No such thing as a free lunch in cutthroat Hong Kong? Founder of Grateful Free Vegetarian Restaurant believes ‘a simple meal can save a person’
- Non-profit eatery operates on charity funds and provides a comfortable place for meals for those on hard times amid city’s relentless pace
- Founder Ng Po-sin, 29, believes everyone deserves to dine with dignity
Every day from 11am, a restaurant in the old Hong Kong neighbourhood of To Kwa Wan invites people in with three dishes, a bowl of soup and unlimited rice – for free.
“Free food is not impossible even in a highly materialistic city like Hong Kong,” says Ng Po-sin, the founder of the non-profit eatery, maintained by funds from a charity.
Ng, 29, opened Grateful Free Vegetarian Restaurant in October last year. Free vegetarian food is served from 11am to 2pm for a total of 200 people daily except on Sundays. The three-hour lunch slot is divided into six half-hour sessions seating 30 people each. Diners can pick a suitable slot and get a reservation ticket in advance.
True to its name, the restaurant’s operations centre on the theme of gratefulness. Before meals, volunteers lead diners – mostly the elderly – in a chant: “Be grateful to heaven and earth, as well as to parents, and for health and food”.
The idea came to Ng one year ago when as chairman of charity Ran Deng, he was handing out free meals in poor neighbourhoods and found that most of the needy did not even have a comfortable place to enjoy meals.
“Some elderly people who make a living by collecting cupboard boxes could only eat sitting on their stacks or on stairs. In winter, food became cold soon, while in summer, people were sweating from the heat,” he says. “There was no dignity.”
“Our restaurant aims to let everyone enjoy a meal with dignity. No matter if they are poor or rich, old or young, we love and welcome all of them. All of us have our difficult times, and sometimes what saves a person is as simple as a meal.”
The idea is to provide a cosy, peaceful environment for those in need to enjoy a good meal, Ng says.
He notes that in crowded Hong Kong, finding a quiet place to dine is a luxury.
At Grateful Free Vegetarian, diners who come in eat quietly. Volunteers say this is part of the place’s culture to maintain a comfortable meal experience for all.
Lam Kam-tong, 77, is a regular of the free meals at the restaurant. He lives nearby and frequents the place daily. “The food is healthy and delicious. Volunteers of the restaurant are all nice and warm-hearted.”
Lam lives with his wife and two sons in a flat for which he is toiling to pay the mortgage. “The pressure and cost of living is huge. Although we have a roof, food is expensive,” he says, adding that coming for free meals at Ng’s establishment has reduced his expenses.
Tang Wai-ting, 71, another regular, echoes the same views, adding: “This restaurant provides a harmonious environment for us.”
Not all agree with founder Ng’s philosophy however, especially in highly competitive Hong Kong where most believe there is no such thing as a free lunch. When he proposed the idea of using funds from charity Ran Deng to support his eatery, he was opposed by members, who dismissed it as a “waste of money”.
“The money from a charity fund is not for saving or investment. It is for doing good things for society,” Ng says, recalling his argument to critics. “I told them they had to dismiss me as chairman to drop the idea.”
With his insistence, he finally received an amount of HK$750,000 (US$95,800) to open the restaurant. But insufficient funds to maintain the operation has always been his biggest challenge, he says. The monthly overheads amount to HK$100,000, including HK$52,000 for rent and salaries for three chefs and the restaurant manager.
He says he chose To Kwa Wan for the location instead of Sham Shui Po, the city’s poorest district, because the latter was already saturated with charitable services. The problem though, is that the place has not attracted enough public attention, he admits.
Still, To Kwa Wan’s population is the target segment for Ng, with shabby neighbourhoods and old residential buildings, mostly occupied by the elderly poor still shackled by mortgages but who are not eligible for government subsidy schemes.
On the bright side, his efforts are slowly paying off, with others in the area who believe in the same cause coming in to help – Grateful Free Vegetarian now has 108 volunteers.
Chau Chiu-ying, 54, has been volunteering at the restaurant for a year. Before that, she had worked in sales for 12 years.
“I gave up on my previous job when I came to know about this meaningful thing that Ng has been doing. I also want to make contributions and help others with my heart,” she says, adding that she finds the work rewarding.
Volunteers have also come from grateful diners – Wong Yuk-ha, 67, says she happened to pass by the restaurant one day and went in for a meal. After that, she decided to become a volunteer.
“I want to help the elderly like me, and I hope others will treat me the same way,” she says.
The work roster for volunteers functions on a “lucky draw” system where staff pick at random, tennis balls indicating different chores. A rotation of tasks is done every half-hour. Chau says the system is fair and ensures a harmonious working environment.
As for Ng, having run the operation for more than a year, he says he is glad that the place has become part of the community and hopeful that it will grow. “Not only diners feel grateful, but so do us.”