Hong Kong Cancer Fund’s Sally and Robert Lo take on ‘the Big C’

Hong Kong Cancer Fund’s Sally and Robert Lo take on ‘the Big C’

The Hong Kong Cancer Fund’s Sally and Robert Lo talk to Angharad Hampshire about their 28-year mission to ensure no-one faces the disease alone, and their own battle with ‘the Big C’

Robert and Sally Lo. Portrait: Jonathan Wong. Pictures: Robert and Sally Lo; Hong Kong Cancer Foundation; SCMP

Sally Lo has lived with cancer for nearly 30 years.

She has not been afflicted by “the big C” herself but, as founder of the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, she has been surrounded by the disease through her work and, recently, it struck closer to home, when her husband of more than 40 years, Robert Lo Kai-leung, had to wage his own battle.

“I have lost a lot of friends over the years,” Sally says. “You become close to people and then lose them, which is, of course, very difficult. But, sharing the last chapter of someone’s life is an enormous privilege. And being able to make a difference to someone is so rewarding.”

In the mid-1980s, one of Sally’s best friends, a young mother of three, died of stomach cancer. At the time “the C word” was taboo in Hong Kong and there was no information or support available. The experience spurred Sally to action and, in the 28 years since she started the organisation, which provides all its services for free, Sally has devoted the best part of her life to helping others overcome and live with cancer.

I meet the Los at the Cancer Fund’s CancerLink Centre, in Central. The muted-beige colour scheme, cosy armchairs, library and peaceful side rooms have the feeling of a relaxed cafe or hotel lobby. Clinical it is not.

Dressed comfortably in cashmere and corduroy, the couple exude warmth. Silver-haired, yet seeming remarkably young for their years, they wear the mantle of a life spent dealing with deadly diseases lightly. Robert, the fund’s co-chairman, is calm, affable and avuncular. Sally’s light-hearted sparkle belies the steely determination and focus that has been necessary to build the group into what it is today.

The Cancer Fund started in 1987 in a doctor’s dining room as a small support group. Today, it is the city’s largest cancer support organisation, with centres in every public hospital that has an oncology department, three support centres in the community, a home visit programme, services that cover all age groups and extend to all those affected by cancer, including family members and carers. There are now 21,000 users, more than 100 full- and part-time staff and 600 volunteers.

Its purpose is to ensure “no one faces cancer alone”.

Robert and Sally at their wedding, in London, in 1968.

SALLY HAS COME A long way, both metaphorically and geographically, from the upper class family in London into which she was born. Her early years were, by all accounts, comfortable. However, she broke from the norm in her 20s, by marrying a Hong Kong Chinese man, a rare occurrence at the time.

Robert was born into an equally well-off family. His grandfather, Lo Yuk-tong, was an immigrant from Guangdong province. Exactly how has been lost to history, but he gained a place at Queen’s College, the first public secondary school in Hong Kong.

Grandfather Lo learnt English, which enabled him to get a job with trading company Sassoon. In time, he became comprador of British colonial lender the Mercantile Bank, which would be acquired by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation in the 1960s. In those days, companies needed a native manager through whom all local business transactions passed.

“We’re not talking small clients here,” says Sally. “We’re talking aviation, manufacturers of refrigeration and much more.”

A young Li Ka-shing, who was then manufacturing plastic flowers, was one of the family’s clients.

By the time Sally and Robert met, in the 60s, the Los had acquired great wealth and lived in a family mansion on the site the Hopewell Centre now occupies in Wan Chai.

Robert, like many well-heeled Hongkongers of that era, was educated in Britain, first at boarding school then university. He won’t reveal the exact institutions as the couple “don’t want to be pigeon-holed”, however, he concedes modestly that, “I went to all the right places”.

When Robert was 25, he was working in London as an accountant, and Sally, then 20, was doing an apprenticeship in gemology. Robert’s best friend had a crush on Sally. The crush was unreciprocated but Sally’s friendship with the young Hongkonger grew.

“He was a spare man at my dinner parties and I was a spare girl at his,” Sally reminisces fondly.

Robert and Sally’s children (from left) Emma, Siu-fan, Melissa and Siu-mei.

London’s “swinging 60s” were a far cry from Hong Kong at that time. The leftist riots of 1967 brought political instability and, as the disturbances increased, business withdrew from the territory. Robert was called back to help manage the family affairs. By now, it was Robert’s father, Lo Hing-kwong, who was acting as comprador. The scope for great wealth that came with the job was tempered with great risk, as the comprador had to guarantee his clients personally. As loan after loan went bad, the Lo family had to sell assets to make good the debts.

The turbulence and separation from Sally dominated Robert’s mind and he became set on marriage, inviting her out to visit in the summer of 1967.


“My family was not at all happy about me coming here,” says Sally. “The British press was full of information about the riots. The whole of the Hong Kong waterfront was covered in Mao Zedong red banners, and the British Army was on alert at the border. There was a lot of disruption caused by agitators who put explosives in tiny tea chests. Many of the police lost limbs trying to remove them. My family asked me what on earth I was thinking but I promised them it would be fine and off I went.”

Sally’s flight to Hong Kong went via Rome, Athens, Delhi and Bangkok.

“I had a hat box on my knee. Those were the days when you had to have a hat wherever you went, or at least that’s what I thought.”

She arrived in a city under curfew but her spirits were not dampened: “Life in those days was quite incredible. Everything was in grand style. We’d take the launch out, find a beach, put tables and chairs on it and have dinner parties. There was a 10 o’clock curfew but we didn’t take it terribly seriously. If we came in late from a boating party, we’d swim in. It was great fun.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though.

“The stock market plunged,” says Robert. “Property prices plummeted. Confidence dropped through the floor and it was all a bit harrowing. We had to make good all the loans. Luckily, we had sufficient assets.”

