Henry Li watches his customer’s hands. They’re moving slowly in simple shapes; silently delivering an order. Henry smiles, nods his head, and sets about creating two cups of sweet Nanyang-style coffee. His customer raises their thumb and flexes it twice: ‘Thank you’. ‘No problem,’ Henry signs back: another satisfied customer.
Henry mans the barista station at Dignity Kitchen, a new Singaporean-style hawker centre in Hong Kong – with a twist. Like Henry, most of the employees who staff the kitchens and service areas have some form of physical or intellectual disability. For Henry, this means a hearing impairment, which makes it more difficult for him to work in other coffee houses. But at Dignity Kitchen his talents are embraced, with extra measures put in place to help him shine.
‘We have photos and videos to teach the customers simple sign language,’ Henry explains. ‘This helps me a lot by easing the communication barrier when making drinks. It also enables me to make friends with my customers.’
Dignity Kitchen spans the second floor of a restored pre-war tenement building at 618 Shanghai Street, with a revitalised verandah overlooking the bustling streets of Mong Kok. Inside, the food stalls have been painted a dark green – an icon of Hong Kong’s 1950s and ’60s street food scene, with nostalgic red lampshades and mural paintings of old Hong Kong created by artist Apple Tong, who was born with a congenital hearing impairment. Each of the seven hawker stalls serves up classic Singaporean hawker food, such as Hainan chicken rice, laksa, spicy rojak salad and pandan chiffon cake, using ingredients and head chefs imported from Singapore to replicate authentic tastes.
However, feeding hungry lunchtime and dinner crowds is only part of the mission. The real purpose of Dignity Kitchen is to empower those with disabilities and disadvantages by equipping them with the tools to become financially independent. The social enterprise was brought to Hong Kong in January by entrepreneur and executive director Koh Seng Choon, who first launched the concept in Singapore a decade ago.
‘What I see are their abilities, not disabilities,’ says Koh, who has welcomed a diverse workforce of about 40 people with all kinds of disabilities, ages and backgrounds. And it’s not just about employment: training and development are key parts of the initiative, with a focus on training programmes in a range of disciplines such as cooking, service, restaurant management, cleaning and operating the tills. Koh hopes Dignity Kitchen will become a training ground for a skilful new workforce who can go on to find employment in Hong Kong’s wider industry. ‘We have the most enthusiastic trainees here because they want to make the most of the opportunity,’ he adds.
For those like Alison Fung, who is currently in a wheelchair, the unique opportunity has been a lifeline. ‘I prefer an office-based role as I am physically challenged, but I haven’t been able to find a suitable job. I am delighted to be a trainee at Dignity Kitchen: here, I receive extensive training in the catering industry and am thrilled that I can work in the office as a clerk or double up as a cashier during busy hours,’ she says.
Though it only opened a few months ago, Dignity Kitchen is already experimenting with wider initiatives. In early February, for example, it launched a pilot scheme with the neighbouring Cordis Hotel to introduce food delivery services staffed by those in wheelchairs – and there are more plans in the pipeline.
Ultimately at Dignity Kitchen, good food really does nourish the soul – for customers, staff and the community alike. As Alice reveals: ‘I have learned a lot and feel more confident in communicating with others, like suppliers and wholesalers. I am also very happy to work with my colleagues who share similar backgrounds – it makes me feel like I am not so different. This is the driving force that supports me to go on during a difficult time.’
Dignity Kitchen, 2/F, 618 Shanghai Street, Mong Kok; +852 2561 2633