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A Life of Charity

Mon, 17th Nov 2014
Disciple of missionaries carries on their good work. (November 2014)

“They helped lepers, refugees, orphans and broken families. Now I am helping elderly people, the disabled, single parents and broken families. The era is different but I am carrying on their work.”

Paul Pun is secretary-general of Caritas Macau, one of the city’s largest non-government organisations; it operates 34 centres with 800 staff and 500-600 volunteers. Its charity work extends beyond the city boundaries, to Anhui province, Bangladesh and East Timor.

Pun, 55, sees himself as the disciple of four foreign Catholic missionaries who devoted their lives to the people of China.

“They were great people who served Macao, the mainland and the whole world. I am continuing their work. Father Luis (Ruiz Suarez) never spread the gospel with words but I saw Jesus whenever I saw him.”

It was Suarez, a Spanish Jesuit, who established the Casa Ricci Social Service in Macao on 8 December 1951, to serve the thousands of refugees from the mainland. In 1971, it became Caritas Macau; Pun was appointed secretary-general in 1991.

Now it has an annual budget of 200 million patacas and a wide range of services – 24-hour support for the elderly, bed-ridden and frail, residential help for those with mental and physical disabilities, support for single parents and people who have left prison, a food bank for 4,300 families and a 24-hour hotline for those considering suicide. 

It has become an essential part of the fabric of Macao society.

Childhood in orphanage

Pun was born in Macao on 12 November 1958 into a family of 12 children, of whom nine became adults. His father was a sailor who was mostly away at sea and his mother the manager of a unit at a match factory.

The family was so large that there was no space for Pun at home; so he was sent to an orphanage run by Precious Blood Sisters inside the canidrome.

“But I was not an orphan because I could go home. I used to visit my grandmother, a Chinese doctor. Her surgery was close to the fire station and many wounded firefighters came to see her. Some were seriously injured. I was born in her surgery and not in a hospital. She was an outstanding doctor and had many patients.”

Another destination was the factory where his mother worked. “I could play there. There was no idea of danger then.

“As a child, I was very happy. I did not feel that I was in an orphanage. I remember going up the Guia hill and seeing soldiers from India. They must have been from Goa. At the orphanage, we had Chinese and foreign sisters and ate a bread-based diet with knives and forks, not chopsticks.”

When his father finished his career at sea, he settled in Macao and worked as a hawker selling noodles; Pun went there to help by washing dishes.

He spent ten years in three orphanages before moving back home, after his elder brothers and sisters had moved out. It was a small apartment at the back of a shoe repair shop: poorly ventilated and with a small window. He slept on the upper level of a bunk bed or in the corridor. 

He studied at the Instituto Salesiano and Yuet Wah College; he also went to a vocational school where he learnt printing.

His childhood brought him very close to Catholic priests and nuns; they were like uncles and aunts to him, providing the proper guidance which he did not find from his parents. They passed onto him a mission to serve society which has been the guiding light of his life.

“But I never wanted to be a priest. I am not so religious and go to Mass once a week. My work is my prayer.”

He started his career as a social worker with Caritas in 1981.

Broadening education

In 1979, he joined the first school to teach social work in Macao, established two years earlier. 

With the help of church friends, he enrolled in a two-year course in social work at Hong Kong University. He lived at Ricci Hall and continued to work in Macao at the same time. 

Then, at an international conference on rehabi-litation, he met a professor from Guam University who recommended him. He went there and completed a four-year course in social work in two and a half years. He lived in a dormitory and sometimes slept in the office of his teachers.

Mother Maria Goisis, a Canossian sister in Macao, paid his living costs. He broadened his experience by meeting Chamorros, the indigenous people of Guam. “They were very curious about me. After Mass, they held a fiesta and ate a great deal. They treated me like family and said I was too thin.”

From there, he moved on to Fordham and Columbia Universities in New York, where he obtained an MA in Social Work. The fees were covered by an Italian boss of a fashion company, a friend of Mother Maria; he lived in a house for Jesuit priests on the West Side.

“I did not take an exam for Fordham and Columbia. How could a graduate from Guam University get in? They gave me a long interview. My English was not so good. They realised that I was different and had a mission. They knew I would return to Macao to carry on the work of the missionaries.

“I did not apply for a green card or a Hong Kong identity card. Not for one moment did I consider staying in the US or Hong Kong. I only wanted to return to Macao. I had no contract with Mother Maria; she trusted me.” 

In New York, he did social work with a Jewish organisation, further broadening his experience.

