The gentle smile that Joan Chong Leung usually presents to the world has disappeared momentarily from her face. The president of the Commonwealth Society of Beijing, Leung is flipping through pictures from her group’s activities over the past year, and her finger stops on a scene from the Mao Er Yan Primary School in Hebei province.
"This is the poorest village I have ever been to," she says. "The school buildings have no floor, just concrete." There are about 80 children who should be attending this school, she says, but the classroom building became so decrepit it was condemned. A CSB donation is helping to rebuild it this year; meanwhile, the children are bused to the next village every day for their classes.
"When I first joined the CSB two years ago," Leung writes in the society’s 2013 yearbook, "the theme underlying its actions was to strengthen ties, care and share with the poor and underprivileged children and women of the local population." In her tenure, Leung has added "building friendship" to the mission.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the society, which was founded as a service organization by spouses of ambassadors to China in Beijing from the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations.
Leung recently hosted the society’s annual gala dinner, which generated 550,000 yuan ($89,815) for Chinese charities – a big jump from the 240,000 yuan raised last year.
How did that happen?
"We all worked very hard," she says.
This month, the group is spreading the gala proceeds among its selected charities – including 50,000 yuan for the Mao Er Yan school. Victims of the Lushan earthquake received 100,000 yuan, as did a children’s charity in quake-hit Gansu, the Little Flower Project (for orphans needing special care) and the Blue Sky Healing Home, where young orphans with cleft-palates can get surgery and then a fast-track to adoption.
Schools in Hainan, Kunming and Guangdong received the remaining funds. The last donation is special for Leung, because her grandparents came from Guangdong. So did the parents of Paul Chong Leung, her husband and the island nation’s ambassador to China.
Though her grandparents were from Guangdong and spoke Hakka, she was born in Mauritius and had little exposure to Mandarin until the family came to Beijing seven years ago.
When she came, she only knew how to say "xiexie (thank-you)", she says. Language classes have given her a bigger range today, though she wishes she could speak at a more advanced level.
"Of course, I was raised in the Chinese tradition," she says. "That meant fasting on New Year’s Day, respecting older people and the culture."
Two percent of the population of Mauritius, she adds, is Chinese.
Married 37 years, the couple is new to the diplomatic life. Paul Chong Leung was a lawyer and magistrate, who later "got a taste for politics" and served as the justice minister. Her husband will serve as ambassador in Beijing until 2015, she says, which is the end of the current government’s term.
People in China don’t know much about their small island country.
"I tell people that we are from a small island in the Indian Ocean, and that we are considered African. Then they look at me and my light skin and ask why I am not black?" she says with a chuckle.
Meeting local Chinese has been very fulfilling for her, she says, especially pursuing charity work through the CSB and through the Group of African Ambassador’s Spouses, an organization in which she is vice-president.
Both groups regularly visit schools and communities where women and children are in need to plan future donations and to see how past donations are being spent.
SOURCE: China Daily
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