On the second day of Sally’s visit, Robert proposed on South Bay Beach. She told him she “wasn’t quite ready yet” and asked him to wait. Sally returned to London single but a few months later received a letter of proposal. They were married in London in 1968 then returned to set up home in Hong Kong.

Robert’s family mansion, which occupied the site where the Hopewell Centre stands, in Wan Chai.

“I busied myself being a young housewife,” says Sally. “One day, I was cleaning a bath and my mother-in-law, Lucy Lo Tam Lai-ming, whom I am very close to, stopped me and told me I must go out and serve the community. There is an extremely strong tradition of philanthropy in the Lo family and, now, it was my turn. So, I volunteered full-time at the Duchess of Kent Children’s Hospital, at Sandy Bay.”

Sally also helped to start Treats, a charity that assisted mainland refugees who had swum the 4km stretch to Hong Kong across Deep Bay and Mirs Bay, evading sharks and PLA bullets, from the tiny fishing villages of Shenzhen and Dapeng.

Sally and Robert had two daughters, Emma and Melissa, and fostered two more, Siu-mei and Siu-fan. Emma and Melissa attended a nursery school in Shek O run by a woman called Nickie Thomas. Thomas and Sally became friends.

In 1985, Thomas was diagnosed with stomach cancer and given three months to live. She returned to Britain for treatment with her three small children. Sally went back to be with her and, along with her twin sister, Jilly, and friends, she nursed Thomas through her final months and she died in 1986.

“At the time, cancer was very much taboo in Hong Kong,” says Sally. “There was no support or information. We were totally and utterly in the dark. It was an extremely difficult time for me because I lost a good friend. However, things in life have come to me for a reason. Within two or three weeks of being back in Hong Kong, I went to a dinner where I was asked if I would help with an oncology conference at Chinese University. In that same week, I was also called to ask if I’d start a cancer support group.”

The conference was a success and, at the end, HK$30,000 was left in the kitty. Sally suggested that the money be put into a fund to provide support and information, and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund was born.

“I started off with a support group, CanSurvive, cancer booklets and an office in a doctor’s dining room in Blue Pool Road. It all escalated very quickly. I was asked by Dr Jonathan Sham Shun-tong, a well-known oncologist, what I’d do if I were offered space in a public hospital. This was the turning point, because you can have all the information booklets in the world but you need to get to the patients at the point of diagnosis.”

The first Cancer Patient Resource Centre opened at the Queen Mary Hospital, in Pok Fu Lam, in 1992. Two years later, two more centres followed, at the Tuen Mun and Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern hospitals.

“Today, it’s a comprehensive network. We are in every public hospital with an oncology department, providing information and counselling. We also run a hotline, which is manned by a team of oncology professionals, including social workers and nurses. Our trained volunteers, all of whom have experienced cancer personally or through a family member, give us extra support. We also run eye-catching educational campaigns and give immediate relief to our clients with our hardship funds.”

Sally with Princess Diana at the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, in 1995.

Realising the importance of a presence in the community to provide support both during and after treatment, the Cancer Fund has opened three CancerLink Support Centres, with another, in Kwai Fong, in the pipeline. Anyone can walk into these centres to ask for free help and advice. Professional staff evaluate cases, assess anxiety levels and then work out a plan of action.

“When we started, we just served the client,” says Sally. “Now we serve the whole family and all our services are age specific. Wong Tai Sin, our largest centre, sees 150 or more people a day. People come to our centres for nursing consultations, counselling and need-specific programmes such as ‘You Can’, for young adults, and ‘Rainbow Club’, for children affected by parents having cancer. The fastest growing demand is for our Wellness stream. We offer yoga, breathing classes, meditation and hands-on healing to 1,500 clients a week through 55 therapists, and all manner of other therapeutic activities, from art, music and dance to rock climbing. We even do magic – that’s a lot of fun.”

The Cancer Fund supports clients through the entire cancer journey, in the hospital setting, in the community and with home care.

One of the organisation’s greatest achievements was to advocate cervical screening for all women in Hong Kong, which the government implemented in 2003.

“We opened our own cervical screening clinic at the Prince of Wales Hospital in 1995,” says Sally. “Closing that clinic, because the government introduced screening, is possibly one of the most successful things we have done.”

Sally tells the story of a man who came through her doors in the early days. His young wife had been diagnosed with tongue cancer. Her prognosis was good but she needed to have part of her tongue removed and reconstructed, which would result in a temporary loss of speech. The couple’s two sons, aged seven and nine, had taken the news very badly. As a result, the woman was refusing treatment and her husband was devastated.

“I know this sounds crazy but I often ask for the strength to problem-solve for the family or individual I am dealing with. In this case, I remembered that I had met a reiki teacher the week before. I suggested that they go, as a family, to the reiki teacher to try some hands-on healing. My feeling was that the boys might have a change of heart if they felt they were part of the healing process.”

Six months later, the same man appeared at Sally’s door beaming and bearing a bunch of flowers. He told her that all four of them had taken the reiki course and had done the hands-on healing twice a day. His wife had agreed to the operation, chemotherapy and speech training and had made a full recovery, even going back to work. Their sons had felt involved in the process and responsible for their mother’s healing.

“I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Thank you, Nickie!’ I still sometimes stop to tell her, ‘I hear you. I’m on the job.'”

Sally (left) with David Tang (Founder of Shanghai Tang), a member of the Cancer Fund, and Jennifer Murray, at a press briefing in 1990.

SALLY’S MOST RECENT ENCOUNTER with cancer proved to be one of the most challenging. This time last year, Sally and Robert went on holiday. Robert returned with a cough and went to see their GP. The doctor examined him and suggested he stay overnight for a scan. The results showed non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system.

