Taking a seat at London's Chinese Community Centre lunch is a lot like turning up for a long overdue family gathering. Mandy immediately starts filling up my bowl with soup and tells me to drink up. Shirley piles a mountain of rice onto my plate and Crystal scolds me for holding my chopsticks wrong. I immediately feel at home.
The drop-in lunch takes place every Tuesday and Thursday at the community centre, which sits in the middle of the capital's Chinatown next door to a casino. It's open to everyone and offers a meal of rice, noodles, three dishes, and a soup for just £5.
"No two lunches are the same and we try to vary the different dishes on offer," says Lawrence Cheung, the community centre's senior administration officer. "We've been running these lunches for over five years and we try to keep it balanced by including some sort of fish, a type of meat, vegetables, rice, and a soup."
Today's menu is pan-fried tomato sea bass, braised pork with aubergine and cloud ear fungus, pak choi, and rice. We wash this down with a sweet-tasting soup of pork, dried red dates, codonopsis pilosula root (similar to ginseng), and Angelica root which, according to my Asian soup expert mother, can improve your respiratory system and balance blood sugar levels.
The centre offers a discount to over-60s, which forms part of an ongoing initiative to engage older members of London's extensive Chinese community. The opportunity to share a meal together every week combats loneliness, a growing issue that now impacts three-quarters of older people in the UK.
"As you can see, the majority of our members are elderly and most of them live alone. I think our oldest member is 90-something-years old," Cheung says. "Sometimes, we offer our older members extra portions of food to take home so they won't have to cook."
Cheung and his team's approach seems to be working. The price of the lunches, along with the communal tables and hearty, home cooked nature of the dishes, have made them a hit with senior citizens. Looking around, I see at least six tables full of people chatting happily and ladling out soup.
"Imagine being old and living alone, you're not as able as you once were, it's very difficult to go about your day-to-day business—let alone going out to socialise," Cheung says. "We want to try and help in whatever way we can, whether it's helping the older generation develop new skills, encouraging them to meet new, people or simply serving up a home cooked lunch, we want to be there for them so they can lead a normal, happy life."
This was the case for Mandy, who moved to the UK from Hong Kong in the 1970s with her husband.
"I've been coming to these community lunches since it first started and it's the vibrant community spirit that keeps me coming back for more," she tells me. "Since my husband passed away, we've sold our Chinese takeaway in Southend-on-Sea and now that my five kids have grown up and flown the nest, life is a lot quieter these days, but not with these ladies around!"
She's not wrong. The atmosphere in the room reminds me of dai pai dongs, Hong Kong's buzzy open air-street food stalls.
"I've met a lot of friends from coming here, even though me and Mandy share the same surname, we're not related, but we might as well be sisters!" Shirley laughs. "These lunches give me a reason to get out of the house and socialise with old and new friends. I live in South London in Stockwell and travel to Chinatown for this twice a week without fail."
Halfway through our lunch, I feel a sharp prod in my side coming from Crystal's direction.
"Didn't your mother teach you any manners?" she says. "Your parents gave you two hands so use them both when eating! It's rude to have one arm under the table, you're supposed to use your spoon in one hand to scoop the rice and the other for chopsticks."
Learning dinner table etiquette isn't the only activity on offer at the lunches. As our table finishes eating, Shirley grins and says: "We like to play mah jong or zi pai, a special Chinese card game that's favoured by us old folk, we like to play for loose change. Would you like to play zi pai with us?"
I politely decline and observe their game for the fear of losing all my money to the seasoned pros. As the women deal their cards, Cheung tells me more about the work of the Chinese Community Centre, which was founded in 1980 and aims to promote Chinese culture and heritage, as well as provide practical support such as language and welfare assistance.
"We're mainly funded through donations and have nine full-time staff, with many volunteers working on our events, activities, and supporting services," he says. "Sadly, we don't have that many young members because it's difficult to attract younger crowd as they aren't really interested in tradition, heritage, and culture. We're trying hard with new activities that are targeted for the youth so that we can keep traditions alive."
As Mandy finishes her meal and gets up to leave, she asks my photographer Tom for a goodbye kiss. It turns him bright red and she howls with laughter. If that doesn't attract a younger generation to the Chinese Community Centre, I don't know what will.