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The Singaporean Charity Man Who Wants Hong Kong’s Disabled Meaningfully Employed at His Social Enterprise, Dignity Kitchen
by: Rubin Verebes
August 03, 2022
Every task and activity at Dignity Kitchen, a 6,000-square-foot multi-purpose space on Shanghai Street in Mong Kok, is fine-tuned to operate optimally, with its multiple appendages.
In the centre of the room, illuminated by the spring sunlight pouring in, stands Hong Kong’s only hawker-style cooked food training school for the disabled and disadvantaged, emulated against a popular Singaporean training model, designed by the man who formed the Asian charity 12 years ago.
Singaporean Koh Seng Choon, a former engineer and now-charity benefactor based in Hong Kong, founded the social enterprise Project Dignity in his home city- state in August 2009 with a need to provide food, shelter, and purpose for Singapore’s most needy.
Ten years later, Koh imported his charity across the South China Sea to Hong Kong with a need to emulate its success. “[The Dignity Kitchen] is to return dignity to the disabled and disadvantaged to vocation with passion, recruiting them with a skill,” Koh told The Beat Asia in a tour of the facilities in late May.
The Dignity Kitchen is the city’s only halal-certified cooked food centre and disabled-persons food training programme, employing the beloved Singaporean hawker centre model to attract food-loving Hong Kongers to munch on Singaporean treats and bring in employment for Hong Kong’s most disadvantaged people.
“With Hong Kong a food capital of the world, [creating this hawker centre] is a way to get people to accept food cooked by special people.”
Mr. Koh views himself as a bona-fide job creator for people with social needs. Currently, he employs 103 disabled and disadvantaged persons at his various Singapore operations and 47 in Hong Kong, with 70% disabled and 50% over the age of 50.
“Encompassing our Project Dignity,” Koh’s holistic plan to provide worth and meaning to the city’s misfortune, “we aim to provide a skill [to Hong Kong’s disadvantaged], gainful employment, and integration and inclusion into society.”
At the Dignity Kitchen, customers find themselves on the second floor of the revitalised 618 Shanghai Street mall, greeted by a blind cashier at the centralised desk tasked with arranging meal fees using an ingenious Roman system to measure cash notes based on length and size, before being ushered to seat in the canteen.
The canteen exists as if a Singaporean entrepreneur copy-and-pasted a community hawker centre into a Hong Kong location – spoiler, Mr. Koh did. Corrugated metal sheeting tops each seven stalls, with bright-red bilingual signs guiding diners through the authentic Singaporean dishes (recipes unique to Koh’s Strait-life) and friendly chefs and waiters receiving instructions for each order.
Chefs are trained to follow instructions on how to cook Singaporean and Cantonese dishes and kitchen machines are custom designed to account for staff members’ specific disabilities.
Wafts of coconut, allspice, coriander, ginger, and lemongrass emanate from the canteen, with offerings of affordable and sizeable nasi lemak, Hainan chicken rice, claypot rice, and laksa bowls available for the salivating public.
Koh’s food and charity initiatives won him an Essence of Asia award in 2021 bestowed by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, placing within “a collection of restaurants that represent authenticity, culinary culture and community focus” in Asia.
Hong Kong’s Dignity Kitchen follows closely the Singaporean model successful in the city-state. The curriculum taught to prospective staff in the Mong Kok offices takes after the Singapore government’s Scale-up SG programme, which aims to “help aspiring, high-growth local companies scale rapidly […] and create good jobs for Singaporeans.”
Persons with physical and mental disabilities and disadvantaged persons are trained through Dignity Kitchen’s eight-week Train-And-Place programme, designed to equip students with necessary skills in food preparation, cooking, service, and customer engagement, and gainfully employed in the Mong Kok operation or at a partner company.
Hearing and visually impaired Hong Kongers, intellectually disabled individuals, those suffering from physical disabilities, ex-offenders, at-risk elderly, dyslexic, depressed, and social anxious individuals are hired at Dignity Kitchen.
In four years of operation, a total of 80% of 121 students trained at the centre completed the skills and work placement programme, a further 60% of the cohorts successfully gained employment upon completion of the programme, and 36% sustained employment for more than three months after completion.
“Regardless of your disability, be that people with social problems or physical problems, [our students and staff] become a part of us and the kitchen. They really know what they are doing, and they are proud of what they do,” Koh said.
“We provide them with a set of skills to work in our kitchen, but they also teach each other. We get the ex-students, who learned how to become a teacher, to train the others. You see all kinds of disability here working together. It is very unique.”
With a 74% employment rate of trained individuals, Dignity Kitchen integrates itself in a larger initiative to provide employment to disabled and disadvantaged Hong Kongers at some of the city’s established fine-dining institutions, such as the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai, Cordis Hotel in Mong Kok, and the Ritz-Carlton in the ICC.
“We have a queue of 80 to 100 people waiting [to enter the training programme]. You don’t want me, you need me. By the age of 20, you don’t know where to go or what to do. We employ [disabled youth] and train them to have a life skill.”
The social enterprise accounts not only for the needs of employed physically, socially, and mentally disabled Hong Kongers, but community service outside its Shanghai Street walls.
Alongside Dignity Kitchen, Koh imported Dignity Mama to Hong Kong, a replicable portable library selling used and second-hand children’s books to paediatric patients in Chinese University Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and the Mong Kok centre.
