Restaurant Owner "Ming Gor" on Feeding Hong Kong's Homeless and Why He'll Never Turn a Profit
Chan Cheuk-ming, aka 'Ming Gor," is the owner of Pei Ho Barbecue Restaurant and Pei Ho Counterparts. He's like a figurehead for Sham Shui Po, offering the poor and the homeless sustenance for free. Photos by Kirk Kenny / studiozag.com
I started working in the restaurant field after leaving primary school in mainland China in 1969. I came to Hong Kong as a stowaway in 1979. Less than 10 days after my arrival, I started working at a kitchen in Sham Shui Po, and I’ve been here ever since.
I started working at Pei Ho Barbecue Restaurant in 1983. In ‘97, my then-boss retired and emigrated, passing the restaurant on to eight staff members, including me. After 8 years, I was the only one left. Maybe because I wasn’t good at managing people, I lost more than $200,000 that year.
In 2008, we got together with the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) to create meal coupons for the poor. Each meal was priced at $22: They got a big company to sponsor $15, we sponsored $2, and we sold the meals in Sham Shui Po for $5. It started as a way of bringing in more business. But it turned out to be so much more.
Everyone who opens a restaurant wants to make a lot of money. But over the past 10 years or so as a restaurant owner, I’ve never made much. At the beginning, I didn’t know why. But then I realized I was too soft-hearted. I just wanted to help people in the neighborhood and offer them lower prices. I’ll never make a profit. But what I do now is perfect for me. I can use my strength to help people. My heart has to be put into the soil of charity to bloom.
"We do what we can to fix what’s missing in society, like fixing holes in a wok."
We were facing great pressure in 2011 when the minimum wage law was introduced. We thought about giving up, but we refused to. So I decided to take only $5,000 per month in salary to get through it. Later that year, the government began Scheme $6,000, where they gave out rebates of $6,000 to each adult in Hong Kong. Some young people thought this was an unfair policy: “What’s the point in giving out money to the rich?” they asked. Around 20 people donated their handouts to us to help the poor. With the support of these young people we started giving out meals to the homeless.
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People flocked to our restaurant after TVB did a show about us. So it’s society’s power that kept us afloat. So I made a pledge: As long as I could pay the rent and my staff’s wages, I would never raise prices. Since then it’s been $22 per meal—up until March this year, when I had to raise the price to $24.
When we started getting more support, I began thinking about what more we could do. Can we give out meals to the homeless not just once a month, but maybe once a week? There were around 60 homeless people in Sham Shui Po, but the number kept rising to 80, 100… now we need to make 200 meals each time. I’ve been doing this for 5 years now. Every Saturday, no matter what, even when a typhoon signal 8 is up, we still go visit the homeless, because that’s when they need our help most.
You might only know about us giving out meal boxes, but there’s actually a lot of work happening behind the scenes. From meal coupons for low income families, to helping the homeless, to offering meals to the elderly who live alone, it’s a step-by-step process. It was never one big project. We’ve come through a lot of trials, evaluations and improvements to get us to where we are now.
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We’ve been acting like “wok-fixers” over the past few years: We do what we can to fix what’s missing in society, like fixing holes in a wok. We want to balance the benefit for the community. We get a lot of support from different organizations. We give these contributions out to bakeries, grocery stores and restaurants in the neighborhood. I want to help lower the costs for small businesses so they can sell their food at lower prices while keeping business healthy. We have to keep improving, keep evaluating, keep moving forward. If we concern ourselves only with giving out meals, [the whole movement] will just grind to a halt.
The day will come where I will have to step down. That’s why I want to encourage the younger generation to pick up what I’ve been doing. I have been passing on some of the work to the younger ones. I have to delegate, I can’t do everything myself. It’s like we’re on a boat and I’m the helmsman who makes sure we’re going in the right direction— but we still need sailors to keep us moving.