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It was a Wednesday in early September when Dorothy Yiu received an e-mail from CUHK at her Melbourne home. She was invited to revisit her alma mater for a few days as the distinguished alumna in the new Distinguished Alumni-in-Residence Programme. Her first thought, on reading this, was: ‘Why choose someone as ordinary as me?’
Of course, among the 200,000 CUHK graduates, Dorothy may not be the one who makes the biggest fortune or wins the most academic accolades, but is definitely among the most charitable and altruistic ones.
Born in Macau, she moved to Hong Kong at the age of 10 as her father was hired to teach Cantonese at the University of Hong Kong. She was mischievous and liked to pull pranks, but nonetheless soft-hearted. Whenever she walked past the Po Leung Kuk orphanage in Happy Valley, she could not help pitying the desolate children, and set her young heart on one day working for social welfare.
Two years after graduating from the Department of Social Work of CUHK, Dorothy packed her suitcases again and got married in Australia’s south-eastern state of Victoria. It was 1975, when the ‘White Australia’ policy had just been abolished. She described her early months as an immigrant as ‘utterly, utterly lonely’. ‘I missed my life back in Hong Kong terribly and cried myself to sleep almost every night.’ Walking down the street, she would be yelled at by unfriendly locals: ‘Go back to your own country!’
Her social work qualification was put on the shelf due to language and cultural barriers. She helped her husband run a retail store in China Town, driving a van three times a week to pick up Hong Kong newspapers from the airport. The petite storewoman had to stretch her leg to reach the pedals with her toes. After completing a diploma in librarianship she opened a Chinese bookstore, during which time she gave birth to twin boys. When teased that her university education had gone to waste, she would refute that she enjoyed every opportunity to try new things and that she had never ceased to equip herself.
Mrs. Big Heart
In 1981, at the age of 32, she found her way back on to the track of social welfare. The first Chinese welfare agency for the elderly opened in Victoria, and a Chinese-speaking social worker was wanted. Dorothy was the only game in town and regained footing in the field.
Fast forward to the ’90s, and Dorothy, then a health educator at the Cancer Council Victoria, was invited by the Council to set up a support group for Chinese cancer patients. Back then Australia saw a strong increase in the number of Chinese immigrants, and those affected by cancer usually spoke little English and had great difficulties in navigating the healthcare system. Dorothy picked up the gauntlet and established the Chinese Cancer Society of Victoria (CCSV) in 1996. Since then for 22 years, she has been serving the Chinese diaspora pro bono, seven days a week.
Without an office, she turned her house into the meeting place. With no funding, she mobilized everybody she knew to volunteer. Her selfless acts won her the nickname ‘Mrs. Big Heart’.
Serving cancer patients is not as poignant and depressing as one might imagine. Besides providing healthcare information, counselling and supportive services, CCSV also holds a wide range of activities to cheer patients up, like doing sports, singing, drawing, crafting, gardening, hiking and even forming theatre and lion dance troupes. ‘The purpose is to take their minds off their illnesses and bring back joy and hope into their lives,’ explained Dorothy.
For terminal patients, Dorothy and the volunteers will show up on their doorsteps and help them put their past into perspective and find meanings in life. ‘There was once an old man who lamented that he had done nothing of worth in his whole life. While talking to us he revealed that he had been an industrious dairy worker and raised five high-achieving children. When he saw he had done his part to the society and to his family, he could leave without regrets; his family could find solace in this narrative; and the volunteers could keep negative emotions at bay.’
After two decades of hard toil, CCSV has grown from its humble beginnings to a well-established charity with six support groups across Melbourne. Its service targets have recently expanded from cancer patients and their carers to chronic illness sufferers, which adds up to thousands of beneficiaries. Honours and recognitions follow as a matter of course.
Revisiting the CUHK campus after 45 years, Dorothy was happy to tour its new sites and facilities, and even more so to have the chance to interact with students and staff. Over dim sum and hot tea, she exchanged with international students stories of cultural integration. She gave a talk to faculty and administrative staff on the importance of self-care when tending ill family members. Back to the Department of Social Work she shared with the younger generation her practical experience in loss and grief counselling.
In the evening of ‘Night Talk @ Adam Schall Residence’, she returned to the United College dormitory where she lived in her last two years in university. Wearing a scarlet uniform given by the residents’ association, she urged a packed house of audience to never back down in the face of adversity and instead to try all means to surmount obstacles. ‘Mingling with the students in the red T-shirt gave me a strong sense of belonging. I felt immensely proud of being part of CUHK and of my College.’
On another day she followed the I‧Care Community Research Team to pay home visits to seniors living alone in a Fanling public estate. It reminded her of her surveying of Ap Lei Chau villagers when she volunteered for the Rotaract Club of United College ages ago. ‘It totally took me down memory lane.’
During the eight events in a row of four days, Dorothy repeatedly attributed her kind deeds to the ‘humanistic spirit of CUHK’. ‘To me, it is a spirit that calls for stepping outside ourselves. As CUHK alumni, we care not only for ourselves but also for our family, our alma mater as well as our community at large.’
She said the biggest lesson that her decades of social service have taught her was that life is too short to waste any minute of it. ‘Nobody knows for sure whether they can live to see tomorrow. It is only wise to live in the present, and seize every moment to do what we feel passionate about.’ Dorothy sets a shining example that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. Living each day to the fullest and lending a helping hand whenever needed is heroic in its own way and a true nobility that each of us is able to attain.
By Christine N., ISO
This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Dec 2018.