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Joyce Mak of Gingko House on social entrepreneurship in Hong Kong

Joyce Mak

In The Intern, Robert De Niro, a 70-year-old retired executive, applies to work at Anne Hathaway’s fledgling start-up because of the blandness of life after retirement. Hathaway is sceptical at first but eventually De Niro proves himself a valuable addition to the company and wins over his colleagues. Heartwarming stories such as these don’t often happen in real life but there’s actually something similar right here in Hong Kong.

Joyce Mak, the CEO of Gingko House, founded the original restaurant on Gough Street to promote senior employment in Hong Kong and to help alleviate pensioners’ depression as a result of retirement. Established in 2006, the business now has four restaurants serving a variety of cuisines including vegetarian, traditional Chinese and old Hong Kong style, are run almost entirely by elderly. “We had no experience of running restaurants prior to starting Gingko House,” Mak reveals. “We’ve been wading across the stream by feeling the way, as the Chinese saying goes.” 

Everything began at the Depression Hotline for the Elderly in the Wong Tai Sin Community Centre, where Mak used to work 12 years ago. “We received many phone calls that expressed boredom and dejection after retirement, and struggles to adjust to a retired life. They felt lost,” Mak tells us. Determined to do more to help, she organised a small stall at the community centre manned by elderly members of the public who sold herbal tea and simple snacks. “It turned out really well,” Mak recalls. “The elderly had this small business to which they could devote their time, attention and effort. As a result, they were less depressed and seemed full of life.” This humble stall eventually morphed into a full-scale restaurant in Central 10 years ago.

“Currently, 80 percent of our staff members are elderly people, who are involved in running the entire organisation from administration to management, from IT to marketing, from waiting tables to cooking,” Mak tells us. The CEO talks about her staff with great fondness and sings their praises. “They are all very hardworking and responsible,” she says, “which makes for an excellent team. They are also very willing to learn, though sometimes forgetful.”

Mak’s dream of promoting senior employment extends beyond the walls of the four Gingko House branches. “Our intention is to raise awareness in society. By putting this into practice, we hope more organisations will be willing to employ the elderly,” she states. For Mak, Gingko House is much more than a business: “We also aim to generate a social impact. One not confined to the monetary gains of the elderly but also health, self-confidence, respect, an enhanced social life and so on.”

The word ‘difficult’ comes up almost a dozen times in our interview. “The process from our establishment until now has not been easy at all. We have no government funding, neither are we an NGO, nor are we publicly funded,” Mak says. To her, the most challenging part is to balance the social mission with a strong business mind to ensure the survival and growth of Gingko House. Recently, the situation has been made even more strenuous. The Gingko House at the Jao Tsung-I Academy in Lai Chi Kok will be forced to close in October as the Hong Kong Institute for the Promotion of Chinese Culture, which runs the academy, has refused, claims Mak, to renew the lease despite steady business at the restaurant. Undeterred, Mak emphasises: “What we insist on here is the quality of our food. If customers like our food and return, that’s real support. That’s what I really want. I don’t want people to dine here out of sympathy for our elderly.” Of the challenges ahead, the CEO concludes: “It’s difficult but very meaningful!” 

The ginkgo plant is thought to be particularly tough and resilient – legend has it that several gingko trees survived the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hopefully, Gingko House is strong enough to survive its own difficulties. 

For more information, visit gingkohouse.hk.

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