City Weekend

Good service: the Italian chef doing his bit for the local Hong Kong community

Having spent more than two decades in the city, and endured the Sars pandemic with his business intact, Michele Senigaglia is using his business to give back

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 2018, 1:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 6:24pm

It was a citywide tragedy which helped one Italian chef learn to love his local Hong Kong community.

In 2003, Hong Kong went through the deadliest pandemic in its history: severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars. The disease infected 1,755 people locally, killing 299.

While schools were cancelled and shops closed, Michele Senigaglia’s restaurant stayed open as the rest of the area battled the deadly virus.

While fear spurred people to stay at home and wear face masks and gloves to protect themselves from the disease while outside, Senigaglia – who has lived in the city since 1998 – wanted none of that from employees at his restaurant, DiVino Wine Bar & Restaurant in Central.

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“It was especially during this hard time that I thought people would need to feel at home. No gloves, no masks at the restaurant. Customers should feel welcome and not isolated,” Senigaglia, the restaurant’s Venice-born co-founder, recalls.

While other local restaurants closed their doors, taking a financial hit or even going out of business, the diner was open every day.

“At one point we were the only one in the area that remained open,” Senigaglia recalls. “We eventually became an entertainment spot for those who wanted to relax and enjoy an evening out, having a drink or a nice meal with friends, which allowed them to take a break from the nerve-racking situation.”

And just like that, his restaurant survived what others believed to be the toughest times for Hong Kong’s economy.

“We actually made money during Sars because customers appreciated our efforts and supported us by coming in,” Senigaglia says. He adds that, other than the authentic Italian food, the restaurant won Hong Kong over with its wide variety of wine.

More than 10 years later, Senigaglia and his wife, Joey, part-own four restaurants in the city. Having lived in Hong Kong for two decades, the restaurateur says he has grown to love it like a second home and always had the community’s interest at heart.

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“The people have become cold; too drawn into their own busy lives that they are not aware of others who desperately need help. That is why it’s important for those who can to give back and help those who can’t help themselves. And I see that as my way to make up for the lack of compassion in a city that’s too preoccupied with its fast-paced developments,” he says.

When he and his wife married in 2014, the couple made a donation to Save the Children, a charity, and asked their guests to donate to a charity of their choice instead of giving them wedding gifts.

That was just the beginning. Since then, the couple have been dedicating a lot of time and effort to help a wide variety of local charities, both financially and physically.

They also help rescue homeless animals in the city.

In addition, Senigaglia’s restaurant group also provides free catering and sponsorship to support charities that help young children, including the Heep Hong Society, which helps children with special needs get a good education. In the past year, it gave away about 500 dishes.

“To help others, you must start from within,” Senigaglia says. “Don’t bother with convincing others to do what you do. My belief is when others see what you are doing, they will follow. We are only giving away a part of what we have, but that can sometimes create a huge impact for those we are helping. It doesn’t cost much to be generous.”