Wheelchair-bound Dignity Kitchen staff man Koh’s creative initiative of job creation for physically disabled Hong Kongers using handicapped by traveling mobile. Like Uber and foodpanda, food created inside the Mong Kok kitchens are delivered locally via a wheelchair to homes around the area.
Additionally, Dignity AI is a clever technology Koh is proud to flaunt in his Mong Kok space. Employing bed-ridden and paraplegic people, Dignity Kitchen assists workers to direct the actions, movement, and facetime of a robot from any location in Hong Kong, effortlessly moving about the canteen to greet customers and converse as a traditional restaurant maitre’d would.
“This is a creator for all the disabled people in Hong Kong, who are homebound or religious. This will create hundreds of jobs,” Koh said proudly.
As the pandemic hit Hong Kong hard in early 2022, Dignity Kitchen persisted in providing warm meals to homeless shelters, nursing homes, queues of people lining neighbouring Hong Lok street, and food vouchers to minority groups.
Transparency is key to Koh’s Hong Kong operation. In revenue earning, he detailed five sources where money inflow is seen in the charity; outflow and revenue is directly reinvested back into the business for growth.
Sources such as sales and delivery of the Dignity Kitchen food, educational events for schools and corporates, rental of the classrooms for training, and charity consultancy breed revenue for Koh and his team, with money reinvested into training allowance for all disabled staff to be paid a basic wage of HK$37.50 per hour, elderly lunches in nursing homes and the Mong Kok centre, and working capital for the operation of the business.
Mr. Koh’s Dignity charity monopoly saw its humble beginnings in the mid-1990s, when the Singaporean returned to his hometown after more than a decade working in the U.K. to work for Cooper & Lybrand (now PwC) in mergers and acquisitions.
"I noticed in Singapore that many people don’t see beggars, homeless people, or disabled people in the city’s shopping centre. I wonder out of 5.6 million people, where are they? I went to find the answer. And of course, I finally realised there is a side of Singapore that people don't see, but should and want to see."
Koh’s journey began with his titled Dignity Day, an initiative with friends in his community and corporate colleagues to spend one day a month to give back to Singapore: charity drives for homeless shelters, lunches spent with elderly, soup kitchens.
Leaving PwC at the turn of the century, Koh founded a consultancy company that saw him travel extensively to work in mainland China and India. There, he saw abject poverty plaguing the two countries. In 2006, Koh sought to evolve his monthly charity day into a fully fledged social enterprise to provide opportunities for Asia’s disadvantaged in his hometown.
In 2007, he “looked for people” to work with to bring the idea to life; a year later, Koh “looked for a place” to open the first Dignity Kitchen – Balestier Road in Novena, Singapore. Finally, in August 2010, Dignity Kitchen began its star operations, hosting Lunch Treat for the Elderly, Hawker for the Day, Working with Disabled, and Cook Bake and Serve, an array of activities bringing together elderly, youth, and disabled people to meet, learn, and work together.
With four Dignity Kitchens by mid-2010s, Koh was contacted by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) in 2014, Hong Kong’s urban redevelopment government arm, to bring Dignity Kitchen to the city. Amidst the unrest and unpredictability during the Umbrella Revolution protests, Koh sat on the idea.
In 2019, Koh renewed his interest to reach Hong Kong shores with Dignity Kitchen. The 6,000-square feet space acquired today was gifted to the charity from the URA in a bid to boost charity in the impoverished north Mong Kok area, where many elderly people rely on government assistance to survive. “Mong Kok is the worst site to be. This is the fight,” Koh said in reference to the area’s poverty.
For four years, even during protests that dominated the local area in 2019 and 2020 and an ongoing pandemic, Dignity Kitchen has been dutifully committed to assisting local populations daily: up to 300 meal boxes are donated daily to the needy, along with masks, sanitizer bottles, and RAT tests for those who cannot afford.
Koh does not tend to play it cautious in multiple efforts to help the needy, poor, disabled, and disadvantaged of Hong Kong and Singapore.
Dignity Kitchen’s achievements are demonstrable in both city- states. Koh and his teams have trained and placed over 2,000 mentally, physically, and socially challenged persons in gainful employment in Hong Kong and Singapore, treated over 200,000 elderly citizens to a Lunch Treat, and outreached to over 200 schools and colleges and 300 organisations in Singapore, Hong Kong, and overseas.
In Hong Kong, Koh aims to open a Dignity Mama bookstore in the Tsing Yi MTR Station later this year. With Dignity Ai, Dignity Kitchen is testing human-controlled robots to navigate through the Bank of America Central branch, Exhibition Hall MTR Station, and HSBC Tai Kok Tsui branch. Koh is also waiting for a new site to bring the Dignity Kitchen to another space in the city to assist others beyond Yau Tsim Mong.
His larger plan is to bring Project Dignity to IPO to increase transparency and accountability in charity dealings, raise commercial money to support social causes, and increase the financial bottom line. With a revenue of more than HK$9.1 million in 2021 and a loss of close to HK$260,000, Project Dignity and Koh are aptly prepared to expand rapidly.
“I have upmost respect for Hong Kong people. They're very hardworking and they're very resilient," said Koh in the end of his interview. Evident is his commitment and nurture in assisting the poor and needy of Hong Kong, a city that shares a lot with his hometown.
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