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