On a sweltering early evening in August in Sham Shui Po District, food shoppers surge out of a wet market carrying bags of fresh food and heading home for just another homemade dinner. One street away, a group of people have a different meal plan for the evening. Sweating profusely, they wait patiently in a long queue outside a community center while chatting with familiar faces. They are a diverse group, consisting of elderly people, young and middle-aged adults, primary school children and wheelchair-bound persons. Yet they come for the same reason: to enjoy an affordable, healthy two-course dinner that costs HK$10.
“I come here five days a week with my wife. It’s nice here. It’s almost like a different world,” says a 70-year-old man who identifies himself as Leung. “For $10, you get a meal with a soup, a hot dish and rice. Where else in Hong Kong can you get a deal like this?”
It is indeed a unique deal, offered by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) and CLP Power Hong Kong under the “Hotmeal Canteen” community project.
Launched just about a year ago, the second-floor canteen targets financially strapped residents in Sham Shui Po, a district with one of the lowest median monthly household incomes in Hong Kong. Since its inception, the 500-square-feet eatery has become a popular dining option for a growing number of locals who struggle to make ends meet.
Every evening at around 6pm, the canteen, operated by HKCSS member Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service, opens its door to a long line of diners who have registered with the center declar- ing they are either jobless or on low income, and are not on social welfare. By paying $10 at the reception desk, they get a dinner set prepared by Lily House Restaurant, a social enterprise affiliated with Oi Kwan. Those with financial difficulties can enjoy the dinner for free. Apart from hot meals, the center also provides computer facilities, job counseling service for those looking for employment, as well as traditional Chinese medical treatment.
While enjoying a fish filet and melon soup, Leung says the canteen has helped him cut down on living expenses by about 20 percent. A former bus driver who retired more than a decade ago, Leung and his wife live on a monthly allowance of $3,000 from their daughter. This allows the couple to spend an average of $100 per day. “That’s not a lot of money for two persons. We rely on it to pay for every- thing from bills to food to a piece of soap. But everything in Hong Kong is getting so expensive nowadays. A bowl of rice from a fast food shop near my home costs at least $6. Where do you find enough money to survive? This canteen is a big help to the community,” he says.
Leung’s home is a few minutes’ walk from Shun Ning Road, the northern part of Sham Shui Po where Hotmeal Canteen is located. The area is lined with public housing estates and low-rise buildings, many of which contain crowded, partitioned flats inhabited by low-income families or elderly people. There are plenty of fast food shops and small restaurants around, and an ordinary meal generally costs about $30, which is three times the price at Hotmeal Canteen. A $20 difference may sound a paltry amount, but not for many residents in Sham Shui Po. Official figures in 2010 indicated that the poverty ratio of Sham Shui Po was 22.4 percent, compared with the overall average of 17.9 percent in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people across Hong Kong are strug- gling to eke out a living amid rising inflation and a yawning poverty gap. The city’s Gini coefficient, an income inequality measure, has increased from 0.43 in 1971 to 0.537 in 2011. According to HKCSS, 181 out of every 1,000 Hong Kong citizens fell below the poverty line in 2010, and the number of people with difficulty securing three meals a day has continued to soar.
Dignity and strangers
It was against this backdrop that the Hotmeal Canteen was born. According to Oi Kwan’s program operator Raymond Chiu, the idea has evolved from a Wan Chai canteen project launched by Oi Kwan in 2009, with a view to providing an inexpensive dining option to working people hit by the global financial crisis.
“As the Wan Chai project proceeded, we were increasingly aware that many people who lived under the poverty line needed help on a continuous basis,” Chiu says. “Those affected by the financial crisis would emerge from it at some point. But some people seem to stay below the poverty line no matter what they do. They are in great need of help.”
According to Chiu, many grass- roots families spend up to 40 percent of their income on food. With food prices rising, many are struggling to meet their basic nutritional needs. The canteen project was launched with the aim of offering more than 30,000 nourishing hot meals to the needy in the space of 12 months. Dietitians provided by CLP super- vise the rotating menu. The idea of imposing a charge of $10, says Chiu, is meant to enable diners to “keep their dignity” knowing that they are consumers rather than free-riders. As at July, some 18,300 meals had been served.