“So the roller-coaster ride started,” says Sally. “Although we are entirely familiar with the process, it’s not the same when you find yourself on the other side of the fence.”

Robert was treated with target therapy and chemotherapy for 6 months.

“You feel like you are losing control of your life and that is the hardest thing to overcome,” says Robert. “You have no idea what’s going to happen to you next. The reassurance and support I received from the team made such a difference.”

Robert suffered blackouts and was rushed to hospital 7 times in 9 months. He lost an incredible amount of weight.

“My body is really in bad shape,” he says. “But the breathing sessions and gentle yoga are building my strength.”

Sally speaks of the experience with admirable optimism: “It wasn’t all bad. I have learnt a lot from being on the other side of the fence. This experience has helped me to realise how much courage people find when dealing with cancer. The inner strength people find is incredible. In-cred-i-ble. I also immediately employed two more dieticians as we realised, through our own experience, the importance of nutrition.

“The good news is that, today, cancer is treatable,” she smiles. Robert’s treatment is now complete and he is cancer-free. “Modern medicine is wonderful. Our challenge now is more and more survivors needing our help. The demand for our services is growing the whole time.”

The Cancer Fund operates entirely from donations.

“We need HK$80 million a year to fund our free services. We have a few extremely generous individuals, foundations and corporate long-term partners, like Louis Vuitton, all of which we value immensely. We also run events but they require a lot of time and energy. Quite honestly, it’s the man in the street who gives HK$100 a month that pays for a large percentage of our running costs. For this, I am eternally grateful.”

As Sally approaches a big-0 birthday, has she got plans to put her hat back in the hat box?

“No,” she says, firmly. “When I can’t problem-solve and I can’t make a difference any more then I’ll retire. The key thing is it’s a team effort and my team is fantastic. This might sound strange but when I want something badly enough it happens. When I want to find my replacement, they will turn up. Until then, my aim is to live every day with quality and to make a difference.”

Posters from Hong Kong Cancer Fund’s various campaigns.

To donate to the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, visit www.cancer-fund.org


Robert’s View

I’ve known Sally Lo right at the beginning when she just established Cancer Fund in 1987. She is very personable, sensitive, a great listener, and has an elephant’s memory of past interactions.

#HongKongCancerFund #LiKashing #PrincessDiana #SallyLo #HongKongCharities

Hong Kong Moms: the go-to Facebook page for tips on sex toys, nappy rash and life

Hong Kong Moms: the go-to Facebook page for tips on sex toys, nappy rash and life

Facebook group Hong Kong Moms has exploded in popularity among expat women, its 14,500 members providing each other with advice and support on every conceivable problem, passion and perversion. Hazel and Simon Parry report

 Founder of Facebook group Hong Kong Moms, Kara Arnaudy. Photos: Red Door News Hong Kong

You’re an expatriate mum in Hong Kong and you’ve got things on your mind. You suspect your best friend’s husband is having an affair. What’s more, you’re fretting about whether your own sex life and bedtime habits are “normal”. And, on top of all that, you’re worried your baby son may be communicating with spirits from another world.

Should you keep your fears to yourself? Should you confide in your husband or a close friend? Or should you tell thousands upon thousands of strangers?

The answer for an increasing number of women is option three and the medium of choice for many is Hong Kong Moms, a Facebook group that has become something of an internet phenomenon. It has nearly 14,500 members, representing a sizeable proportion of the female expat population, and shines a revealing – and sometimes hilarious – light on the lives, loves and intrigues of expat wives across the city.

As the telephone-based Community Advice Bureau wound down, finally closing late last year after 40 years in operation, Hong Kong Moms’ reputa-tion for quirky, frank and sometimes explicit posts has made it popular not only among expat wives but local women, and an increasing number of husbands who unashamedly log in to catch up on the latest gossip. From the mundane and everyday to the audacious and outrageous, the group attracts about 1,000 posts and comments a day, on everything from how to deal with aggressive neighbours to where to buy supplies for a superhero-themed children’s party and what to do if you see a helper chewing up food before feeding it to a toddler.

It began about five years ago, when American mother-of-four Kara Arnaudy decided to swap tips on Hong Kong life with a small group of friends.

“When I first moved here, 10 years ago, I didn’t know anyone,” says Arnaudy, who arrived in Hong Kong from Tokyo with her British husband before their children were born. “I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest every day. It was challenging.

Arnaudy with her husband and children

“It was really hard to get answers to the questions I had. I wasn’t sure how to navigate Hong Kong and if I had had Hong Kong Moms, it would have been such an easier move for me.

“[Whether I was] trying to find a paediatrician or dermatologist or something for a child’s birthday party and running around to different shops in Kowloon to find it … I was constantly emailing friends to ask for recommendations and help.

“I felt that there should be a more efficient way to share information among people who have done things before or found things or have other recommendations. So, I started off by creating a [Facebook] group and adding 10 friends, so we could post things and ask questions [to see whether] anyone had a recommendation or knew where to find something.

“It became very useful and [her friends] added a couple of people, then I added people, and it just snowballed from there. I hadn’t expected that. When I noticed it had 500 members, I felt quite shocked. Now there are more than 14,000. I am glad it has become such a great resource – I still use it even though I’ve been here for 10 years.

“Life changes and you have different questions and different needs, so I am constantly learning, but sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know. So, as I’m going through [the posts], I’ll think, ‘Oh that’s a good question; I’ll have to remember that.'”

The success of the group has a downside, though. Arnaudy wrote in a post last year, laying down the rules for using the group: “You wouldn’t believe the messages I have received accusing me of deleting posts, racism and threatening to sue me.”

There’s little doubt that the more scurrilous and titillating posts are the ones that drive traffic. One of the best-read posts is one shared from another website in which a woman describes the unusual post-coital cleansing rituals of her and her husband while another hugely popular one was by a Hong Kong mother inquiring about where to buy sex toys.


