care. He was interned at one of the best hospitals in Hong Kong. But he was still in horrible pain, after surgery and chemotherapy. The pain was unbearable. He was alone with this pain, in spite of all the support he had received. On the last day on which I saw him, he took my hand at the end, and he would not let it go. Afterwards, I thought: "If someone of means and benefitting from all this support suffers like this, then how is it for those that have no means at all? How is it for those who cannot afford any care?" That is when the idea of the project came to me. And now it is alive.

MM: Is the Foundation's commitment to supporting educational projects also connected to your concern for furthering human dignity?

LKS: I think it is. While my father was ill with tuberculosis, I remember buying a book on the disease and reading from it, to understand more. I was for a while terrified that I had myself contracted the disease, as the symptoms the book was describing were similar to what I was experiencing. I did not become ill, but I kept reading. Not being able to attend school regularly, I kept going back to an old book shop, trading in the latest book I had and a bit of extra money for a 'new' used book.

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I worked hard to build my own knowledge system. I remember that as a young manager, I came home after long work days and took private language lessons from 10 to 11 p.m., then studied hard for hours afterwards. This willingness to learn something new served me well in my job – I was promoted because I had skills. I formed a belief that knowledge and the learning that comes with it can change a person's destiny. It can make him or her autonomous and robust – these skills will be useful to others in many contexts.

MM: Your vantage point as the builder of the two Foundations, one in Canada and one in Hong Kong, is unique in that it gives you a vista on the particular points of confluence and divergence of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, of East and West. Are there particular points of tension or opportunities for dialogue and collaboration that you perceive from this lookout?

LKS: The main areas of focus of the activities of the two foundations – education and health care – are meant to span and bridge differences. Knowledge and education can change a young person's destiny, health care promotes and restores human dignity, and medical research makes possible the new and better forms of care. There are differences, yes, but perhaps not conflicts.

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