Health and wellness

Counselling cafe out to beat ‘self-imposed constraints’ of Chinese culture, says founder ‘Mrs Wong’

  • With no prices on the menu, SecreTalk in Ma On Shan is not about the money, but making a positive impact on people’s lives, says cutthroat executive turned counsellor Nicole Ip
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2018, 11:06am

In a sleepy Hong Kong village, a property with a lush, European-inspired veranda peeks out from a row of concrete houses. Its tenant is cafe owner Nicole Ip Yan-lan, affectionately known to locals as Mrs Wong.

The delights on Ip’s menu do not come with price tags – her guests are free to donate however much they please for meals and drinks.

“I hope people will come here to relax and find a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on. Food and drinks are just a side business,” the 57-year-old says.

A middle-aged couple leaving the cafe thank Ip for her hospitality.

“We’ll be telling our brothers and sisters at church all about your good work,” one says.

Another guest, a young woman, praises Ip for her kindness, and encourages her to keep it up.

For Ip, a certified marriage and family therapist, running SecreTalk in Ma On Shan is not about the money, but making a positive impact on people’s lives.

Since the cafe opened its doors early last year, people from all walks of life have been pouring out their heart to Ip.

“I’ve had a widow in her 40s who had a poor relationship with her children and didn’t know what to do about it. I’ve also seen a 20-something who was struggling because he had been bullied all his life,” she says.

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However, the former garment merchandiser admits she was not always charitable.

“I used to be ambitious and aggressive. By the time I was 29, I was already a manager at a listed company.”

She attributes her cutthroat attitude to her upbringing in an underprivileged household. At just 10 years old, Ip was already caring for three younger siblings at home, helping them get ready for school and preparing their meals.

“One time, I forgot to boil some water, and my mother chased me around the house, trying to beat me with a clothes hanger,” she says of her rocky relationship with her mum.

“I was always under pressure from my mother to get things right, and achieve high standards.”

The turning point came in her late 30s, when she became inspired by interactions with underprivileged young people at church. It was then that she realised she could do more for the less fortunate, just by being there for them.

“For 12 years, I was working 13 hours a day, travelling back and forth between Hong Kong and mainland China. Work was busy, but I had no purpose, and no direction,” Ip says.

“Then these young people made me realise what I really wanted to do was make a positive impact on other people’s lives.”

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The realisation prompted Ip to answer her calling: in 2004, she left the fashion industry and became a missionary at a Christian and Missionary Alliance church after attaining a bachelor’s degree in theology. There, she led training sessions for couples and families, as well as religious classes.

She then furthered her studies by enrolling in a master’s course in marriage and family therapy, and started volunteering as a counsellor. Although many friends and acquaintances expressed interest in her services, some were reluctant to meet her at church.

“So I said to them: ‘Let’s chat over a meal instead.’ That seemed to sound a lot more appealing to them,” Ip says.

“That’s how I came upon the idea of running a counselling office where people can eat, relax, and talk about their feelings.”

The following year she founded her own social enterprise and opened SecreTalk. On top of providing guests with food, drinks and free counselling services, the cafe is also a venue for Ip’s workshop, which teaches people the importance of effective communication and how to be aware of others’ emotions.

One aim of the workshop is to help participants identify and overcome what she considers the self-imposed “constraints” that are common in Chinese culture.

The reality is, everybody goes through ups and downs. And if we don’t address our negative emotions, we could spiral into depression
Nicole Ip, cafe owner

“For example, people hesitate to open up about problems at home, as it might reflect badly on their elders. Or they might be reluctant to seek psychological help because they’re worried people might think there’s something seriously wrong with them,” Ip says.

“The reality is, everybody goes through ups and downs. And if we don’t address our negative emotions, we could spiral into depression.”

Through helping other people overcome their constraints, Ip has also mastered her own. The former straight-A student encountered a rare setback when she failed a part of her master’s course in marriage and family therapy.

“I spent the following year reviewing and reflecting on my flaws, and realised the reason I failed was because I was too obsessed with getting a good grade, instead of listening to the needs of my clients,” Ip says.

Her new-found compassion has also helped rekindle her relationship with her mother. A few years ago on Mother’s Day, Ip mustered up the courage to give her mum a call and tell her she loved her.

“She was like: ‘What are you talking about?’ She wasn’t used to expressing her feelings either,” Ip says with a laugh.

But Ip adds that her mother still expects to “see results”.

“Mum would ask me if people are actually visiting my cafe. But I believe as long as I make a positive impact on every person who walks through the door, even if I die tomorrow, I’ll have no regrets.”