“It does amaze me that people are really liberal about sharing such personal information but it’s great that they are and that people are still responsive,” says Arnaudy, who works full time as a consultant for a relocation firm.

She believes that part of the group’s success is down to the nature of the Hong Kong expat household, where – thanks to domestic helpers – mothers have the luxury of being able to read through the posts over a glass of wine when the children have gone to bed. One regular visitor confessed in a message: “Some of the more controversial posts can take nearly 30 minutes to read. It’s my nightly entertainment.”

“At the end of the day,” says Arnaudy, “perhaps, in America, you would be doing the laundry and filling the dishwasher and then crawling into bed. Here, once people get the kids to bed, they can sit down and [log on].”

BY THE SAME AUTHOR: Bald blokes on bikes in the Balkans

Anthropologist Joseph Bosco, of Chinese University, says one of the reasons for the popularity of Hong Kong Moms is probably that expats, when they first come to Hong Kong, are socially isolated and find it difficult to meet people who they can turn to for help. However, he argues, it also mirrors broader social trends.

“The nuclear family is not really a very good institution for living,” says Bosco. “Humans did not live in nuclear families in the past. They were usually right next door to grandparents and uncles and aunts. So there was a constant coming and going, and I think this is really an attempt to create this kind of connection.

“Because they are in Hong Kong and they are in different time zones from family and friends, it makes a lot of sense that people would be using these methods to keep in touch and create a community. In Hong Kong, it just so happens that it’s mostly women who tend to be out of the workforce and staying at home with the children and need it more than the husbands, who have their community handed to them through their work.”

Says Arnaudy of her Facebook group, “What I think is so wonderful about it is how generous people are with their opinions and their time … It creates this community of support – you rarely find a post that no one will respond to.”

There are Facebook groups for mothers in other cities, such as Tokyo and London, but, says Arnaudy, “I feel this one in Hong Kong has the most traction. Perhaps it is because living in London is not quite as difficult to navigate [for speakers of English].

“Some posts are funny, some are quite sad and some are emotional. There is a different personality to each of them. There is a huge variety of subjects – just about every topic you can imagine and some you can’t.”

Discussions become especially heated when they revolve around vaccinations, the treatment of helpers and, lately, children relieving themselves in public, a subject that draws rants against, followed by equally passionate defences of, mainlanders. And the group is particularly effective at reuniting people with lost property. A couple travelling through Hong Kong on their way back to Australia after a trip to India were able to track down their camera, with all their holiday pictures. Countless laptops and mobile phones left in the back of taxis have been taken for safe keeping by Hong Kong Moms and returned to their rightful owners after being displayed online.

There is a Facebook group called Dads in Hong Kong but it has a much smaller membership and is decidedly less vocal and lively than its female counterpart. Recent posts have included requests for advice on buying a new BMW, tips on what to get a six-year-old for his birthday and suggestions on where to take a wife for a romantic meal.

“[That] really reflects the fact that, in Hong Kong, the proportion of stay-at-home dads is much lower than in, say, the United States,” says Bosco.

For one Hong Kong Mom, however, that status quo constitutes a victory in the battle of the sexes: “I hear that the posts on Hong Kong Dads are all civilised and polite,” she wrote recently. “They don’t talk about baby constipation or post rash photos. How boring are they?

“Hong Kong Moms are passionate, opinionated, supportive, helpful, loving, full of fire and, yes, occasionally bitchy and childish.

“Don’t ever change.”

Group hugs

Dads in Hong Kong (644 members)
“What about the Dads?” asks the introduction to this Facebook group, citing the popularity of Hong Kong Moms. The community offers fathers the chance to “share thoughts on fatherhood as well as practical advice about being a father in this city”.

Southside Mums (1,240 members)
A group for mothers on the south side of Hong Kong Island that allows members to “connect with other local mums to chat about anything to do with life with little people (and everything else that goes with it!)”.

Sai Kung Mummies (1,849 members)
A group for mothers in the Sai Kung area that promises to share “knowledge/advice/things happening in the area”.

Hong Kong Helpers (5,981 members)
Despite its name, this page isn’t for domestic helpers, but rather for families who employ them. It promises to offer help to “find one, hire one, train one or fire one” and to exchange information about good helpers who are looking for work.

Red Door News Hong Kong

UN to create world playlist for happiness with #HappySoundsLike campaign

UN to create world playlist for happiness with #HappySoundsLike campaign

What is happiness? The United Nations is teaming up with pop stars to create a playlist that asks, in musical form, that eternal question.

A campaign launched yesterday is asking listeners around the world to post through social media the songs that make them happy, with the playlist to be revealed on Friday, which is the UN-declared International Day of Happiness.

The curators who will assess the responses and determine the playlist include the British singer-songwriters Ed Sheeran and James Blunt, US singer-songwriter John Legend, French DJ David Guetta and the Portuguese pop star David Carreira.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is not generally known for his rock star persona, announced the initiative in an MTV-style video in which he offered his vote for Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit Signed, Sealed, Delivered.

Ban said that the song, also known to be a favourite of US President Barack Obama, represented his hopes for a successful agreement on climate change at a UN-led conference in Paris later this year.

The United Nations in 2012 declared an International Day of Happiness – which coincides with the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere – after an initiative by Bhutan, the Himalayan land that measures a “Gross National Happiness” instead of a standard economic indicator.

“On this day we are using the universal language of music to show solidarity with the millions of people around the world suffering from poverty, human rights abuses, humanitarian crises and the effects of environmental degradation and climate change,” Ban said.

Last year, the International Day of Happiness invited music fans around the world to dance to Pharrell Williams’ hit Happy, creating a viral sensation.

