The Balance Of Life
Singaporean Sean Pang runs a charitable organisation in Shanghai that provides free food to the city’s homeless.
BY ALYWIN CHEW
raditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is life,” says Sean Pang. “It is about flow. It is about finding balance. That means if you have too much of a certain thing, you need to give it away to achieve balance.”
In the case of this Singaporean, what he has given away is not related to the duality of yin and yang – it is his time. Every Saturday for the past eight years, Pang and a group of individuals have been running Kechara Soup Kitchen Shanghai, a non-profit organisation that gives away free meals to the homeless and needy in the Chinese megacity.
“MY PERCEPTION WAS THAT HOMELESS PEOPLE DESERVED TO BE IN SUCH A STATE BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T STRIVE HARD ENOUGH. SINCE BEING INVOLVED IN THIS INITIATIVE, I’VE COME TO LEARN THAT EVERYONE MAY SIMPLY BE A VICTIM OF HIS OR HER OWN CIRCUMSTANCES.”
Raised in Singapore’s Chinatown area, Pang spent much of his childhood playing around the Eu Yan Sang medical hall where his grandfather worked as a TCM practitioner. “The philosophy of TCM also extends to taking care of the community, your family and yourself,” notes the 48-year-old, who is currently the assistant general manager for human resource of a Singaporean company with a presence in Shanghai. “My grandfather and father always reminded me that I should always do what I can to help others, wherever I am.”
His elders certainly walked the talk. His grandfather, who left the southern Chinese city of Guangdong for Malaysia when he was just 12, would often give free consultations to the old folks around Chinatown. His father, who was a professor in quantum physics, set up JP School of Computing which aimed to bring students from Asian countries to Singapore where he offered them low-cost tertiary education. Pang said that this was his father’s way of giving back to society, having received scholarships from the National Taiwan University and Strathclyde University to pursue his tertiary education and doctorate respectively.
SOWING THE SEEDS OF GOODNESS
Heeding the advice of his elders to do good in life, Pang has kickstarted many CSR initiatives during his professional career. In one project, he worked with a Chinese client to set up solar-powered floodlights in a football pitch in Kenya so that underprivileged kids could play after the sun set, in turn minimising the chances of them getting into bad company.
The idea behind his charity organisation in Shanghai was born shortly after a volunteer trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2011 when he and his friends joined a food distribution activity organised by Kechara Soup Kitchen. Impressed by the operation and how well-run it was, his friend Tian Tian lobbied the idea of taking the initiative to Shanghai. Just one month later, Kechara Soup Kitchen Shanghai was born. Armed with 10 packets of food bought from restaurants, Pang and his three co-founders scoured the streets of Shanghai for homeless people. It didn’t take long before they realised that they were going about things the wrong way.
“We couldn’t even give away five packets of food during that first outing!” he quips. “Firstly, we didn’t know where to look, and when we eventually found homeless individuals, some of them actually rejected our food because they were suspicious of our intentions,” he says.
Months after that first failed outing, the team got a tip-off from one of their members about an area where homeless people gathered every night – an empty lot tucked beneath the flyover on Tianmu Road near the Shanghai Railway Station. They could now do what they had set out to do without having to wander the streets looking for homeless people. They soon set up Kechara Soup Kitchen’s first food distribution point near this flyover, allowing the homeless to conveniently get free meals.
Today, Pang works with restaurants near each of their three distribution points that have agreed to prepare fresh meals at a low price. Every Saturday, more than a dozen volunteers help out during the activity, from managing logistics to verifying the identities of those receiving the food – the homeless are given special cards by Kechara Soup Kitchen – to interacting with them.
Apart from giving away food, the organisation also distributes sleeping bags and winter clothing, sponsors medical procedures for the homeless elderly, finds jobs for the younger recipients and helps out at home shelters for the needy.
Pang’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2016, he was given the Shanghai International Excellence Award. The award recognises foreigners living in Shanghai who have made a significant impact on the city and its people in diverse fields such as education, arts and culture, philanthropy and business, among others.
For Pang, this initiative has been a fruitful learning experience in terms of perspectives. “Before you start passing judgement on others, think about the situation from the other person’s point of view. Homelessness is often not what we think it is. We’ve got to find out the truth for ourselves. Every homeless person has a different story to tell,” he says.
He explains that many people end up homeless not because they are lazy or bogged down by problems such as alcohol and drug abuse. Rather, most of them have simply fallen through the cracks. He recalls one man who gave up his residency in Shanghai so that he could move to another city, only to be rejected a residency in the other. This meant that he ended up “cityless”; a ghost in the system. There have also been rare cases of people actually opting to become homeless.
“There was this person who gave his apartment to his daughter after she got married, and he refused to buy or rent another just so he could save money. He had this crazy idea of wanting to see if he could survive on the streets,” recounts Pang. “He simply lied to his daughter that he was working in another city.”
“WHEN I FIRST MET SEAN,” SAYS VOLUNTEER SHEN MINGJIE, “I HAD NO IDEA THAT HE WAS FROM SINGAPORE. I THINK IT’S COMMENDABLE THAT A FOREIGNER WOULD TAKE IT UPON HIMSELF TO GIVE BACK TO A COMMUNITY THAT IS NOT HIS OWN.”
Pang’s Shanghainese wife Christine Wang, who is one of the co-founders of the non-profit, expressed that she too has gained new perspectives on life. “In the past, I used to think that I deserved whatever I have in life because I worked hard for them. My perception was that homeless people deserved to be in such a state because they didn’t strive hard enough,” she shares. “Since being involved in this initiative, I’ve come to learn that everyone may simply be a victim of his or her own circumstances. Earlier, I used to think it was perfectly normal for women to occasionally indulge in a nice pair of shoes or bag, now the thought of how that money can be used to support a family for months in some places comes to mind,” she adds. “Giving back to the less fortunate has changed how I look at life.”
Shen Mingjie, an undergrad at Shanghai Jianqiao University who has volunteered with Kechara Soup Kitchen since March 2017, feels that the experience has similarly broadened his horizons.
“I used to think that homeless people were just good-for-nothings who would rather idle on the streets than get a job. But I’ve since learnt that we shouldn’t expect our opinions and perspectives to be the right ones in life,” shares the 21-year-old. “After all, we have never experienced what it is like to be in their shoes. So we shouldn’t assume that we can understand their position and feelings.”
Shen also praised the efforts of Pang. “When I first met Sean, I had no idea that he was from Singapore. My first impression of him was that he was a successful individual,” he recalls. “After finding out that he was Singaporean, my admiration for him grew. I think it’s commendable that a foreigner would take it upon himself to give back to a community that is not his own.”
Having lived in Shanghai and spent time running Kechara Soup Kitchen, Pang has also learnt about cultural nuances. One of the most important takeaways is the fact that every culture views matters differently, and that there is no “right” and “wrong”. “When we go overseas, we go with a ‘Singapore filter’, which is how we perceive things. We need to understand that the ‘Singapore way’ may not be the best way in another country. We should not let this influence us,” he says.
Pang also points out that he is particularly impressed by how many young individuals like Shen are eager to give back to the community. “I used to think that the youth in China would be more focused on themselves and their professional careers. But they have showed that they are very much willing to give their money and time,” he concludes.
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