On the morning of July 10th, the Tin Ka Ping Foundation announced the passing of the founder and chairman of the foundation and Hong Kong Tianshi Chemical Industry Company Limited, Dr. Tian Jiabing, at the age of 99. Over the course of his life he donated 80% of his wealth, building over 200 schools.
Dr. Tian was born in 1919 in Taipo, Meizhou, in Guangdong province. At the age of 18 he travelled to Vietnam to sell porcelain, and by 1939 he had moved on to the rubber industry in Indonesia. In 1958 Dr. Tian moved to Hong Kong and founded the Hong Kong Tianshi Chemical Co. Ltd., in Tuen Mun, and began building his reputation as the city’s “Leather King”.
In 1994 the Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing named asteroid 2886 after Tian, and two years later, in 1996, he was awarded an M.B.E by Queen Elizabeth II. Numerous universities and colleges have awarded Tian with honorary doctorates, titles and honours, and he has been awarded honorary citizenship in more than 70 cities in China.
Journey towards becoming the Father of 100 Chinese Schools
When Tian Jiabing is mentioned, anyone in the educational sector will be familiar with his name. Since the 1980s Tian has donated to 93 universities, 166 secondary schools, 41 primary schools and kindergartens and around 18000 rural libraries across the country. Across the different provincial levels there are schools and institutes named after him, earning him the title of “the Father of 100 Chinese Schools” (百校之父).
In interviews Tian expressed that education is linked to a country’s strength and cultural prosperity. He said that spending money on education is “spending money in the most useful of places”, and that the value of education is far greater than the value of giving money.
In 1997, after the financial turmoil in Asia, Tian’s businesses and foundations were affected, making it difficult to fulfil promises of donations. In order to make donations as planned, Tian, at the ripe old age of 83, decided to sell his home, in which he had resided for 38 years, for 56 million HK dollars. He then donated the full amount to dozens of schools in China, and moved into a small apartment with his wife.
As Tian later reflected, “at the time the economic situation was not good, but I had promised organisations my donations, and they made plans relying on that. So I decided to sell my house. On the one hand living in such a big house felt like a waste, but more importantly the money gained helped more than 20 schools. This felt like a more worthwhile and significant action.” When asked if he had felt any heartbreak, Tian replied “seeing the construction of a new school and hearing the sounds of millions of children reading and learning made it worth it, spiritually and economically.”.
In 2003, in order to help the Hong Kong Polytech University and the City University gain more “matching” funds from the government, but not being able to extract the funds in time, Tian took a loan of more than six million HK dollars in order to donate to multiple universities. These actions have become a unique story within Hong Kong’s philanthropic history.
In 2005 Tian also sold the 130 thousand square meters, 24 story, Tian Square, in order to advance the payment of 300 million Hong Kong dollars which was donated to dozens of universities and secondary schools.
His name was his motivation
Even though every donation was tens or hundreds of millions, Tian Jiabing lived a modest and simple life in Hong Kong.
Tian didn’t own a car, he rode the subway and walked to and from work; his expenses were low, he would wear one pair of shoes for ten years, and darn his socks over and over again; for a long time in his life Tian’s monthly expenses did not exceed 3000 yuan. He didn’t like extravagance or social parties, and even when turning 80 years old he refused to attend celebratory events.
He said “Everyone should do a small good deed, and in the end it will add up into a big good deed and this society will get better. If everyone does small bad deeds, in the end it will turn into a big bad deed and this society will get worse.” Other than his big donations, Tian also gave an example with small actions. When he stayed in hotels he would always take his own soap, as he didn’t want to waste the soap he didn’t use in hotels. When he ate out, he would only ask for tap water and never soft drinks; once a reporter asked him why and he replied “there are 7 million people in Hong Kong, if everyone has a bottle of juice, thats 7 million bottles.”.
The self-disciplined Tian Jiabing was also a strict mentor for the next generation. He would emphasise that it is better to leave posterity to the next generation rather than wealth. His five sons and four daughters were all first educated in the Chinese system through middle school and then sent to the US and Canada for university in order to learn about the world.
Tian’s character was revered by the people, and gained him great honours, including the highest honour awarded by the Hong Kong SAR government, the Bauhinia medal. But he was never arrogant and never asked for returns for his work. In all the places he donated he never made business investments, and never expected the use of donations to aid his business endeavours and projects.
Only in one aspect did he self-promote, and that was to put his name on nearly every single building and project. He hoped that in this way more people would know about his efforts and spirit, inspiring and grabbing the attention of more people to do good deeds together. This also added a certain pressure onto himself to make sure that the education projects and schools were well executed.
“If you have bad education or bad schools, and put the three characters of the name Tian Jiabing on there, not only will you not bring glory to the school but you will tarnish the reputation of Tian Jiabing – parents will not want to send their children there – it would be a disgrace.” Tian said these are the reasons that motivate him further, requiring his foundation and his partners to honestly generate good educational results and good schools, and to not let anyone down.