Before the sun rises, Ming-gor is hard at work. In a relatively quiet corner of bustling Sham Shui Po, the 66-year-old is bent double under the weight of bags of meat, fish and vegetables.
Clad in a stained undershirt, and soaked to the skin with the sweat of his labour, Ming-gor drops the bag next to the kitchen stove.
Ming-gor, whose real name is Chan Cheuk-ming, owns the Pei Ho Barbecue Restaurant inside the municipal services building on Pei Ho Street. The restaurant is best known to local customers for its tasty, low-cost meals, which it has been serving since 1983.
But Ming-gor is a man with a mission: he has been offering free meals to the homeless and underprivileged for years. “Every business wants to make profits, but mine does not,” said Ming-gor.
As Lunar New Year – Hong Kong’s biggest public celebration – approaches, Ming-gor is gearing up for an annual distribution of free lunchboxes and fast food restaurant vouchers to homeless people.
This year, the Pei Ho restaurant will also distribute a limited amount of lucky bags in which some daily groceries, food and drinks are included.
Ming-gor’s social project began in 2008, when the restaurant collaborated with the Society for Community Organization to provide meal coupons to the underprivileged, who could buy lunchboxes for just HK$5. The campaign started with 20 volunteers giving out 80 lunchboxes every Saturday.
Word of mouth and social media meant news of the programme spread quickly. Ming-gor attracted more volunteers as well as sponsorship from various companies and organizations. Now, Pei Ho distributes more than 1,000 lunchboxes each week, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The subsidized customers have helped stabilize the restaurant’s income but Ming-gor said he is still uncertain about the future.
“There will be a day which I have to step down but I am worried about whether or not the younger generation will pick up this business,” he said.
As long as Ming-gor keeps going, homeless people, ethnic minorities, refugees, rehabilitated offenders and low-income families will continue to benefit.
“I come here every Saturday,” said Chan Ming-ho, a 45-year-old customer. “I just hope that there could be more people who care about us homeless people
According to the government statistics, Hong Kong is the second most unequal city in the world in terms of income. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income or wealth distribution, stood at 0.539 in 2016, the most unequal level in 40 years.
Meanwhile, Sham Shui Po is the poorest district in Hong Kong with a poverty rate of 18.2%. There are more than 100 homeless people in the district. “I am just way too soft-hearted. I know that I will never make profits from the business but I still want to help them,” said Ming-gor.
There are still about 970,000 people living under the poverty line in Hong Kong. “Even though the phenomenon is worsening day by day, the government still has not yet done much to protect the underprivileged. Less than 20% of poor people are covered by Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA),” said Lee Tai-shing of CSSA Alliance, an advocacy group.
Despite Ming-gor’s commitment to the poor, the statutory minimum wage introduced in 2011 nearly put him out of business. “With the introduction of the minimum wage scheme, the cost skyrocketed to a level that I had even thought of giving up the [restaurant],” he said. Donations enabled him to keep going.
“When the government is not reliable, we have to do things on our own. I believe that individuals can make a difference,” said Ming-gor. “As long as there are holes in society, I will try my very best to fix them with my wok.”