A Chinese Connection: Behind a Big Harvard Gift to Study Happiness

Another day, another big gift at Harvard. No, we're not quite talking the huge numbers that hedge funders John Paulson and Kenneth Griffin, or real estate mogul Gerald Chan bestowed on the university in recent years. Still, Harvard recently received the equivalent of a $21 million from the Lee Kum Kee family to fund research on the links between psychological well-being and physical health. The funds will establish the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Those of us in the West marvel at the apparent happiness of certain cultures in the developing world, and wonder why we, the comparatively privileged, can't always access that same feeling. Go to your local Barnes and Noble, and you'll find a self-help section full of books like the Power of Positive Thinking or The Happiness Quotient. If you do your shopping online, your queue likely has some of these books, as well. I'm especially guilty of queuing up these books, seeing them when I purchase something I probably shouldn't, while the Book That May Change My Life sits perpetually in queue.

I think I just overshared there.

In all seriousness, though, science for a while now has been telling us that a person's outlook on life can influence their health. Conditions that may be directly or indirectly affected by emotional well-being include some of the world’s biggest killers, including heart disease, obesity and suicide. The goal of Harvard's new Lee Kum Sheung Center is to make discoveries that can inform "personal behaviors, medical care, public health programs, and wide-ranging public policies not traditionally associated with health care and medicine but that can help people live longer, happier, and healthier lives."

We couldn't help but notice that the donors here, the Lee Kum Kee Family, linked up with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to make this gift. In 1888, late patriarach Lee Kum Sheung invented oyster sauce in the southern Chinese city of Nanshui, Guangdong Province, and established the Lee Kum Kee business. The family currently owns Lee Kum Kee Sauce Group and LKK Health Products Group, two multinational companies headquartered in Hong Kong. 

The T.H. Chan School, meanwhile, draws its name from the late T.H. Chan, who built a successful real estate business in Hong Kong. T.H. Chan's sons, Ronnie and Gerald Chan are worth $2 billion and own Hang Lung Group and the Morningside Group. In 2014, Gerald Chan joined the ranks of major Harvard philanthropists when he gave a huge $350 million to the School of Public Health.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Education data, Hong Kong has become the top international source of large gifts to U.S. colleges, making up 17 percent of the world’s total donations to U.S. universities. In the case of Gerald Chan, he earned a doctorate from Harvard. But what about a family like the Lee Kum Kees? 

Well, part of the story is that U.S. schools are dedicating more staff to international fundraising, as Amir Pasic, the vice president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, notes. It's unclear if any connection exists between the Chans and the Lee Kum Kee family, but the two prominent families are part of an economic elite in Asia that also has strong ties with the states and other parts of the world. These connections likely influence philanthropy, too. Other funders in this space include Zhang Lei of Hillhouse Capital Group, who's given big to Yale, and SOHO China’s founders Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi who gave $15 million to Harvard.