To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Where there is a beginning, there is an end. What makes life perfect? CUHK alumnus Simon Ngai is a businessman and founder of a number of social enterprises. He puts his business experiences to serve young discharged prisoners, delinquent youths and the grassroots by operating an array of social enterprises such as garage, hair salon and Christian funeral parlour. Yet Simon humbly claims that all things are in “Him”.
Being in the business and social welfare worlds for over three decades provides Simon illuminations of the infinite potential in people, and motivation to navigate between the best and worst in life. “People are the most important assets. Without people you can’t do anything. We need to get the right people to walk the talk.”
Ebullient and eloquent, the former president of the Federation of Alumni Associations of CUHK juggles a number of key posts including director of CUHK Alumni Charity Foundation, chairperson of Fullness Christian Vocational Training Centre (FCVTC), chairperson of Glory Return Foundation (GRF) and director of Hong Kong General Chamber of Social Enterprise (GCSE). Simon also likes to make friends, and is generous in sharing these networks to match business operations with social welfare organisations to actively take part in social services and even establish strategic partnerships for betterment of the society.
Sower of social enterprise — CUHK
Simon candidly shares his frolicsome, adventurous childhood. “I attended Holy Word Primary School at Ngau Tau Kok Lower Estate, and then Ng Wah Catholic Secondary School. It was great fun going to a boys’ school where we played soccer, basketball and chess all day long.” Despite not taking Additional Mathematics (A-Maths) in senior forms, Simon was first admitted to the Department of Mathematics at CUHK with 1A1B at the Hong Kong A-Level Examination (HKALE). He then transferred to the Faculty of Business Administration and majored in Marketing.
“I become a Christian when I was a sophomore. I began to see the good in people — business students are not philistines. Businessmen can be influential and serviceable. They can do good too. By chance my classmates and I established the Rotaract Club of Chung Chi College. Business students can do all right for social service. Perhaps this was the seed of social enterprise in me.”
Fullness at the crossroads
Upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in Marketing from CUHK, Simon excelled in furniture sales and marketing and got promoted to a senior position within 5 years. Yet his career advancement then seemed to stagnate and he wanted to look for other opportunities. “By chance I got to see the TV interview of Charles Yeung, a billionaire in his thirties also known as ‘King of Jeans’. I was utterly impressed by his success story from being a refugee and garment factory worker to the head of a multinational enterprise.” Simon, at the age of 27, boldly wrote to Yeung and got hired. Some time later Simon decided to set up his own business. He returned to where he started and founded Wing Kai Steel Furniture & Engineering Company, which had since been in operation till today.
From furniture business Simon got to know the Superintendent of Holland Hostel, who was also director of FCVTC and was looking for someone to help with his workload at FCVTC. Simon joined FCVTC in 2000 and became a member of the board of directors in 2002. He was appointed chairperson of the board from 2006 till now.
“Business experiences can play significant roles in the social welfare sector. It is very exciting to see people in both circles complement each other. This is my blue ocean! When social workers hesitate to make business decisions, my suggestions oil the wheels. For instance the hair salon had been in the red and was closed down. In view of mixed opinions among the board of directors, I convinced the board with data analysis and lined up collaboration opportunities with Youth Outreach. Everything became ready. I think that people are the most important assets. Without people you can’t do anything. We need to get the right people to walk the talk.” Books were balanced within the year that the hair salon reopened. It was the project that was launched and became profitable within the shortest period. “We were delighted with the outcome, and I was elected as and am still chairperson.”
Government and industry input for social enterprise
“The government began driving the set-up and operation of social enterprises in 2006. Experiences in business operation was much sought after to leverage the impact of social enterprises. Many businessmen hence jumped on the wagon. Operation aside, we need to consider further the development, research and advocacy of social enterprise. That’s why we established Fullness Social Enterprises Society (FSES) .”
“A lot of people in the business world thinks the market of social enterprises is ‘unexpandable’. Yet how can the market expand if no one takes part? A social enterprise is a real business operation with the goal of creating social social impact. As more and more people understand the nature of social enterprise, I hope to amass more support to expand the market.”
Simon promptly got fellow CUHK alumni, Federation of Hong Kong Industries (FHKI) and Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong (CMA) together to organise the first Hong Kong Social Enterprise Autumn Trade Fair. “The trade fairs of importers and exporters in China used to be called ‘spring trade fair’ or ‘autumn trade fair because they were usually held in these two seasons. I wish to get members of FHKI and CMA to visit the booths of different social enterprises and facilitate B2B collaboration.”
“Whereas the kind of ‘conscious consumption’ promoted by social enterprises is limited to B2C. With more collaboration between the business and social service circles, and greater understanding of social enterprises, the government will see the importance of social enterprises and heighten recognition to social enterprises by members of the public.”
“At the same time, business corporations are expected to partner with social enterprises to enhance their ESG (environment, social & governance) investing practices to create social impact. There are lots of opportunities to do better and do more!”
Baby steps in funeral service
At the 20th anniversary of FCVTC, the discussion between directors on launching funeral service met much opposition. “Some directors were wary that funeral service is difficult, and not matching the organisation’s goal to help youths. I was indignant that as chairperson I was not even able to push a small project. Despite the frustration, I hire people to set up ‘GloryReturn’ myself.”
Simon points out that one will not know how to handle a funeral if one has not experienced the passing of a family member. The opening of this social enterprise is not for making money, but for providing comfort and spiritual support to the bereaved. “It is particularly hard for the grassroots for losing their loved ones and not making ends meet. Your support to them at this troubled time will mean a lot.”
Chung Kwong Hung, director and registered social worker of Glory Return, explains the details of Christian funeral service. “I got to know Simon at the same church. I have always had an interest in funeral service. Funeral service is a huge business, but outsiders hardly know how a funeral parlour operates.”
