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PHI­LAN­THROPIST AND EX­ER­CISE AFI­CIONADO Marie- Chris­tine Lee SPEAKS TO Melissa Twigg ABOUT HELP­ING HONG KONG’S POOR­EST CHIL­DREN WHILE BREAK­ING A GUIN­NESS WORLD RECORD

Hong Kong Tatler - - Con­tents -

Phi­lan­thropist and ex­er­cise afi­cionado Marie- Chris­tine Lee. 122 Hol­ly­wood leg­end Mor­gan Free­man talks about golf, meet­ing Man­dela and life in Mis­sis­sippi

Marie-chris­tine lee is not a woman who’s eas­ily scared. In 2011, she spent four days rid­ing a bi­cy­cle along the Silk Road on the main­land, bat­tling frost­bite, sun­burn, gale-force winds, pot­holes, snakes and a lack of wa­ter. She slept on the grass at night, drank rain­wa­ter, ate dried meat and cy­cled for 12 hours a day to cover 430 kilo­me­tres, and was the only am­a­teur in her group of four cy­clists.

“Everyone in Hong Kong—everyone ex­cept me, that is—was very wor­ried,” she says, with a mis­chievous glint in her eyes. “Yes, it was a dan­ger­ous ex­pe­di­tion, and yes, we had no backup and many things could have gone wrong. But it was also one of the most in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ences of my life. I have al­ways said that it’s very im­por­tant to test your bound­aries.”

Lee comes across as a woman un­con­cerned by the nor­mal rules and reg­u­la­tions of life. Petite, very tanned and buzzing with en­ergy, she ra­di­ates health when she opens the door to the house on The Peak she shares with her hus­band, Wil­liam Louey. Dressed in a limegreen Aquaz­zura mini dress ac­ces­sorised with Nike train­ers, sparkling sil­ver nails and her trade­mark cropped hair­cut, Lee could never be ac­cused of look­ing for­get­table. Her house matches her per­son­al­ity: I leave be­hind the gloom of an am­ber rain­storm and en­ter a bright, bold sit­ting room filled with pop-art paint­ings, plush fur rugs and ar­rest­ing stat­ues. “Oh, I hate bor­ing things,” she says, some­what un­nec­es­sar­ily, when I re­mark on our fab­u­lous sur­round­ings.

We’re meet­ing to dis­cuss the Sports for Hope Foun­da­tion, a char­ity that Lee founded in 2011 to help chil­dren from poor fam­i­lies in the New Ter­ri­to­ries gain ac­cess to world­class sport­ing fa­cil­i­ties and coaches. “In Hong Kong, the ed­u­ca­tional fo­cus has al­ways been on academia, with sports and cre­ativ­ity tak­ing a sec­ondary role,” says Lee. “I’m not crit­i­cis­ing this bias in any way; I went to a lo­cal school, as did my chil­dren. How­ever, we had ac­cess to ten­nis courts and swim­ming pools on week­ends and af­ter school. Chil­dren from less priv­i­leged back­grounds, who are per­haps trav­el­ling from the main­land ev­ery day just to at­tend classes and have no sports train­ing, may never have the chance to do any­thing ac­tive or widen their hori­zons. And that will have a detri­men­tal ef­fect on the rest of their lives.”

Lee’s ar­du­ous Silk Road bi­cy­cle ride was con­ceived in or­der to raise money for her char­ity, and in this en­deav­our she also suc­ceeded ad­mirably—the HK$7 mil­lion she re­ceived en­abled her to launch the Sport for Hope Foun­da­tion with gusto. “I was over­whelmed by how gen­er­ous my friends and fam­ily from Hong Kong were. I think maybe some of them thought I wouldn’t man­age to fin­ish, so they of­fered me more than they could af­ford,” she says, with a cheeky wink.

The money raised has been ploughed into three schools in the New Ter­ri­to­ries. In each of these schools, Lee has ar­ranged af­ter­school ac­tiv­i­ties and sent coaches (some of whom are re­tired ex- Olympians) to teach the chil­dren fenc­ing, ath­let­ics, bad­minton and foot­ball. The re­sults have been as­tound­ing— and not just in terms of their phys­i­cal fit­ness.