The campaign, which did not specify restrictions on genre, asked music fans to post songs on social media with the hashtag #HappySoundsLike. The playlist will be released by streaming service MixRadio.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 2:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 March, 2015, 5:57pm#HappySoundsLike #InternationalDayofHappiness #PharrellWilliams #HappySong #BanKiMoon #SignedSealedDelivered #GrossNationalHappiness #universallanguageofmusic #MixRadio

Year of the Goat: INFOGRAPHIC

Year of the Goat: INFOGRAPHIC

INFOGRAPHIC: Year of the Goat

Counting luminaries from Jane Austen to Chow Yun-fat, Goat people are sensitive and artistic, as well as stubborn, tenacious, determined and sure-footed. Chinese and Western astrologers both use cycles of 12 as the basis of personality prediction and horoscope readings but their methodology is very different. Here is a crash course for the celestially curious.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 9:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 9:14pm

Oscar Openings & Best Picture of the Year 1928-2014: INFOGRAPHIC

Oscar Openings & Best Pictures 1928-2014: INFOGRAPHIC

From the big letters that filled the screens in the 1930s and 1940s to the understated small type of modern times, opening credits are as much an art form as the movies themselves

INFOGRAPHIC: Oscar Openings

As the Oscars conclude for another year, the opening credits of previous Best Picture winners give a unique insight into the aesthetics of each of the 87 years of the award’s history. From the big letters that filled the screens in the 1930s and 1940s to the understated small type of modern times, opening credits are as much an art form as the movies themselves.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 8:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 8:28am#OscarOpenings #BestPictureOscars

The Ebola diary: Malaysian Dr Kwan Kew Lai’s harrowing journal of her time in Liberia

The Ebola diary: Malaysian Dr Kwan Kew Lai’s harrowing journal of her time in Liberia

When Ebola broke out in West Africa, Kwan Kew Lai knew she had to act. The mother of three and infectious disease specialist travelled to Liberia, the country with the highest death toll, where she documented her experience

Photos: Kwan Kew Lai

For six weeks, the 64-year-old Malaysian-born specialist in infectious diseases treated victims of the deadly epidemic sweeping West Africa, where nearly 10,000 people have died from the virus (4,162 of them in Liberia) and 24,247 cases have been reported.

Kwan’s blog about her harrowing time in Bong County was written for her family, but has been read all over the world. The following is an abridged version …


Tomorrow, I head to Bong, in Liberia, to volunteer with International Medical Corps (IMC), right on the heel of a second Ebola-infected patient in the US, this time a nurse who took care of [Thomas] Duncan, the first Ebola patient in the US.

Daily news of the Ebola outbreak is all over the media. The human toll is difficult to comprehend. After years of being a director of infection control and hospital epidemiologist, and of volunteering in Africa, I knew deep in my heart that I could not sit back. I took a three-day CDC Ebola Training course, at the Department of Homeland Security, along with 35 other healthcare personnel. Donning the full personal protective equipment (PPE), we began to have some sense of what it would be like to work in an ETU [Ebola treatment unit]. The worst day was our last – [trainers simulated temperatures of] 89 degrees F, but it will be much worse in Liberia because of the humidity. This was also the day Mr Duncan died from Ebola.

“Am I afraid of contracting Ebola? Sure, I am human”

Am I afraid of contracting Ebola? Sure, I am human just like everyone else. To date, over 400 healthcare workers have contracted Ebola and over half of them have died. But I cannot sit back and watch the death toll rise. If not for the tediously lengthy process of finding an NGO to volunteer with, I would have been there a long while ago.

Kwan dons her protective clothing.


OCT 17

We drove [from Monrovia] to Bong. A huge sign in the town announced, “Ebola is real and it is here in Liberia.” We had to get down at two road blocks to get our temperature taken. At one station a banner read: “Fight the Ebola virus, Protect yourself, Protect your family, Protect your community.”

After a few minutes of driving through groves of rubber trees, and along a winding road, blue-tarped buildings appeared atop a small hill surrounded by green jungle with ominous rain clouds in the background. Somewhere close by is an old leper colony.

In the darkened evening sky, we turned into a red-earthed dirt road. A sign marked the Ebola Treatment Unit of Bong County, funded by Save the Children and managed by IMC and USAID. A crew in their PPE was spraying down an ambulance which had just delivered a sick patient. In the evening light, they looked surreal.

“Ebola is real and it is here in Liberia.”


OCT 18

We began work at 6.45am. There were 33 patients, 15 confirmed and 18 suspects. This is a 52-bed ETU, just opened in mid-September. The sequence of donning the PPE is: first a pair of surgical gloves then non-sterile gloves, space suit, N-95 mask, hood, apron, goggles and lastly the third pair of gloves that are duct-taped to the gown. This could take about 20 minutes.

The doffing procedure, later on, starts with the sprayer spraying our suit and gloves with 0.5% chorine (each step is interrupted with handwashing with chorine), then the third pair of gloves come off after the duct-tape is removed, followed by the apron, goggles, hood, duct-tape, suit, N-95 mask, and the last two pairs of gloves. Then it’s handwashing in 0.5% chlorine, and rinsing with water.

OCT 21

During doffing, there were two instances which caused me some concern [that she had been exposed to Ebola]: while peeling off one layer of my gloves with my goggles already off my face, I felt drops of fluid fly into my eye and when the sprayer sprayed chlorine onto my PPE, wetness seeped into my scrubs. True breaches or not, I have to live with anxiety that understandably lurks at the back of my mind.

“I felt drops of fluid fly into my eye … now, I have to live with anxiety”

OCT 23

Daily, death visits the ETU with unfettered tenacity. Winner, a 6-year-old girl, tested positive and she was separated from her mother and sister and was being cared for by Bendu, a recovering Ebola patient [people cannot catch the disease for a second time] in the ETU.

