How one Hong Kong restauranteur-turned-Good Samaritan is thinking outside the lunchbox
Sham Shui Po restauranteur Ming Gor – who has made a name for helping the neighbourhood’s needy – on food, his Lan Kwai Fong fundraiser, and what the city needs to help those left behind
Sham Shui Po’s culinary Good Samaritan, Chan Cheuk-ming, also known as “Ming Gor” around the neighbourhood, is fundraising in Central for his plan to distribute over 40,000 free meals next year to poor people in the city. The owner of Pei Ho Barbecue Restaurant has become a local charity icon for his efforts to feed the homeless, and single old people, in his community. But with rent soaring recently, Chan’s restaurant was forced out of business earlier this year. But good-hearted neighbours helped him out.
After Chan got back in business only a few months ago, he decided to launch a fundraising event in Lan Kwai Fong where he will sell 300 lunchboxes in a pop-up shop every day from November 17 to December 15. Chan’s shop, in front of 1 Lan Kwai Fong, sells each lunchbox for HK$32 with HK$4 going to Chan’s Pei Ho Foundation. On the first day of his campaign, all 300 lunchboxes sold out within an hour. Supporters can also donate to the fund by buying a voucher in a 7-Eleven for HK$24, which will cover a meal for one of Chan’s beneficiaries.
How did you start doing charity work as a restaurant owner?
I started working in the kitchen when I was just in grade school on the mainland. Shortly after I arrived in the city in 1979, I started working at a restaurant in Sham Shui Po. And I have been in the neighbourhood ever since. Then I started working at Pei Ho Barbecue Restaurant in 1983. Later everyone else left and I became the only person who manages the restaurant. Then I slowly realised that I struggled to make a profit although I have been in business for so long. And the reason is that I have too soft a heart. Whenever I got some stocks in, I always want to sell them cheap to the neighbours so that they could also afford a good meal. So in 2008, we partnered with the Society for Community Organisation to create meal coupons for the poor. Each meal was priced at HK$22. A big company sponsored HK$15 and we sponsored HK$2. So we earned a profit of about HK$5. It started as a way to attract more business but then it became the first step into what I do now.
Many Hongkongers applauded your efforts to keep your meal boxes as cheap as possible. Can you tell us about that struggle?
For the longest time, I had been satisfied with the small profit I made, which could cover my rent. But then when the rent and the cost of business went up, I felt like I was being pushed out of business. I have managed to avoid raising prices for five straight years. Before I closed shop in March this year, I was still selling my lunchboxes for only HK$22 each, a price that was set in 2011. The reason that I managed to do that was by cutting the cost. I basically do all the maintenance at the restaurant. If the kitchen needs plumbing – instead of hiring someone else – I will just roll up my sleeves and do it. But later the rent just had to go up. So I talked to the volunteers at my shop and they said: “Look, your rent is rising by an extra HK$10,000. Given you sell about 200 meals a day, if you raise the price by HK$2, you would have an extra HK$400, which means you would have an extra HK$12,000 by the end of the month to cover your rent. So we decided to raise the price by HK$2.
How do you and your foundation feed the poor in the city?
We give out free meals to the homeless, to neighbours in need and to the elderly who live alone. We have also expanded to care for the South Asian refugees in Yau Ma Tei, preparing about 100 meals for them every Monday. Every Tuesday we prepare meals for 180 people aged over 65. We gave each of the elderly a card, which is valid for three months, so that they can come to us from 5pm to 7pm every Tuesday to get their meals with the card. With a card, they won’t have to stand in the queue and fear being shoved by others. On Thursday, we prepare 150 meals for the homeless Vietnamese refugees. On Saturday, we prepare 400 meals for 200 elderly who live alone and 200 homeless.
What are the challenges that you have faced in helping those in need in the city?
Sometimes homeless people feel insecure and treat us with mean words and actions. So we had to approach them with a gentler manner so as to avoid confrontations. And we had to learn how to relieve ourselves of all the frustration and grievances. So if they turned us down, we would still try to offer them free meals.
What is it like when you are turned down by those who you want to help?