Of the some 140 people who come to the canteen on an average evening, more than 40 percent are aged 60 or more. Another 40 percent are younger people such as Sandra Yu, a single woman in her 30s. Since losing her office assistant job months ago, Yu has been skimping on food in order to save money. A typical meal for her was noodles at a fast food shop, and she often postponed lunch until teatime just to further cut down on food expenses. Gradually she developed anemia from the unhealthy eating habit and fainted from time to time. Nevertheless, since she started eating at Hotmeal Canteen, her health has shown remarkable improvement.
“Now I don’t faint anymore. I don’t have to spend money seeing the doctor and I can use the money to get more fruits. And because the food at the canteen is much healthier, I have a rosier complex- ion,” says Yu, who lives at a singles hostel run by the government.
But it’s not just the food that has changed things for the better. A sense of community at the canteen has also given Yu a more positive outlook on her future.
“One evening I got in too late and the $10 meal was sold out. I was a bit down. A friend I met at the canteen then dug into her pocket to buy me a dinner with roasted pork and rice. I said I would pay her back but she insisted it was her treat. That was a nice moment. You do get a sense of belonging here,” she said.
A former wood carpenter who dines at the canteen five days a week with his 10-year-old daughter concurs. “It’s not just about physical health but also mental well being. Many people in Hong Kong are a bit lonely. You go to work and then go home to eat alone. If you dine out, you don’t talk to the strangers sitting next to you,” says the unemployed man in his 50s, who identifies himself as Chan. “This canteen is different. It’s a community with a friendly atmosphere. You say ‘hi’ and talk to other people. It lifts your spirit.”
Chan’s daughter says she likes going to the canteen, not least because she can meet other school children and play computer games with them prior to dinner. Adults diners like Yu, on the other hand, use the internet facilities at the canteen to look for jobs. A job counseling team is on standby to provide job-searching support, which includes mock job interview, CV writing and job referral. Another service involves healthcare, whereby two CLP employees who have been trained in traditional Chinese medicine offer basic health check and Chinese massage.
Chow Lap-man, director of marketing and customer services of CLP, says the benefits of the whole program are a two-way street. While the diners can enjoy an affordable meal and various add-on services, CLP’s employees who volunteer to help also have something to gain.
“There’s a notable improvement in their team spirit. Sometimes we may think work is a drag and making a living is not easy. But when you reach out to the community, you realize many people live a much harder life. This helps you keep things in perspective,” Chow says. “As for CLP, a project like this helps improve our bond with the local community.”
But it’s not as if the canteen project has been without challenge. For one thing, it is not always easy to lure people on low income to come to the canteen as they may shy away from socializing or are secluded from the community. To promote the program, CLP’s volunteers have been paying door-to-door visits at residential buildings where there is a concentration of grassroots households.
“People who live alone tend to be more reluctant to talk to us. It takes time to open them up,” says Venus Tam, a CLP graduate trainee and one of the voluntary workers. “And we have to be careful not to appear condescending. They may be poor but they don’t want to be pitied. We have to stress that the hot meal has a price.”
Another challenge has to do with inflation. According to Chiu of Oi Kwan, food prices have soared by about 30 percent since the canteen’s establishment a year ago, thus eating into the program budget. Fortunately, though, public donations have been growing in recent months and CLP has been matching the public donations dollar-for-dollar.
“In Hong Kong, poverty relief used to be something that involved poor people outside Hong Kong. But today we realize many people within Hong Kong need help, too,” Chiu says. “When it comes to making donations, one tends to help those closer to home. This partly explains the growth in public donations.”
Now with more funds, the project, originally scheduled to run for one year, is set to extend into next year at least. Chiu says there is a possibility of introducing the canteen to other districts in Hong Kong, but it depends on funding.
Meanwhile, diners like Leung at the Sham Shui Po canteen are enjoying their hot meal while it lasts. “I hope it will continue. If it has to end, it’ll end. But it’ll mean we have to spend more money on food and cook in our hot, cubbyhole kitchen. I don’t look forward to that,” he says with a wry smile.
How you can help:
You can make a difference with your donation to the Hotmeal Canteen. More details are available at http://www.clp.com.hk/hotmeal or the enquiry hotline (2864 2929).
Published in biz.hk in September 2012