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Promoting a culture of reading

James Chen is working to improve childhood literacy in China through his family's foundation

The Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation is dedicated to the memory of Mr Chen's father - himself a philanthropist who had funded many school and hospital projects in China.

DURING a tour of his former primary school in his hometown in China, philanthropist James Chen was surprised by the poor state of the library.

"The school had a computer lab and a multimedia lab, but when they unlocked the door to the library, it was a room that is uncomfortable, not welcoming and badly stocked. There was nothing of interest to children," he said during the keynote interview at the Credit Suisse Philanthropists Forum 2016.

Wanting to address the situation, he sent out a request for proposals, and received one from a retired teacher who offered to restock the library. When the new books arrived, students queued to get a chance to read the new materials.

He described this experience as a "light bulb" moment. "If this was happening at this school in one of the best districts in China, then this is potentially a national issue we could tackle."

Mr Chen runs his family's philanthropic arm, The Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, which is dedicated to the memory of his father - himself a philanthropist who had funded many school and hospital projects in China. The foundation works to improve early childhood literacy, library development and education in Hong Kong and China. Mr Chen and his family had started the foundation as a way to carry on the charitable work of his father.

"Having been exposed to western concepts around philanthropy, I felt it would be a shame not to continue the legacy of great work. That is when we decided to formalise it and started the foundation," he said.

Mr Chen added that one of the things they did right when setting up the foundation was to bring in expertise from outside the family. Of the seven board members, four are non-family members, while the remaining three are family members.

He was also determined that the foundation become experts in its area of focus in order to have a bigger impact. "While we started with a general direction we were always looking for something we can become domain experts on. That was the key for my family and myself. Today our foundation is engaged in early childhood literacy and the culture of reading in schools," said Mr Chen, who is also the chairman of Wahum Group Holdings, a third-generation family business.

Mr Chen's latest philanthropic effort is an initiative known as Clearly, a global campaign that aims to ensure that anyone, anywhere in the world can have access to vision correction.