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Rich in Kindness

Pubdate:2012-05-21

Businesswoman Chan Laiwa was voted one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2012.  

 

Billionaire behind major philanthropic projects says there's always more to do.

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Chan Laiwa, also known as Chen Lihua, is no stranger to lists of the world's richest people, from Forbes to Hurun. But the self-made billionaire finds there is "so much" beyond wealth.

"While wealth does come through our hard work and efforts, it is not the ultimate goal and is not above everything," Chan, 71, says in her Manhattan hotel room the day before she was honored at an April gala as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People for 2012.

Such sentiments might seem standard from any rich person concerned with public image, but Chan in person - sincere, humble and thoughtful - makes people around her feel at ease.

She impresses most with her passion for art, particularly of sandalwood, a medium she has loved since she was a girl. Born into a family of Manchu, the ethnic group that led China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), Chan spent most of her childhood in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

She is a descendant of a noble Manchu family of the Yellow Banner Clan, some members of which were ministers of state under the Qing emperor.

Chan's childhood home was furnished with red sandalwood, a material used in the emperor's palace in bygone times.

"As I grew older, I felt the need to preserve this important part of Chinese culture," recalls Chan, who opened a furniture factory in the 1980s and began making old-style pieces modeled after those from Beijing's Palace Museum, more widely known as the Forbidden City.

In 1999, Chan fulfilled a childhood dream by investing in a $16 million red sandalwood museum in the capital. The thousands of treasures displayed there include a scale model of a corner tower in the Forbidden City, a reproduction of the memorial gateway carved with 320 dragons from Longquan Temple in Shanxi province, and a number of intricate furniture pieces and sculptures.

She made her fortune in the 1990s through a series of real estate ventures involving her Fu Wah International Group, the Hong Kong company fashioned out of Chan's furniture store. The businesswoman later moved to Beijing for more opportunities.

Chan was recently voted among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2012.

The list, now in its ninth year, also includes US President Barack Obama, Chinese-American basketball player Jeremy Lin and British singer Adele - people who are "influential, not just powerful", as a Time editor explained.

"It came as a surprise," Chan says. "I never expected this honor. But I see this as an encouragement, which gives me a bigger responsibility to serve society better and more."

Time's international editor, Jim Frederick, says this year's list has 54 non-Americans from 37 countries and was the first time foreign nationals outnumbered US ones.

People such as Chan from China represent "some really important global trends" in the list, says Frederick, adding that most international candidates are recommended by Time correspondents, with final results determined through online voting.

Chan's inclusion on the list was questioned by some bloggers in China, who wondered why she had been chosen and speculated that her wealth was the reason.

"Madam Chan is representative of a number of broad geopolitical, economic and social trends," Frederick says. "It's undeniable that China is a rising economic and cultural power. She is a female entrepreneur and very active in the arts and culture."

Paula Wallace, co-founder and president of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, who has known Chan for 17 years, regards her as "a global influence for art".

"She has reached the pinnacle. But she will always be striving to do more for people, do more for the world. This recognition by the Time 100 has even encouraged her more," Wallace says. "She is not just thinking about today. She is not thinking about what she has accomplished. She is thinking about the future, and future generations. That makes her stand out."

Forbes estimated Chan's personal and family wealth at $2.3 billion as of March. Her company, Fu Wah, is one of Beijing's biggest property developers and has projects in hotels and tourism. Its major development, Jinbao Street, a commercial area in the heart of Beijing, includes the Regent Hotel, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and the showroom of Italian automakers Ferrari and Lamborghini.

Her son Zhao Yong now handles much of the real estate business so that Chan can focus on her sandalwood passion, continuing to develop projects that will "benefit others".

In 2009, Chan and American physician Ferid Murad, a Nobel Prize winner, set up a joint venture to produce medicinal products using sandalwood essence and nitric oxide technology. A cosmetic line, Santalinus, has been on the market for two years.

 

"Sandalwood is part of our culture. We cannot lose it. It's also a magical thing in itself," Chan says.

Actor and comedian Jackie Chan says of his "cherished friend" on Time's website that although Chan is a rich businesswoman, "her success comes from her genuine understanding of people, her steadfast dedication to education and the arts and her profound commitment to philanthropy".

She has donated sandalwood works to museums in the US, Germany, France and Japan, and to major events in China. The sandalwood art works she donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington have toured the US.

Her Beijing museum has more than 1,000 sandalwood art works on display and Chan has not sold any "because the sandalwood is getting expensive - far more than it used to be and thus more valuable".

She believes in giving, which is rooted in her Buddhist faith: "To receive is to give." She believes true wealth comes from her friends, without whom she would not be where she is today.

Although she left high school early, Chan values education for younger generations.

She encouraged and helped her friend Wallace open a Hong Kong campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design three years ago.

"She is passionate about arts and about young people who are going into the arts. She is very concerned about the younger generation, so that they can contribute to the world in the future," Wallace says.

"I want to do the best I can to help preserve our culture and pass it onto the next generation so they can reward our society," Chan says.

Chan now lives in Beijing and often travels for business internationally with her husband Chi Chongrui, a former actor who starred as Buddhist monk Tang Xuanzang in the Chinese TV series Journey to the West. She keeps busy with new projects.

"Currently, a 120-hectare hospital project in Tongzhou district in Beijing is in progress," she says.

"We are born with responsibilities to others and to society. I hope what I do will help many others. We can always do more and better. The sky is the limit."

 

Source: China Daily

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