Return to Macao

He returned to Macao in 1992 and threw himself back into the work of Caritas. In 1983, he had started a service to teach disabled people to drive and help them to do sports.

In 1984, he had established the city’s first hotline, to help people considering suicide and facing other forms of anxiety.

Today the range of services is the widest of any charity in Macao, including facilities for over 200 mentally and physically disabled people, for those who have left prison and need time and space before returning to their family and the wider society.

It runs a food bank, used by more than 8,300 people, accounting for 1.3 percent of the city’s population. The hotline receives 10,000 calls a year; it is manned by ten staff, backed up by 80 volunteers. Each year about 80 people take their own lives. If they believe that a suicide is imminent, the staff and volunteers ask permission from the police to go and help.

Despite public opposition, it opened a school for children of foreign workers; it has about 100 students, including Filipinos, Cambodians, Pakistanis, Koreans and Malaysians. English is the teaching medium, with Putonghua also taught. The fees for those who do not have a Macao identity card is 10,000-20,000 patacas a year.

The headquarters is a two-storey building, more than 100 years old, next to St Joseph’s College, the first Jesuit university in Asia. It used to house apartments for Jesuit priests.

The government pays half its annual budget of 200 million patacas. The rest comes from donations from companies and individuals and contributions from those who use the services. It holds three large charity dinners a year, as well as bazaars and money-raising activities in churches.

Pun sees a virtue in poverty. “We have no property. Our buildings are provided by the government or rented, some for symbolic rents like one pataca a month. We have no debt and several million patacas in the bank, enough for less than two months of operations.”

He does not want to depend on the government nor be driven by a desire to increase assets. “I like to start a new service and then raise the money for it. It is like taking a big risk, knowing the many odds and challenges.” In this way, Caritas is driven by the needs of society and not maximisation of profit.

Concern for people abroad

Its concern extends far beyond the boundaries of Macao. The charity has donated money for flood and poverty relief work in Cambodia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, East and South China and areas devastated by the South Asian tsunami of December 2004.

In 1992, he went with a Catholic group from Hong Kong to areas of Anhui province hit by severe floods. “We formed a link with that place.” Since then, it has provided seven million yuan for relief work in Anqing city and helped to build and repair dozens of schools in the Dabie mountains, on the border with Henan. It was in Anqing that Father Luis Suarez preached in the late 1940s.

Caritas also funds a school in a slum area of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, and vocational training for teenagers in rural areas. It has also started a project for young people in East Timor. 

“If we can, we go abroad. We wish to develop in the Philippines. We have dozens of Filipino volunteers in Macao. We should give something back,” he said. 

In recognition for his work, Pun has received awards from the Vatican, Philippine Consul General in Macao and Hong Kong, the city of Anqing and the SAR government.      

Work is life

Pun takes no days off. “For me, every day is a holiday. I am going shortly to Dhaka to see the children there. I have not completed the mission given to me by Father Luis and the other three. At 56, I do not think of retiring. I have not found a successor.”

He lives a highly disciplined life. He rises at 0400 and plays the piano for an hour. Then he jogs seven times around the Guia hill, each circuit 1,700 metres long. “I run at the same speed as the number four or five bus. I do not run fast. When the buses stop, I catch up with them.” If he teaches at evening school, then he runs twice around the Macao peninsula after class.

So life is tough for Mrs Pun, who sees little of her husband. “Before we married, I was like this, as busy as I am now. It is difficult to accept the situation but she tries to accept it as it is. 

“On the fifth day after the South Asian tsunami, I flew to Bandar Aceh. She said: ‘Why do you need to go? Stay at home, send someone else.’ I answered that, if I asked people to give money for the victims, I needed to have first-hand knowledge of the situation. As director, I cannot ask those below me to go to a place of danger and not go myself.”     

Four models for Paul Pun

Father Luis Ruiz Suarez, SJ, born in Gijon, Spain in 1913 and a missionary in China and Macao from 1941 until his death in Macao on 26 July 2011, at the age of 97.

Mother Maria Goisis, a Canossian sister, born in Bergamo, Italy in 1912. She worked in Macao for over 76 years for the under-privileged.

Father Lancelote Miguel Rodrigues, a native of Malacca, who worked as a priest in Macao from 1948, helping refugees and the poor, until his death in the city on 17 June 2013, at the age of 89.

Father Gaetano Nicosia, a native of Italy, who worked with lepers, children and young people in Macao and the mainland. He lives in Macao and is in good health, at 99.


By Mark O´Neill in Macao

Photos by Cheong Kam Ka

(Issue N. 25, November 2014)