One year ago, 74-year-old Chen Futang sold his villa in Canada where he had lived for 33 years and moved into an ordinary apartment. Last Friday, he brought all the money from the villa's sale to Beijing and donated it to the Soong Ching Ling Foundation to establish an education grant for poor college students.
"I have often received helping hands from unknown people in my life. Now it is time to pay back," said Chen.
Chen runs a clinic in Calgary in Canada, host of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.
Known for his great hospitality, Chen once received a Chinese table tennis delegation and acrobatic troupe into his home.
He often watches the international channel China Central Television and follows China's development and progress with keen interest.
Chen owns 11 acres of land where he built his villa and planted many trees. Having no children, he and his wife have discussed selling their home and donating the money from the sale to a charity organization since the 1990s.
In recent years, Chen has been seeking the target group to help. Finally, he selected poor Chinese college students, because he believes they have the largest potential to contribute to the society and help others in the future.
When the Soong Ching Ling Foundation suggested naming the scholarship after Chen according to the common practice, he refused and hoped to name it after Soong Ching Ling instead.
"Despite a few people, nobody among the 1.3 billion Chinese knows me. But Soong Ching Ling is a loud name and can be a role model for the students," he explained.
Chen was born in Myanmar in 1932. Coming from South China's Guangdong Province, his father went to Myanmar to do business. And in 1942, Chen had the most unforgettable year of his life.
One morning, when he was preparing to go to school as usual, his mother told him Japanese soldiers were coming and they had to escape.
That year, Japan's invading army waged a war against Myanmar. Panic-stricken, Chen's family hid in a small boat and floated on Inle Lake till night.
A monk in a village on the bank of the lake later found the family and the old man invited them to hide in the village for a while. From then on, Chen and his family settled down there.
Because of the war, the school in the village was closed down. Chen kept only a Chinese textbook with him. In his spare time, he would teach two Myanmar pals Chinese characters from the book. In exchange, they mentored Chen on how to move a boat with a single foot. After Japan surrendered in 1945, the family moved to another city in Myanmar and later settled down in Hong Kong.
Those years delayed Chen's golden time of seeking education.
"I know well the disturbing feeling of being unable to go to school. That is a primary reason why I have donated my money to aid those poor students to enjoy an equal learning opportunity," he said.
In Hong Kong, Chen spent more efforts to make up for the delayed courses. Later he managed to enter medical school. In 1967, Chen moved to Canada and became a physician in Calgary.
Building a home garden
Doctors in Canada do not all belong to the high-income group, according to Chen. As the government pays for the citizens' medical fees, it fixes the medical service price at a low level. Whether rich or poor, Chen has always lived a simple and thrifty life. This is how he saved considerable assets in his later years.
Three years after Chen and his wife came to Calgary, they spent all their savings to buy a piece of uncultivated land for about 50,000 Canada dollars (US$44,350 at current exchange rate).
Chen himself drew a blueprint for his villa and then subcontracted the construction to workers. In 1973, the couple moved into their new three-storey house. Chen made most of the furnishings in the house himself, such as floorboard, banisters and curtains.
Chen had a particular love for trees. In fact, in his home garden, trees are planted everywhere. Deciduous poplars and evergreen pines mixed together to form a beautiful scene all year.
Every spring, Chen and his wife would go out to see the dead twigs. As the trees grew taller, his wife had to drive a tractor to raise him in the air with a bucket in the front to reach the twigs. The cutting work would commonly take them three weeks to complete.
Maintaining his garden took up most of Chen's spare time. But he said that everyday he went back home from his clinic he felt joyful to roam in the woods.
His garden attracts many wild animals, such as deer, wolves, boars, rabbits and birds. As he was driving his tractor in the woods, some curious animals would follow him behind.
"I like the life close to nature," said Chen.
In 1999, Chen's wife died, causing him to fall into low spirits. When looking at the trees he and his wife grew together, he felt for the first time the plants were heartless because they could not share his sadness.
"It will not be a regrettable thing to sell the villa any more," he had thought in those days.
To escape the grief, Chen, that year, returned to the village, his family's wartime sanctuary in Myanmar. He found only one childhood playmate still living. From her, Chen got to know that the village was still very poor and there were no schools. To requite the villagers' loving-kindness more than half a century ago, he donated money to build a school out of his personal savings.
The Myanmar trip shaped his new outlook on life.
"I do not want to be rich until the moment I die. It feels better to see where your assets are going and who are benefiting from it," said Chen.
(China Daily April 30, 2006)