During my training as an infectious disease doctor, I had read about viral hemorrhagic fevers: Ebola, Marburg and Lassa, Ebola being the deadliest. I thought that since the viruses most often caused outbreaks in Africa, it would be highly unlikely that I would ever see a case of Ebola infection in my lifetime. I guess I was dead wrong.


A body is carried to the Ebola graveyard.


OCT 25

Two more patients died overnight. Annie, 52, who roomed with her 22-year-old daughter, passed away. She only manifested weakness, besides vomiting. Her daughter, Nuwah, is understandably depressed. Kumba, a 40-year-old traditional mid-wife, robust and heavy, is significantly weakened by her infection and bloody diarrhea. Annie was buried this afternoon.

Winner continues with high fever. She is also bleeding from her IV site.


OCT 28

One can almost predict which patients will not do well. The ones with bleeding almost always fail to triumph over the infection. Winner and Zonnah finally succumbed to Ebola and they were both buried this morning. Winner was buried under a canopy of overhanging bushes creating a sheltered area for her. May they rest in peace. There are now 42 patients buried in the cemetery.

OCT 29

Bendu’s Ebola test finally became negative after three weeks of not being sick; she screamed that she was free from Ebola and danced with abandonment, having been anticipating such a day for a while. The ambulance brought in four patients at the end of that day, one of them died en route. The nationals who choose this line of work have a great deal of courage. Some live away from home because they are being shunned by their own. They are pariahs in their own country.

“Bendu screamed that she was free from Ebola and danced with abandonment”

OCT 31

Early this morning, Alfred, who is the sickest kid in the ward, managed to wander into the low-risk zone, where we [workers] normally congregate, disoriented and confused. He was barefoot and walked on the gravelled compound like a zombie. Everyone stayed as far away as possible while a nurse went quickly to don a PPE. He was so weak that he slowly slumped to the ground, first on all fours and then in slow motion he slid down and lay on the ground on his side. It was such a heartbreaking scene. He was finally taken back to his room. All the while a psychosocial nurse led a devotional in front of a group of patients, most of whom looked tired and worn out.

Kwan’s base.


A rare day off. We live on the campus of Cuttington University, which has been emptied of students because of the Ebola outbreak. During my first week, I lived with the nationals in Rally Hall Dormitory, in a room with three bunk beds. All the closets had broken shelves save one. There was no running water, the toilets did not flush, and only a few showers worked. When some expats left and freed up some housing space, the Kenyan nurse and I were moved into one of the guest houses, sharing a bedroom.



Yesterday, the long-awaited departure of Naomi and her daughter, Josephine, from the ETU finally took place, free of the infection at last. A survival wall is now set up, where the patients paint their hands and write their initials as they leave. A small triumph.

The survivors’ wall.

NOV 10

More deaths today. Almost 90 per cent of the patients in the Confirmed Ward now are from a single village. Pie died while her husband remains sick in the Confirmed Ward. In the mid-afternoon, I walked outside the ETU and took the forest’s winding path to the cemetery. The grave diggers are off on Sunday. All was quiet save chirpings from a few birds. Since I last visited, 20 more grave markers have been placed. Now there are about 60.


NOV 12

Someone called out from the ETU to say that pregnant Watta just aborted. We found the baby on the ground next to the fence, cord coiled loosely around its neck, placenta attached. The baby was crying and breathing well after such a rude entry into the world. We found a shoe string to tie the cord. By then a midwife had donned a PPE and came in wearing heavy duty gloves, which decreased her dexterity, to tie knots on the shoe string before she finally cut the cord. The left side of the baby’s face was covered with small pieces of gravel. It was a baby boy. He was just about the length of three of my palms and was as light as a feather. It is quite likely that the premature birth was caused by the Ebola infection.

The Ebola graveyard.

NOV 13

My roommate came home after her night shift reporting that when she saw the baby, she could not believe that he was so pink. She gave the baby dextrose and he took about three milliliters. In the best of times, in her opinion, he would have lived if placed in an incubator and given a continuous dextrose drip. But no one would take the baby because of the possibility of Ebola. When she made rounds again in the early morning, the baby was still alive. This miracle fought hard and lived for one day; my roommate did not think he would live much longer without nutrition and warmth. She was distraught that the mother, Watta, did not show interest in the baby, which was also my impression yesterday when I found her already clean and eating breakfast while her baby was lying in the dirt next to the outdoor shower, cold and uncovered.

“No one would take the baby because of the risk of Ebola”

NOV 14

The one-day-old baby [now deceased] tested positive for Ebola. The cord blood was also positive but the placenta was indeterminate.

Kwan and a patient.

NOV 15

The Confirmed Ward is full, with 31 patients; in fact, a few more beds were squeezed into some of the bigger rooms making it difficult and somewhat hazardous for us to move around. There are now 44 patients, 13 in the Suspected Ward and 31 in the Confirmed Ward.


NOV 20

Since the last time I came to the cemetery, almost two weeks ago, the number of graves has increased to more than 80. There are only one-and-a-half unused graves dug, the grave diggers are barely keeping up with the pace of death.

I am winding down my time here now. How does one cope with this everyday tragedy? In the medical field, we are often taught to distance ourselves from our patients so we will not be personally affected when they are approaching death. But here in Bong it is hard to keep that distance.

NOV 22

Saying goodbye to the ETU was a little difficult but the time has come to leave and go home and have a good rest. On my way out of the ETU, while travelling in the IMC cruiser this morning, I heard someone call out, “Kwan Kew”. I did not catch a glimpse of the person but I realised that I had been here long enough now for people to know my name. Indeed, the nationals are so great at pronouncing my name, with such confidence, it is rather refreshing.

