Hongkonger who fell on hard times escapes life on the streets to become Chinese restaurant chef
Tam Wai-lok went from cold nights on the street to the heat of a restaurant kitchen despite having never made anything more than instant noodles
Tam Wai-lok’s bed used to be a cold stone table in a Mong Kok park.
The 41-year-old Hongkonger, who has no family, was forced to sleep rough after a series of unfortunate events left him practically destitute.
“I saw people looking for food in rubbish bins,” he says, but he preferred not to do so himself. “How to fill my stomach was a big question every day.”
Watch: How a homeless man became a chef
Before bedding down in parks, the former construction worker lived in a cargo container for six months after his employer, an automotive waste company, could not offer him enough work to live on due to the economic downturn.
He then turned to ad hoc work in the decoration industry, but was owed money by his boss, meaning he could no longer afford to rent his Mong Kok home. His landlord demanded he move out after he eventually owed two months’ rent.
The experience of living on the streets was traumatic, he says, and he prefers not to discuss in detail how it made him feel.
“I could only think about the future,” he says. “I could not think about anything else at that moment. “When I was homeless, the hardest thing was just finding a place to rest and somewhere to live.”
Fortunately, during his stint in Mong Kok, Tam learned about a free programme being offered by the Salvation Army, which has a base in Yau Ma Tei, giving rough sleepers the opportunity to train as chefs.
The charity’s scheme, which has been running for about two years, is a collaboration with the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades Charitable Foundation Limited, and is supported by HK Electric.
It remains a small but vital scheme for now; there are about 10 participants per course, with 31 people joining so far.
Participants are trained in basic cooking techniques and many go on to undertake apprenticeships at a local restaurant, which in Tam’s case developed into a full-time job.
Tam, who was welcomed onto the scheme despite not being religious, was also offered a bed at the Salvation Army’s Yee On Hostel in Mong Kok during his training. The set-up gave him the opportunity to save some money for his own home.
“I was just trying to see if they could help me to get employed,” he says. “After I called them, they quickly came to see me and sent me to one of their dormitories that night.”
Tam, known to friends as “Kwat”, began learning how to cook, having only ever known how to prepare instant noodles.
He admits he was initially hesitant to pursue a career in the catering industry, but soon grew more confident about his cooking skills.
“I was unsure at first because of the long working hours and because I thought the salary might not be high,” he says. “But then when I considered it carefully, I decided to try. There’s nothing bad about just giving something a try.
“Now I feel quite different. I like my job. I do not intend to change my career now. I will stay in the catering industry. I enjoy the sense of achievement.”
Tam has now been working for one year as a chef at traditional Hong Kong restaurant Trusty Congee King in Sha Tin, part of the Tai Hing restaurant group.
He says things are looking up; he likes his colleagues, especially his senior chef, who serves as his mentor. And after six months at the Salvation Army hostel, he could afford to rent his own home again. He even has a girlfriend, who is vegetarian, and he says he enjoys cooking meals for her, particularly anything with eggs, his favourite cooking ingredient.
“I didn’t expect it but I realised that I’m able to cook,” he says.
Tam says he has thought about opening his own restaurant one day, but for now he is happy focusing on cooking up a storm in the kitchen.
“I would like to be respected by customers for my food,” he says. “I don’t treat my work as just work. I’d say I’m not going into it as a job; it’s for fun. There’s less pressure. Maybe people will easily get tired after a day at work, as working pressure in Hong Kong is big. But compared to other jobs I’ve had before, my current job has less pressure. I can still have fun when I’m off.”