“Funeral service is difficult because we do not know how it is run. I was trained as a social worker but there is no courses on funeral service in any of the universities in Hong Kong. We almost started from scratch from sorting out paper work, sourcing coffins, booking hearses and so on. The most important question — how to get people to trust us, a organisation they barely know, to handle this very grave matter?”
Bring comfort in funeral service
Chung Kwong Hung shares a touching story. “We serve not only the aged, but also stillbirth and young children. A 10-year-girl with intellectual and physical disabilities passed away. She was raised single-handedly by her mother. On the way to the crematorium on the hearse, her mother said facing the coffin, ‘Sorry for not being a good mother. I did not take care of you good enough.’ I explained to her how precious her commitment had been. These are all the poignant but heart-warming episodes in the service.”
GloryReturn is building up its reputation and trust from target customers through the connections established through the service. “We do not only serve. Through the funeral service we become friends with customers. Mutual trust is needed to walk on this very important though reluctant journey. We will press on — this is a very meaningful job.”
“My mother passed away when I was young. The loss of a loved one still hits me and I feel the pain of the bereaved. The rites in a funeral can be therapeutic. We hope to bring positive impressions through funeral service so that bereaved families can mourn in ways that they are comfortable with, and get to know the Christian faith to relieve their sorrow.”
The social enterprise does not have much manpower. There are only two full-time staff. Yet with the determination to serve the grassroots and propitious progress, the business has grown from one case to twenty cases a month. “Apart from Christian funeral service, we also provide areligious services. We discuss in detail with families the kind and style of funeral service they wish to have, and work that out as far as possible.”
The service rate of GloryReturn is fixed on the economic status of the client families. Those receiving CSSA will pay a few thousand less than the market rate. “As a social enterprise, besides necessary expenditures such as staff salary, we operate in the form of a charitable foundation and provide concessions to families with economic constraints. We sometimes receive donations from people who appreciate our work. The money will be put into good use to serve others.”
At the same time GloryReturn offers life and death education. They often share about funeral service and life issues at elderly centres, youth centres and church youth fellowships. Simon explains, “A lot of people are curious about what people in funeral services do. Some think these are just menial work. The Japanese film ‘Departures’ captures the serene ambience in a well-conducted funeral service. For beneficiaries, we do not only offer ceremonial services but also spiritual support and counselling.”
Life and death for Christians
Simon goes on sentimentally, “My father passed away suddenly at the age of 64, same age as I now. So I live longer than him. My family was totally unprepared. I was in a meeting when my mother called, ‘Your dad cannot hold any longer. Come quickly!’ Yet he has passed away when I arrived at the hospital. Life is unpredictable. Your life span is up to God, not you.”
“I love to read the bible, especially the book of Ecclesiastes. Everyone of us has a mission in life to look for, receive and carry it out. Happiness comes from not being envious of others. Mission changes too. As you seek and try, you will be happy too. The book tells that wise man and fool will have to face the same fate of death. Some say that everything is gone after death. This is not true. There are still things left behind. You have to be responsible for all you do now. God will judge at the end.”
Post-pandemic plans: social and technological innovation
What support does social enterprise in Hong Kong need? “Business support is instrumental in getting more people involved and greater understanding to enlarge the market of social enterprise. At the same time there will not be much room to grow if social enterprise only focus on social innovation. Social plus technological innovation is a great combination. It can be as easy as online marketing of products of social enterprises. The government is supportive of social enterprise as it may in the long run lower social welfare expenditure and provide solutions to various social issues. The impact is huge if the model is sustainable.”
Simon has new ideas recently, “The outburst of COVID-19 and infections among nursing homes restrain many elderly people from visiting doctors. Telemedicine can be a way out. A few CUHK alumni and I are developing a telemedicine platform with online booking system to get into Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks.”
Friendships with CUHK
Navigating in both business and social welfare worlds, Simon is extremely well-connected both inside and outside CUHK for his valuable and generous personality. He has taken part in CUHK Mentorship Programme for 12 years and become good friends with over 20 young graduates. “This is a great opportunity for me to learn about what young people think and need, and make me younger too! I feel that in a way I’m growing with them, and even get to see them getting married and having kids, or being promoted to senior executive positions. I am happy to keep in touch with them. CUHK alumni should definitely care more about the students and offer guidance and support.”
“CUHK has an enormous campus and good learning atmosphere. CUHKers are in general more tender-hearted and down-to-earth with strong humanistic spirit and less comparison with each other. I became a Christian at CUHK. I got my degree as well as lots of good friends here. My daughter also studied at CUHK and was a member of Chung Chi College like me. I am very proud of being a two-generational CUHK family.”
Lastly Simon shares his favourite bible verse. “Romans 8:28-29: ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ God can accomplish everything, but He will invite you to work together to benefit others and the society. God helps those who help themselves. If you want others to help you, you have to first pick up yourself. Help never comes by waiting. Begin with yourself and influence others. Others will come to your assistance naturally.”
There is beauty in all forms of completions of life. Life often goes too swift for us to catch. If we keep that goodness in ourselves in seeking the meaning of life, we will see the preciousness in changes in life and perfection in the circle of life.
Simon recommends the book “How To Win Friends and Influence People” to everyone, “When I was young, I thought the cover of this book was scary, but the content is great! The first edition has an all-black background, with a skull in the middle, and two people can be vaguely seen both sides. This book has been a bestseller since it was published in 1936. The English version clearly mentions “how to influence people” at the beginning, which is very suitable for young people to read and understand interpersonal relationships and the way of survival.”
Original text in Chinese：Alice Fong @ORKTS
English translation：Miriam Lee
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