I am now in Monrovia, as hot as Bong but crowded. Like other African cities I have seen, the infrastructure is not in tip-top condition. I sometimes am doubtful that, if there had not been civil wars, it would be. [Kwan later clarifies: “The need for foreign aid seems to be perpetuated by (local) politicians who stand to gain from the presence of NGOs. It is as though they are afraid that if progress is made, the NGOs will go away; so they … walk slowly where improvement of infrastructure is concerned.”]


NOV 28

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health contacted me regarding the issue of the 21-day quarantine. I am not technically quarantined but I am not to go into crowds or where people congregate, but could go for a run or a walk, and a quick trip to the store. If I do get sick, my cat would have to be isolated. Today I received a White House Holiday Open House Invitation, in celebration of the holiday season, for December 6, to see the White House holiday decorations, in recognition of my contributions to the country. I could bring along a guest. This would be an ideal birthday present for my eldest child, Tim, for December 6 is his birthday, but this falls on the 16th day of my 21-day quarantine. [Kwan was re-invited after her quarantine ended.]

At the White House with her son, Tim.


Although everyone seems to commend me on my volunteering, however you slice it, homecoming has been somewhat intrusive and not altogether welcoming. The only people/creature who have unconditionally accepted me are my family and my kitten, Grisela. Twice today I reached out involuntarily to shake hands [with someone] only remembering to withdraw in mid-stream. In Bong, we devised an Ebola hug: we pretended to hug without really hugging. The only persons we could touch were our patients but this was only through layers of protective clothing and gloves. So it was a wonderful change to receive a real hug [from her family].

“Homecoming has been somewhat intrusive and not altogether welcoming.”


FEBRUARY 6, 2015

Next week I am going to Sierra Leone to volunteer in the Ebola outbreak.

Shortly after returning from Liberia, during my quarantine in December, I received a message from IMC to ask me for a possible re-deployment. I knew that I would go back again … but at the time of the call, I was not ready to do so right away as the sad memories of my Ebola stint were still raw and painful.

Why go a second time? Didn’t I count myself lucky to escape catching Ebola the first time? I have been asked these questions. In the ETU, loneliness is pervasive and palpable; children are often hospitalised alone, away from their parents, some are made orphans, many patients suffer excruciating pain, and struggle with their fear of dying and worst, dying alone.

My presence might not make a dent in the Ebola [death toll], but it eases the aches in the lives of the few I touch. Every day I am there will make a difference in someone’s life.

To read more, visit ebolaliberiakwankewlai.blogspot.hk


Penang-born life saver: Dr Kwan Kew Lai

“I’m from a very, very poor family,” says Kwan Kew Lai, of her upbringing in Penang, Malaysia, via a Skype call from the Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone, where she is currently based.

“I was one of 12 children. Then my father, a government worker, adopted three more. It was chaos!”

At the age of 18, Kwan left. She won a scholarship to attend  Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, the United States, then studied dentistry at Harvard University, before switching to medicine.

“I decided that I liked infectious diseases. So once my children were born I plunged myself into medical relief.”

“I decided during my training that I liked infectious diseases. I wanted to do relief work, but  be a normal person with a family, too. So once my children were grown, I plunged myself into medical relief.”

Ten years ago, Kwan – who lives in Boston with her husband, a law professor – embarked on her first overseas assignment, to Indonesia, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

“I was slated to travel to Banda  Aceh, but the Indonesian government put a stop to foreign volunteers, so my team and I ended up in  Cuddalore, south India. We did medical relief work in the seacoast villages devastated by the tsunami.”

She has since volunteered her services during the Haitian cholera outbreak of 2010, provided medical relief during the conflict in Libya and treated Vietnamese HIV and Aids patients.

“In 2006, it was the beginning of Vietnam setting up HIV care,” she says. “They had very little medicine. Only 10 per cent %of people eligible to receive medication could actually get it.”

When Kwan turned her attention towards Africa’s Ebola sufferers, her three grown-up children  were upset but gave her their blessing. Her husband, on the other hand, was relieved; the decision scuppered her plans to volunteer in  Islamic State ravaged Iraq.

“He was more afraid of Iraq than Ebola,” Kwan says, “because I could at least protect myself against disease.”

Now  in her second six-week Ebola relief stint, Kwan says the disease’s hold on Sierra Leone is slowing.

“We have 52 beds here, but eight patients,” she says. “The case numbers are decreasing but transmission in villages is still high.

“But I’ve heard that cases recently increased in Guinea, so we haven’t won yet.”

Jenni Marsh


#KwanKewLai #InternationalMedicalCorps #medicalrelief #EbolaLiberia

Why Blurred Lines copyright case was about cash, not artistic theft. The history of past infringements.

Why Blurred Lines copyright case was about cash, not artistic theft. The history of past infringements.

Pop artists have always built on sounds from the past, but should that be seen as theft? The jury in Marvin Gaye family’s suit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke thought so

The two-week trial featured pop singer Robin Thicke sidling up to a piano to play songs by U2, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. Superstar producer Pharrell Williams attempted under oath to parse the difference between vibe and theft.

Testimony in a Los Angeles federal court to determine whether Thicke’s groove-heavy, cowbell-driven 2013 pop hit Blurred Lines infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit Got to Give it Up was nothing if not entertaining.

But let’s not mince words: the lawsuit litigated against Thicke, producer-songwriter Williams, rapper T.I. and their song was about cash, not artistic theft. If it hadn’t hit big on the charts, there would have been no lawsuit. And on Tuesday, a jury awarded Gaye’s children nearly US$7.4 million after determining that Thicke and Williams had copied their father’s music to create Blurred Lines.

Mostly, the trial was about Thicke’s ill-advised reference to Gaye’s song during interviews and the bid by Gaye’s estate and publishers to take advantage of the fuzzy line between inspiration and infringement, and monetise it.

