Saturday, Nov 1, 2014, 7:37 PM CST – China

Society

“Suspended Meals”

Free Dinners, No Takers

A restaurant owner’s scheme to encourage charity in the local community has been met mostly with disbelief

Kao Wen-chih at his restaurant Photo by Hu Yijin

Two months after restaurateur Kao Wen-chih began asking his customers to donate meals to the needy, he found the scheme suffering from a surprising lack of interest – no-one seemed to want a free lunch.

In April, Kao had begun a “suspended meals” scheme, whereby customers could donate a free meal that could be claimed by any diner who wanted it. By the end of June, the restaurant had taken payment for a total of 265 donated meals, of which only 65 had been claimed.

A former journalist and teacher, 50-year-old Kao was born in Taiwan and came to the mainland in 1999, freelancing as a writer and publisher. In 2012, partnering with a few friends, he opened a restaurant in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, offering simple Taiwanese-style meals.

Good Samaritan Spirit

The concept of a “suspended meals” system was first publicly advocated in China on April 12 this year, by Shaanxi Provincial Public Security Bureau Deputy-Director Chen Li, a popular blogger with more than 10 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

Kao was the first to respond to the idea, promising that as of the following day, his store would offer a free-meal donation service, and he himself would kick off the program by offering five free meals for customers in need.

The idea was inspired by the century-old tradition of “suspended coffee” in Naples, Italy, whereby coffee shop customers will pay for an extra cup of coffee or two, to be claimed by those less fortunate.

According to Kao, he had witnessed a similar kind of “mini-charity” in action during his childhood Taiwan. Speaking to our reporter, Kao said that when he was eight years old, while he ate with his mother at a local wonton restaurant, a beggar stopped by and asked the owner for some free food. When the owner refused, Kao’s mother offered to buy a meal for the beggar. She told the owner to serve a free bowl of wontons to anyone who asked for one, and promised to settle the bill every week. The owner went on to offer a discounted price for suspended meal donors.

Now, Kao has followed suit, reducing the price of a meal of stewed meat and rice to 10 yuan (US$1.60) from 11 yuan, to make payment more convenient for donors.

In designing the scheme’s publicity, Kao avoided using vocabulary that might hint at charity, in an effort to protect the pride of meal recipients. He never asks their names, or why they need a free lunch.

Kao said that on one occasion, an obnoxious man using an expensive Samsung smartphone came to the restaurant to claim a suspended meal, buying himself a soda while eating. When the waiter complained to Kao that the man was not likely in need of a free meal, Kao responded that even if the man had arrived in a Mercedes, he would still be entitled to a free meal as long as he asked for one.

“It seemed that the man was at least psychologically needy,” said Kao.

The man never came to the restaurant again.

Kao was prepared for difficulties in starting the free meal scheme, as he was well aware that on the Chinese mainland, trust between strangers is rare. Kao said that once, in Beijing, he had witnessed a man fall from his bicycle attracting a crowd of onlookers, none of whom extended a helping hand.

At the railway station in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, he was stopped by a woman who claimed to have lost her purse, who begged him to give her 63 yuan (US$10) to buy a ticket home. He gave her the money, but was later mocked by his friends, who believed he had been cheated by a professional swindler.

Suspended Disbelief

 On the morning of April 13, Kao put up a notice on a small chalkboard in his restaurant: “We offer free suspended meals, please come and take one.” The word “free” was highlighted in red.

As news of the scheme began to spread, a number of journalists came to the restaurant to interview Kao. They were most interested to know who would supervise the suspended-meal scheme. “Why does everyone presume that things will go badly unless there is supervision?” replied Kao.

He explained that the scheme operated purely on trust, and that any restaurant that cheated meal donors would risk ruining its reputation. Kao said he would keep a record of each purchase and consumption of a suspended meal. The record was open to public scrutiny, making any other third-party auditing unnecessary, he told the media.

The first suspended meal was not claimed until the next day, by an elderly man in worn-out but clean clothes, who said that he had read about the scheme in the newspaper and had come to see if it was genuine. After finishing his meal, he paid for two more suspended meals, explaining that there were likely many people more in need of the meals than him.

Most of the earliest free meal recipients came only to confirm the news reports. According to Kao, these customers were easy to identify, because they never seemed embarrassed and would usually donate two or three meals after finishing their free one.

But it was those genuinely in need who surprised Kao the most. Once, a haggard man, carrying a large nylon sack on his shoulder – likely a migrant worker, by Kao’s estimation – made sure to verify four or five times that the lunch was free before entering the restaurant.

He finished the meal cautiously, and left. When he showed up again the next day, he asked: “Are the meals really free?”

A few days later, an old man came in for a free meal, but to Kao’s dismay, he insisted on presenting his government-issued disability certificate. Kao was speechless.

“He did not believe that I trusted him,” said Kao.

Though the suspended meal scheme has been a hot topic online and in the media, many of those most in need have no access to the Internet, TV or newspapers, and many of China’s poorest people are illiterate.

A group of local volunteers came up with the idea of distributing flyers about the scheme to out-of-towner patients and their relatives in nearby hospitals. They reasoned that this group of people, away from their homes, might be in need of free meals. But to their frustration, most of these people either did not understand what the volunteers were offering, refused to believe them, or simply threw the flyers away. Some even accused the volunteers of being swindlers.

Kao sees the scheme as a mini-charity aimed at encouraging a sense of community between residents of the restaurant’s immediate neighborhood. Thus, he only accepts donations in person – no checks or bank transfers are allowed.

“The suspended meals are not just offering food to those in need.” Kao said. “It’s more about nurturing good will in the community.”

He has also mandated that an individual could purchase no more than three suspended meals at one time.

However, the rule is easily circumvented. A number of people have come to the restaurant, thrown a handful of 100-yuan (US$16) bills onto the counter, and departed, leaving Kao no chance of refusing the donation.

At first, Kao was confounded by these “aggressive donations,” but he has since come up with a possible explanation – he reasons that given the widespread mistrust of many mainland charity organizations, particularly the largest ones, many Chinese people are in need of reliable outlets for acts of charity.

A number of restaurant owners have asked Kao which organization they should contact to join the scheme. Kao claims to have been rather taken aback by this, as he believed that anyone who liked the idea could just do it themselves – he did not see good will as something that needed the approval of any organization.

Kao believes that as long as individual suspended meal schemes remain independent from each other, no one unscrupulous restaurant owner can entirely ruin the concept’s reputation. In light of the crippling damage that the scandal-plagued Red Cross Society of China has inflicted on the country’s registered charities, he may be right. Given the Chinese government’s strict supervision of charitable organizations, remaining low-key is a wise decision.

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