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Stephen Siu: Follow the star, no matter how far

By LI NA in Toronto (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-04-26 00:26

Stephen Siu, president of Yee Hong Community Wellness Foundation, unfolded a Chinese couplet by Yusheng Mok, a resident of Yee Hong's long-term care center. Although Yusheng, because of his age, was unable to get up, he was clearly excited by Siu's impromptu visit.

"I want to thank you for doing the calligraphy," Siu told Yusheng. The couplet was composed by Siu for a major donor and handwritten by Yusheng.

Stephen Siu: Follow the star, no matter how far

"I am happy to be here because I can continue my life-long hobby of calligraphy with some of the Yee Hong residents," said Yusheng, a former calligrapher from Hong Kong.

Every day, more than 15,000 seniors like Yusheng and their families use the services and facilities of Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, the largest non-profit long-term care provider in Ontario. Stephen Siu, 66, joined Yee Hong last year from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) in Toronto, after spearheading the Hong Kong government's public relations in Canada for 18 years.

Like most of the transitions in life Siu has made over the years, job-hopping landed him the spotlight once again. As the newly appointed president of the foundation, he was the impetus behind Ushering in the Year of the Horse, the Dragon Ball, one of the largest and most glamorous charity balls in Toronto, on Jan 25. Siu and his team raised more than CAD$1 million from the event.

Back in 1969, Siu was a reporter at the British Colony Hong Kong bureau of United Press International (UPI), monitoring and translating Radio Peking's and other major Chinese provincial and municipal newscasts as a part of "China Watching" and getting first-hand information from the so-called bamboo curtain. He fast became an expert on Red China in the Cold-War era.

On his desk, he always had a copy of Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China. Snow's vivid descriptions of the Long March fascinated him. "I admired his career as a war correspondent reporting on World War II," Siu said.

Siu spent four years on the frontlines of news reporting, working with those UPI correspondents and "China Hands" from the US. "I think the experiences endowed me with a perspective on history," he said.

In 1972, American president Richard Nixon paid his first visit to China ushering in an era of ping pong diplomacy. When the American ping pong team was passing through Hong Kong to pave the way for Nixon's visit, Siu was one of the reporters interviewing them onboard their train.

In 1973, Stephen won a World Press Institute scholarship to further his journalism training at Macalester College in Minnesota. He eventually became chief editor of UPI's Hong Kong bureau.

During the Second IndoChina War, Stephen took dictation from those war-zone correspondents from time to time, experiencing the turmoil of war, and some of his closest friends never came back from the battlefield. In 1975, Stephen joined the Chinese edition of Reader's Digest magazine, the largest-circulation Chinese monthly at the time.

After five years working with chief editor Lin Taiyi, daughter of Chinese literary legend Lin Yutang, Siu headed up Hong Kong Urban Council's cultural promotions, and government information services' publicity, supervising a staff of 40 and a budget in the millions from 1980 until 1988, when he immigrated to Canada.

"If I followed the path that my life seemed to be, I would see the light at the end of the tunnel. I try to make a difference and make it a challenge to myself," Siu said, explaining why he moved to Canada from Hong Kong, where he had lived a life of ease and enjoyed a handsome income.

"My favorite quote is from Man of La Mancha: ‘To dream the impossible dream; to fight the unbeatable foe; to bear with unbearable sorrow; to run where the brave dare not to go', and I will follow that star, no matter how far," he said.

When Siu followed his star to Canada, he never dreamed he would have the same struggles as most new immigrants. He worked a minimum-wage job, but never stopped believing that as long as he kept driving forward, there was nothing to lose.

Stephen started a marketing and public relations consultancy and quickly established a network in Canada, which eventually led him to joining the HKETO in Toronto.

In 1992, the Hong Kong government set up its representative office in Toronto, Stephen Siu was hired as HKETO's public relations consultant, helping the office launch the multi-month Festival Hong Kong '92 across 11 cities, from Victoria to Halifax, which was aimed to promote the international image of Hong Kong.

"So far it is the largest promotion campaign organized by the Hong Kong government in Canada," Stephen recalled.

After going through the hardships of being a new immigrant, Stephen took on volunteer work with charitable organizations. "I thought I should help the new immigrants integrate with the community, and make ourselves part of the mainstream," he said.

Through volunteering with various community organizations, Siu has proven himself to be a person of action and the community has benefited from his skills and contributions.

In 2000, Siu started a four-year-tenure as executive director of the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto (CCC), where he focused on bridging the Chinese community with mainstream projects with the Royal Ontario Museum and other cultural groups. He launched a matching program to bring Chinese immigrants and adoptive families together, sharing each other's experience and culture.

Although he loved working for CCC, Siu's career continued to thrive. He left CCC and re-joined to the HKETO in late 2004 to take on a more important role as its assistant director.

In the nine years since, Siu has been the driving force behind major cultural projects, including the record-setting China Central Television (CCTV) Same Song concert at the Rogers Centre, the largest-ever performance in Canada's Chinese community with an audience of more than 21,000 people.

"With a performance put up together by 18 artists from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the Rogers Centre, we enjoyed the unity over variety and cohesion over diversity within the Chinese nation," he said.

Regarding his new position as the president of Yee Hong Foundation, Siu said it was a new runway to take off from, and he would fly away in flying colors as high as he could, with no regrets.

Over the last 25 years, Yee Hong's Dragon Ball has raised about $25 million for geriatric care and services programs for seniors provided by the four Yee Hong centers in Greater Toronto.

"Still, our major challenge is to close the gap between the cost of all the services we provide and the financial support we receive," Siu said. "Governments can give only so much. And it's simply not enough."

He said there are more than 4,000 seniors waiting to get into Yee Hong's nursing homes, and many of Yee Hong's community programs are not funded by the government. Dragon Ball, together with some other fundraising efforts, have helped raise the necessary funds to sustain the good work of Yee Hong.

"We believe that elders should be well and adequately taken care of in any civilized society, and we are looking forward to initiating collaboration with people from the mainland through complementary strategy," Siu said.

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