There was this one time when I was giving out a free meal to a homeless person. The meal was a salmon head, two chicken wings and some fruit and vegetables. I asked the homeless man whether he wanted it or not and he said no. And I said: “It’s OK. I will give it to someone else.” He was originally sitting in a wheelchair. And he started rolling his wheelchair and chasing me. He was yelling at me and said: “You only feed us with the leftover fish heads”. I didn’t really argue with him and just carried on giving free meals to others. And then he leapt out of his chair and tried to swing at my head. I dodged the attack and he fell down. His legs were screwed to some assistive tools so he was struggling to stand. I later sent a friend to talk to him that night. Then I returned on the third day to meet him. He kept his head down when we first saw each other. I offered him a cigarette and asked him: “Do you want your meal today?” And he said yes. This is a story of how I have learned to forgive others and not let myself be consumed with hatred.
Besides doling out free meals to the needy, what else does your charity do?
We have been keeping tabs on what people in the community need. When we see any loophole [in welfare policies], we try to be flexible and support those in need. We just want to make sure that every citizen can get their steady supply of food. [For example], we look to fill the vacuum where many elderly who live alone are not getting their meals from community canteens which only operate on weekdays. We used to try to feed them on both Saturday and Sunday. But now as the number of beneficiaries has increased, we can only help them on Saturday. On Saturday, we now visit two villages. We have also seen loopholes in the welfare scheme that is set up by the Social Welfare Department. For example, if there is a family who desperately needs social security assistance, it normally takes the department a month to grant the assistance. In other words, within the first month, that family would not be supported by the government. So I decided to support these families. They can come to me for both meals of the day until they get on the CSSA [Comprehensive Social Security Assistance] scheme. And now some other institutes and NGOs such as YMCA would also refer cases to us. In addition, we also learn about their wants and needs so that we can try to find them some employment opportunities even if they are just some temporary jobs. We also guide the homeless when they apply for CSSA and disability allowance.
How about a moment when you were touched in all these years when you were trying to feed the poor in the city?
There isn’t any singular moment. We have seen some elderly families in the community in which the mother and daughter live together. While the daughter is about 50 years old, the mother is in her 80s. They are on CSSA and they also come to us and churches for free meals. By the end of the month, if they have any money left, they would donate it back to us. And they were saying that they hope their meagre saving can also help others in need.
Is your insistence on selling lunchboxes cheaply hurting other businesses in the neighbourhood?
We are trying to balance the interests of different business owners in the community because our activities could affect their businesses. So each week before we pay our weekly visit to the retirement homes, we routinely drop by neighbouring stores for some groceries and home supplies such as fruit and towels, which could also help their businesses. These small businesses help us in turn by providing some food that is nearing its expiry date, which could help those elderly in need to reduce their costs. So we are trying to promote mutual respect between different parties in the community.
Is your foundation expanding out of Sham Shui Po by organising this fundraiser in Lan Kwai Fong?
Having this fundraiser in Central still does not mean that we have expanded out of Sham Shui Po. This is just a fundraiser for us to continue our existing work. But we are considering establishing service centres in other districts of the city. Some of our social workers have noticed that there are plenty of elderly and working class in Kwun Tong. So we are seeking help from investors and hoping we can start business in Kwun Tong next year.
What do you think about the large number of people that we have under the poverty line in the city?
Every city has its own poverty problem. But in dealing with poverty, Singapore is so much better than Hong Kong. They know how to benefit the investors on one hand and ensure the quality of living for those at the bottom. People complain that it is a dictatorship. I think we can still take a page from them in balancing the interests between investors and the working class without turning our politics into a dictatorship. So what we need is a chief executive who really bears working-class people’s interests at heart.
How many volunteers do you have with your foundation?
I have a group of 30 regular volunteers who always take their time to support me. For example, if our programme has 20 days of events, they will support me for twenty days. I see these people every day and they said if I could do it at my age, they could also do it. And they also mobilise people around them to participate. Besides these 30 people, when the need arises, we see about a few hundred people turn up to help. These volunteers vary in age, ranging from people in their 20s to people in their 40s. But I was asked in an interview what is the one item that I want to give to people, I said I want to plant a seed of love in the hearts of today’s youth. So that they can spread their love in whatever they do in their life.
What are three defining traits about the people in Hong Kong?
First of all, I really think there are lots of caring and loving people in the city. Many people do feel like they are fortunate and happy to be living in the city. We see many people rush to raise funds for various natural disasters around the world. Then, I also believe that Hongkongers are very wise. We have so many healthy debates about democracy. We have democratic movements and we reflect on the lessons we have learned. Thirdly, I think people in the city really take actions to accomplish goals.