Causes Week 2016: Longer Table Initiative volunteers serve up friendship with meals to elderly in Chinatown

Every Monday, Derrick Wong and a team of volunteers prepare freshly-cooked meals and distributes them to needy elderly around Chinatown.
Mr Wong (left) and volunteer Lee Shi Hao, 26, preparing oyster mee suah for the elderly last month at 73@Hillcrest, a coffee shop by day and bistro by night.
Mr Wong (left) and volunteer Lee Shi Hao, 26, preparing oyster mee suah at 73@Hillcrest, a coffee shop by day and bistro by night. The free meals are prepared there and taken to Chinatown, where they are distributed to the elderly every Monday night.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The elderly in Chinatown are treated to freshly-cooked food at 10pm on Mondays.
The elderly in Chinatown are treated to freshly-cooked food at 10pm on Mondays.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Every Monday at about 10pm, a group of young people turn up with food for the soul.

Mr Derrick Wong, 37, and his team of volunteers distribute meals to the elderly who gather at Kreta Ayer Square in Chinatown.

Mr Wong and his volunteers cook up to 90 meals and distribute them to elderly people in the area.

He calls this the Longer Table Initiative. But the food distribution, he said, is secondary.

"Food is a vehicle for us to establish communication with the elderly and to build relationships with them," said Mr Wong, who runs the drinks stall at 73@Hillcrest.

The establishment at Hillcrest Road is a coffee shop by day and a bistro by night.

Mr Wong said the team spends two hours with the elderly, chatting and even reading out letters in English that the seniors bring with them.

BUILDING BONDS

Food is a vehicle for us to establish communication with the elderly and to build relationships with them.

MR DERRICK WONG, who started the project in 2014.

The camaraderie has grown since Mr Wong started the project in 2014. He said he was inspired after noticing several elderly people sleeping in the open at the same place.

He assumed they were homeless and decided to get to know them through gifts of food and beverage.

"I roped in two friends, and we started out with 10 packets of rice that we cooked ourselves," he said.

But when Mr Wong and his friends tried to give them out, only one packet was taken.

"It really puzzled us, but we continued. It was only in the fourth week that we started distributing more packets, because we were now more familiar to them."

After several weeks of getting to know them, Mr Wong learnt they were not homeless or hungry. Some lingered at the square even though they had homes nearby.

Mr Wong, a barista, said he winds up running the drinks stall at the bistro at 5pm and starts preparing the meals for the elderly in its kitchen.

"We rarely repeat the food menu. I have cooked rice with seafood and meat, laksa, mee rebus and braised chicken," said Mr Wong.

 
 

He is the project's sole cook but about 15 volunteers - many of whom are regular patrons of the bistro - turn up at 73@Hillcrest to help pack the food. They then transport the food to Chinatown using their cars.

The bistro's owner, Mr Lim Yau Boon, 47, said he is happy to offer Mr Wong a space to cook.

"When the volunteers prepare and pack the food, there is a lot of visibility. People who come to the restaurant ask what is going on, and we try to get the customers interested (to help) too," said Mr Lim.

The food costs more than $2,100 a month, and friends and volunteers foot the bill.

Lawyer Shen Kiap Tan, 30, has been volunteering since February after hearing about the initiative from a friend. He now sponsors meals for one week each month, spending about $250 each time. He said both the volunteers and the elderly are there because they feel a sense of attachment to one another.

"It is not just about cooking and distributing; it is not a one-way street," he said. "We are all friends catching up with each other."

Sometimes, the seniors buy drinks for the volunteers.

"Accepting their hospitality is a form of friendship, and it reinforces their dignity too," Mr Shen added.

 •For more information on the Longer Table Initiative, go to www.facebook.com/LongerTable/

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Serving up friendship with meals'. Print Edition | Subscribe