“Of course, their sport­ing prow­ess has im­proved ex­po­nen­tially—that goes with­out say­ing; they’ve even started win­ning matches against some of the more priv­i­leged schools,

which is won­der­ful given that these are kids who aren’t ac­cus­tomed to win­ning any­thing,” says Lee. “But what is re­ally as­tound­ing, and makes me so happy, are the changes in their be­hav­iour, their out­look on life and their aca­demic work.”

Lee tells me the story of a young boy who com­mutes for two hours ev­ery morn­ing and evening from Shen­zhen to his school in the New Ter­ri­to­ries and who is known to have a trou­bled fam­ily life. He had al­ways been dif­fi­cult with teach­ers and fel­low stu­dents, had re­ceived con­sis­tently low marks and had a prob­lem with punc­tu­al­ity. How­ever, since he started tak­ing an in­ter­est in foot­ball and re­ceived spe­cial­ist train­ing from his coach, not only has he ex­celled on the pitch, but his grades have also started im­prov­ing and his be­hav­iour has been trans­formed.

“That story brings tears to my eyes, as it shows that ev­ery­thing I have done has been worth­while. Peo­ple of­ten think sport is only about im­prov­ing the body, but I be­lieve that ex­er­cise and team ac­tiv­i­ties are essen­tial to men­tal well-be­ing too,” says Lee. “I grew up sur­rounded by all sorts of dif­fer­ent sports and they were a key part of my de­vel­op­ment, both men­tally and phys­i­cally. Sport isn’t just about com­pe­ti­tion—for ex­am­ple, my mother swims ev­ery day, 365 days a year, and she’s been do­ing it for 60 years. I think hav­ing that com­mit­ment to some­thing makes you a more well-rounded per­son.”

Hav­ing spent nearly all the money they raised three years ago, the Sports for Hope Foun­da­tion is now em­bark­ing on its sec­ond ma­jor fundrais­ing event, this time with an at­tempt to set a new Guin­ness World Record for Most Con­sec­u­tive Op­po­nents in Ten­nis Sin­gles. Jérôme La­corte, Lee’s pro­fes­sional ten­nis coach, will at­tempt to play more than 30 three-set matches—at least 60 sets, but more if he loses one—over a 30-hour con­tin­u­ous pe­riod at the Hong Kong Sports In­sti­tute. The cur­rent Guin­ness World Record for the most con­sec­u­tive op­po­nents played in ten­nis sin­gles is 28, set by Thomas Al­lard in Eng­land last year.

“I thought the idea was fun and dif­fer­ent, and per­fectly con­nected with our char­ity. I don’t see the point in fundrais­ers that lav­ish guests with caviar and cham­pagne and spend half their bud­get on en­ter­tain­ment. I al­ways think: spend a lit­tle, make a lot,” says Lee. “There’s a big lawn, so I want to make it feel a bit like Wim­ble­don—everyone in white, with lots of pic­nic rugs and straw­ber­ries and scones. I’m hop­ing quite a few lo­cal celebri­ties and elite ath­letes will at­tend as well.”

The event will take place on Novem­ber 15 and 16, and Lee will be part­ner­ing with the Hong Kong Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion and the Hong Kong Sports In­sti­tute to cre­ate an un­for­get­table fes­ti­val, com­plete with ten­nis clin­ics, ju­nior tour­na­ments and spe­cial­ist com­pe­ti­tions. She has also man­aged to gar­ner sup­port in high places; the French con­sul has writ­ten an en­dorse­ment let­ter and Now TV will be film­ing through­out the day.

“We’re hop­ing that peo­ple from all over Hong Kong can join us, whether they are able to do­nate or not. And this time around, I’m plan­ning to raise HK$10 mil­lion, as peo­ple can see what great work we have done so far and will want to help,” she says. “It might sound am­bi­tious, but I’ve al­ways thought if you have the right mind­set, you can do any­thing.”

For more in­for­ma­tion visit sports­forhope­foun­da­tion.org.hk

ten­nis brights Marie- Chris­tine Lee’s next fundrais­ing event will at­tempt to break a Guin­ness World Record in ten­nis

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