COVER STORY - Serving Hong Kong’s Forgotten


Peter Levesque, Chairman of AmCham Charitable Foundation's Board of Trustees, left, presents Ira Dan Kaye Community Service Award winner Peter Nip, right, at the AmCham Charitable Foundation Dinner in October

Peter Nip, winner of AmCham Charitable Foundation’s 2017 Ira Dan Kaye Community Service Award, reflects on a life rooted in altruism

By Jennifer Khoo

A single act of altruism in 1985 shaped Peter Nip’s life.

The post on the noticeboard outside the community service center in Wanchai asked for volunteers to drive a 14-year-old boy with epilepsy from his home in Tai Po to the hospital and back. At least once a month for the next 11 years, Nip ferried the boy across Hong Kong.

Nip grew up in a small middle-class family and, with his father’s support, had become a successful entrepreneur running a manufacturing business. But by the time the boy died an untimely death in 1996, Nip had discovered his passion was to help others.

“There are many people in Hong Kong in need of help. This has sparked my passion to continue helping others to the widest and greatest extent possible,” he says.

A TCM practitioner checks the pulse of an elderly patient in a mobile clinic operated by Banyan Elderly Services Association

Banyan volunteers attend a traditional Chinese funeral

Former U.S. Consul General Clifford Hart, left, expresses his gratitude to Mr. Nip, right, for bringing the remains of an American citizen back to her family in the United States after the funeral

Friend to the friendless

Nip would later realize an ambition to help the elderly, and particularly those that were sick, poor or living alone without a family to offer support.

“In 1995, some public housing estates in the Wong Tai Sin district were undergoing reconstruction, and those who lived in that district were forced to move,” he says.

“The elderly residents, most of whom immigrated to Hong Kong in the 1950s and had a limited education, some illiterate, received little assistance with moving homes and did not know where to find it.”

Nip joined the Banyan Elderly Services Association, a charitable organization named after the sacred symbol of longevity providing support and a family network to the elderly. He and a like-minded group of volunteers helped the displaced residents move into new accommodation and helped bring the homes up to standard by carrying out basic renovations.

Long after the move was over, Nip and the volunteers continued to help out wherever possible. Through his regular visits, Nip came to learn that the most pressing concern among the group was who would take care of them after they passed away, taking care of the funeral and their remains.

“In Hong Kong, the government will bury any person who dies without any relatives or friends to claim their bodies in a yard designated for the general public. Individual graves are not provided, and the bodies are buried without names, only a number on a small gravestone,” he says.

There are many reasons why a senior citizen might live alone without the support of a family. Often their family network is in Mainland China or their relatives have emigrated. In other cases, the children may already be dead or be so ill that they are unable to care for even themselves.

Sadly, there are also cases of cruelty towards seniors and abandonment.

“Although it is true that filial piety is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and society generally, there are always exceptions,” he says. 

Mr. Nip regularly visits the elderly, who are without family, at their homes

Free meals prepared by Banyan are distributed to the underprivileged in Kwun Tong twice a day, 365 days a year

Comfort and dignity

Since 2008, Nip has been the association’s chairman and worked to provide funeral and burial services in the hope that the elderly can spend their remaining days comfortably and with dignity, free of worry.

That means an individual promise to respect each personal request. “Some people prefer to have their ashes sewn in the sea when they die, and others in a garden. Some have already bought their own graveyards and are entrusting volunteers from the Banyan Elderly Association to host a funeral for them there after their passing,” he says.

The level of care is important. When one man bought stacks of hell money – joss paper printed to resemble banknotes – to the association, he made Nip promise to burn it at his funeral. “He said he had been poor in this life and wished to be rich in the afterlife. This old man passed away last year, and the association did everything he asked us to,” Nip says.

Banyan’s care doesn’t end with someone’s passing. Its “Friends of Sunset” service arranges for volunteers to sweep the gravesites of the elderly without family under the program. Grave sweeping is a deeply symbolic gesture linked to ancestor remembrance and worship, and traditionally takes place during the Ching Ming festival in spring and Chung Yeung festival in autumn.

At the roots

The Hong Kong government certainly has a role to play in delivering targeted support, but Nip says that only by paying greater attention to society’s grassroots can their needs be met.

“At the Banyan Elderly Services Association, it was only after thousands of visits and talks with the elderly that we came to understand their needs and how to assist them,” he says.

It is Nip’s conviction that the government has failed to allocate enough resources, such as homes and care facilities, to disadvantaged elderly Hongkongers. “At present, an elderly patient may have to queue for more than 30 months before they can get bed space in a government-subsidized home. It is sad to see some of these people pass away while they wait,” he says.

This race against time can weigh on even the most dedicated and optimistic volunteer; a dreary reminder of their own mortality. Yet death is not something that Nip fears. Instead it creates a focus for what is important in this life: “善待他人,快樂行善” To be kind to others and be happy.