The verdict against Thicke and Williams could have a chilling effect on creators, especially in an era when almost every song in recorded music history can be accessed in seconds. What artist will acknowledge specific inspiration when it could be used as evidence in a copyright infringement suit?

“Feel, but not infringement,” Williams said on the stand of the differences between his track and Got to Give it Up, which showcases Gaye’s inimitable falsetto and disco-inspired rhythm. “I must’ve been channelling that feeling, that late-’70s feeling.” The Gaye estate, wrote Williams’ legal team, was “claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work”.

The late, great Marvin Gaye in concert in 1983. Photo: Corbis

Thicke even tried to distance himself from having much of a role in the creation of his biggest hit, claiming to be “high on Vicodin and alcohol” when he arrived at Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank.

That’s quite an admission, considering the track was one of the biggest of 2013 and earned Thicke and Williams about US$5 million each. Before Blurred Lines, Thicke was a notable purveyor of blue-eyed soul. His work with Williams, one of the most successful hitmakers of the past decade, helped make Thicke a household name and earned him a sit-down with Oprah Winfrey.

I feel free. Free from … Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told

“Right now, I feel free,” Gaye’s daughter, Nona Gaye, said outside the courtroom. “Free from … Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told.” Gaye family lawyer Richard Busch says he plans to seek an injunction blocking future sales of Blurred Lines.

After the verdict, Los Angeles composer and producer Gregory Butler said that his friends and colleagues in the industry were stunned by the verdict. “You’ve made it illegal to reference previous material,” says Butler, also a managing director at music start-up WholeWorldBand.

“I’m never going to come up with something so radically different that it doesn’t contain references to something else.”

By the time the final arguments were delivered on March 5, questions about the creative process and the art of the song had been explored in detail. In an attempt to define boundaries of expression and composition that have been historically – and rightly – vague, jurors were fed details on the legalities of inspiration.

Those issues are the meatiest to contemplate, because to some ears a side-by-side comparison of the songs in question reveals profound similarities in feel, but are they egregious and obvious enough to earn the Gaye estate a payout?

Which is to say, what else is new? Pop music is, at its base, a form of creative theft, one in which each new generation of artists builds on the vibes and ideas that influenced them during formative years. For every visionary are a hundred thieves, and the only difference is that one celebrates his theft while the others claim ignorance. What, after all, was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message but a politicised riff on the Sugarhill Gang’s party anthem Rapper’s Delight? Echoes of Ray Charles’ classic What’d I Say can be heard on recordings as far back as the late 1920s, with that same crazy piano riff and mid-song breakdown.

Bob Dylan can’t release a new song without somebody screaming theft. Dylan’s response, as told to Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone: “Wussies … complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing; it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”

From a legal standpoint, the issue was whether Blurred Lines was an original work or “shares defining compositional elements” with Gaye’s song. This distinction explains why George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord was found in 1976 to have infringed upon the Chiffons’ hit He’s So Fine. The chorus and the vocal melody were virtually identical. Ditto Michael Bolton’s Love is a Wonderful Thing, which was found to have lifted parts of the Isley Brothers’ song of the same name, and resulted in an award of US$5.4 million in 1994.

Marvin Gaye’s daughter Nona (second from left), ex-wife Jan and son Frankie with lawyer Richard Busch after the court ruled in their favour. Photo: AP

One key difference in 2015, though, is that outside sounds are so easily accessed in the studio. Where once an artist could be inspired only by music he or she had already heard and processed, immediate access to musical ideas is now a search engine away. As a result, the recording studio isn’t the artistic bunker it once was, but porous to all copyrighted work available via YouTube, Spotify and iTunes.

Want a vibe like Gaye’s Sexual Healing? Pull up the track on Spotify and listen to how they pulled it off. It’s a genius song, so why not riff on its structure? As long as an artist doesn’t swipe the lyrics or the main melody, where’s the harm? Williams said Gaye’s work is sacrosanct. Why would he want to steal it? “The last thing you want to do as a creator is take something of someone else’s when you love him,” he said.

Producer Brian Eno, responsible for seminal work with artists including U2, David Bowie, Coldplay and Devo, has said this new openness marks a vital shift. He has noticed that during recent recording sessions artists often reference old recordings as part of the creative process. “We suddenly refer to music a lot in a way that never used to happen,” he said.

“When you went into the studio in the past, you went to a space that was actually, deliberately sealed off from music, because the only music you were supposed to be hearing in there was yours,” he said.

“And this sudden thought that the whole library of recorded music is … available to you as reference material, really. I think that’s changed the way people work a lot. So as a composer, I think it makes a really big difference, because it sort of erases history in a way.”

That flattening of era, genre and production techniques has helped spawn a mix-and-match pop music world in which a Motown-suggestive backbeat can couple with a mid-1990s Chicago house rhythm and a grand production sound inspired by Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys to create something new.

What occurred in the studio with Blurred Lines was that sort of history eraser, and is similar to what occurs regularly. The difference is that Blurred Lines became a hit and proved itself an incredibly profitable piece of art. It spent three months at No1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, and has earned US$16 million overall, according to testimony.

As it was rising, Thicke told Billboard that on that August 2012 session he had Gaye on the brain. “Pharrell and I were in the studio making a couple of records,” Thicke said, “and then on the third day I told him I wanted to do something kinda like Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it Up, that kind of feel ’cause it’s one of my favourite songs of all time. So he started messing with some drums and then he started going ‘Hey hey hey …‘ and about an hour and a half later, we had the whole record finished.” He later said he was boasting about his input.

There’s one lesson to be learned: riff all you want on old stuff while brainstorming ideas. Just don’t talk about it, hey, hey, hey, and erase your Spotify history before leaving the studio, hey hey hey.

Los Angeles Times, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse