Hong Kong social enterprise restaurant trains disabled and disadvantaged

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Dignity Kitchen, © AP/Press Association Images
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By Zen Soo and Alice Fung, Associated Press

Dignity Kitchen, located right in the middle of Hong Kong’s bustling Mong Kok neighbourhood, offers an array of mouth-watering Singaporean fare, from piping-hot noodles to fragrant slices of chiffon cake flavoured with the essence of pandan leaves.

But what sets Dignity Kitchen apart from other restaurants in the city is that it is a social enterprise, almost entirely staffed by employees with physical or mental disabilities.

The restaurant trains disabled employees to prepare food and cook, as well as serve customers.


Carol Wong slices fish cake at Dignity Kitchen (Vincent Yu/AP)

“It’s important to help the disabled or the disadvantaged people, because they are at society’s bottom of the pyramid,” said the restaurant’s founder, Koh Seng Choon, a sprightly 61-year-old Singaporean entrepreneur who launched the restaurant in January.

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“They are the people who need help. If we can get them a job, they will be out of the poverty cycle.”

Ultimately, Dignity Kitchen aims to place its employees in other jobs in the food and beverage sector so it can then welcome and train new groups of disabled people.

Mr Koh first came up with the concept in his home town of Singapore, but later decided to do the same in Hong Kong after the city’s government invited him to open a branch.


Customers eat at Dignity Kitchen (Vincent Yu/AP)

The kitchen is expansive, modelled after a food court in Singapore. The drink stall is operated by a deaf employee, and printed diagrams at the stall encourage customers to learn simple sign language when it comes to drink requests, or even to sign “thank you”.

At the claypot rice stall, an employee with autism who, according to Mr Koh rarely communicated with strangers before his training, enthusiastically introduces the dish to customers who ask about it.

“We used to prepare a script for him,” said Mr Koh, smiling proudly. “But now, eight months, nine months later, he can’t stop talking.”

The training employees get at Dignity Kitchen not only equips them with useful skills but also helps them get self-respect and dignity that they may have lacked, Mr Koh said.

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Volunteers prepare lunch boxes for low-income and street-sleepers (Vincent Yu/AP)

Ming Chung, who has visual disabilities, found employment at Dignity Kitchen as an administrative assistant. Using voice-to-text technology, Chung co-ordinates with other organisations and handles email as well as phone inquiries.

“Director (Koh) told me that he doesn’t care about our disabilities, he only focuses on our abilities,” Chung said.

“This really inspired me and touched my heart.”Ming Chung, who has visual disabilities, found employment at Dignity Kitchen as an administrative assistant. Using voice-to-text technology, Chung co-ordinates with other organisations and handles email as well as phone inquiries.

“Director (Koh) told me that he doesn’t care about our disabilities, he only focuses on our abilities,” Chung said. “This really inspired me and touched my heart.”


A staff member serves a bowl of noodles over the counter (Vincent Yu/AP)

Others, like Carol Wong, who is mildly intellectually disabled, has picked up knife skills at the restaurant that could eventually be transferable to food preparation roles in the industry.

“At first I was afraid, but since I started working in this restaurant, I’ve become unafraid of chopping food,” she said.

The kitchen has drawn customers in with its social mission and offers them the option of buying meals for the less fortunate in the city.

“I think this is very meaningful, so we’ve come to try,” said Lisa Gu, a customer who visited Dignity Kitchen for a bowl of laksa. “The food is also delicious.”

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