Leung Choi-ling's Social Enterprise for the Mentally Ill Faces Its End
She owns Fusion Court cha chaan teng in Shek Kip Mei’s Pak Tin Estate, which is slated for redevelopment next year.
When did you start your business? I opened my first cha chaan teng 27 years ago in Sheung Shui. I started it because I’m an absolute foodaholic. I love cooking and eating! I learned from my brother, who knew how to cook dai pai dong dishes. But then the rent in Sheung Shui got too expensive, so I turned to the government and bid for shops under the Housing Authority—that’s how I started Fusion Court here in Pak Tin Estate. At first, it wasn’t smooth at all. The location isn’t that appealing, it is quiet and secluded and it took me a while to gather customers. But I believe in the quality of my food.
Many of your staff suffer from mental illnesses. When did you start employing them? Around seven years ago, through a program initiated by the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association. They are people who have recently recovered from mental disorders and now want to get back to supporting themselves. Everybody deserves a chance to prove themselves.
What kinds of issues do they deal with? They used to suffer from mental disorders such as depression; some are ex-cancer patients. One of my staff members used to suffer from depression. After she recovered she had lost her confidence to face the world, and was afraid society would not accept her for her past. Working at Fusion Court enabled her to regain her confidence.
What will happen when Pak Tin Estate is redeveloped? I know the Housing Authority will be giving compensation to shops, but I don’t want the money. I want Fusion Court to stay in Pak Tin Estate. The district councilor suggested I report my case to the Housing Authority and see if they would grant me an exemption. But I was told that the system has changed and I cannot get a store. They told me to take a place in the wet market, which is impossible for me.
And then what happens? If I have no choice I will risk bidding alongside big companies such as Café de Coral and Maxim’s for a place in the new shopping mall. Which is totally unfair—I know I stand a very small chance against them. But I will not give up on my employees or my cha chaan teng. My staff are worried they will not be accepted if they have to work in other places, but I know most would prefer working to receiving government assistance. They are all clever, but society often stigmatizes them, and that puts pressure on them. They have all recovered and are eager to learn and try, a quality I very much appreciate. They deserve their chance just like everybody else.
Are customers prejudiced against your workers? Yes, some customers tell me off because they find the staff slow and unresponsive. I keep their situation a secret: I never tell my customers about my employees’ struggles; I just tell them that it’s difficult to employ people. It is true that my employees need time to learn, and they require a lot more attention and patience, but the effort is worth it.
What success stories have you come across? One of my ex-employees just got promoted to be the director of his company. I can still remember when he first started working here: He was extremely reclusive and mumbled to himself. He started out doing delivery work, and then slowly got better and became a lot more confident. I am very proud of him. Occasionally, he comes to visit us to share his story and encourage the staff.
A version of this article appears in the December 11, 2015 issue of HK Magazine as Street Talk.