'Cancer kitchen' in China brings warmth, comfort to patients

Mr Wan Zuocheng and his wife Xiong Gengxiang in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, have been honoured as "People Who Moved China in 2020". PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An elderly couple who have been providing free kitchen services to families of cancer patients for nearly 20 years have been honoured as "People Who Moved China in 2020" for their kind-heartedness.

Mr Wan Zuocheng and his wife Xiong Gengxiang ran a restaurant near a cancer hospital in Nanchang, the capital of East China's Jiangxi province, since 1993. They later set up a breakfast stall in the alleyway after the restaurant was demolished in a road renovation programme.

In 2003, a woman whose child was receiving treatment for bone cancer in the nearby Jiangxi Cancer Hospital went to their stall, asking to borrow their stove to cook food. She said her kid wanted to eat food cooked by her.

Feeling sympathetic to the family's suffering, Mr Wan did not hesitate to agree to her request.

Since then, more and more families of patients began coming to their stall to cook.

The "People Who Moved China in 2020" award, launched by China Central Television in 2003, selects the country's 10 most inspiring individuals or groups every year.

Mr Wan and Madam Xiong were absent from the award ceremony because they wanted to keep providing kitchen services to the patients during this year's Spring Festival holiday last month.

The couple generously allowed people to use their cooking utensils and condiments free of charge. To meet the growing demand, they later added more stoves and cooking utensils to their stall.

Their generosity came with a price - the expenditure on water, electricity and coal multiplied over years. With the costs rising, those who borrowed their stoves started paying to the couple. However, the couple only accepted a minimal fee of 0.5 yuan (S$0.10) for each dish cooked, and rose it to one yuan in 2016, which is barely enough to cover the costs.

The couple's income mainly comes from selling fried dough stick, a popular breakfast snack, and Madam Xiong said they never wanted to profit from lending their stoves and cooking utensils to patients.

Every day, Mr Wan gets up before 5am, and turns on the stoves and boils hot water, making everything ready for people who will come to the "cancer kitchen". And at noon, when the last kitchen user leaves, the couple cleans the cooking utensils and the stall.

In 2019, local government funded the renovation of the "cancer kitchen", moving it indoors and equipping it with more than 20 cooking stations and ventilators.

The son of the couple once tried to persuade them to stop serving the patients, worrying that the tiring work would affect their health. But the couple insisted that "helping the patients made them happy".

Mr Wan and Madam Xiong know well the hardships of families with cancer patients, which exhaust their energy, strength and money bit by bit in the prolonged process of medical treatment.

They hope the food cooked in the "cancer kitchen" could provide some comfort to those suffering physically and help relieve some financial burden on their families.

"We can save some money by cooking here, and the nutrition is better," said Mr Fang Zhihong, whose wife is receiving treatment for liver and lymphoma cancers.

Every year, nearly 10,000 people cook in the "cancer kitchen". Many of them become friends with the couple. Some come to say goodbye when they leave.

A man in his 50s once spent three years in the cancer hospital, and he talked with Mr Wan in the "cancer kitchen" every day. Later, when the man's conditions worsened, he was told to go back home. Before leaving, he insisted on seeing Mr Wan. And the two hugged each other and cried.

Having witnessed numerous deaths over the years, the couple have found their meaning of life.

"We and the patients are inseparable now. For us, without the patients, we would feel lonely, and for the patients, they would encounter difficulties without us," said Mr Wan. "I will help them as long as I am able to do so."

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