From the Soup Kitchen's first anniversary we celebrated with our Homeless Christmas Party, since then it has been an annual event and undoubtedly our best night of the year. Around 200 plus people usually attend. So this year in December think of us as we join our street friends, complete with Santa hats, meat dumplings, soup, fruit, cake, live music, dancing and Karaoke to celebrate another year of the Soup Kitchen.
It may at first seem a little strange to organise a Christmas party in a country known more for its Daoism/Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and atheism, rather than Christianity, however whilst Christmas is not celebrated in China as it is some western countries, the Chinese people are very much aware of it as a Western celebration. It is recognised as being an important festival as most shops and restaurants exploit it to the full, dripping with Santa Clause and reindeer window stickers and random decorations. In some cases the whole year round.However, that was not the original reason for organising a party for the homeless; the soup kitchen was born on the 18th December 2005 and we felt it fitting to mark the occasion in some way, so we set about thinking of a suitable way to celebrate an event/achievement that in many peoples opinion was nigh on impossible to start and maintain in China . Probably why a Soup Kitchen in this form is an unknown concept here and why there are currently no others.
We had decided that we should be putting our energies into an event that was focussed on the homeless people and it was Gong Bin who came up with the idea of holding a Christmas party for them. But where to hold it was an issue, as it is also winter in Xi’an during the month of December we were concerned that at the very least it may rain or if last winter was a fair measure then temperatures may be as low as -11C. This was before we had a new building so we were still serving food outside every week, and in the event that the weather did go against us it may have rendered the party a non-event. Once we realised that we had a problem I contacted Father Chen at the Church who has been tremendously supportive since the very first day we began in 2005, and asked if they had a room that we may be able to use. They did and he told me that it would be no problem to use it on the evening of the 25th December. We went to have a look at the room and it was perfect, with seating good lighting and power sockets which meant that we could organise some form of music.
The food was also needed some thought for we wanted to give them something special to eat, different from the normal filled buns - Baozi, but as we have no cooking facilities this paused a problem regarding what to buy that would still be relatively simple to prepare in bulk yet wholesome and nutritious and of course filling, could be delivered without too much trouble, and was easy and quick to serve in a makeshift room. A more wholesome than usual soup was suggested and Jiaozi which is a kind of small boiled meat and pasta parcel similar to, yet a little larger than a piece of ravioli. Jiaozi were thought to be appropriate as they are always eaten to celebrate Chinese New Year, but it turned out that once they had been boiled they needed to be eaten straight away otherwise they would go soggy and fall apart. After picking the brains of a few places the owner of the restaurant that made the soup for us every week told us that he would bring his restaurant to us, with outdoor cooking equipment and 2/3 cooks and cook the Jiaozi outside at the Church, adjacent to the party room so that once cooked they could be brought in and served immediately. So we ordered 250grams (a normal portion would be around 200g) per person and estimated we would need to cater for about 80 people and worked on a maximum of 15 volunteers to ensure there were enough people to serve yet not too many so they have nothing to do. So in addition to that I ordered enough bananas and oranges to give everybody several and then finally two huge cakes of around 60cm diameter. Fantastic…seems like we had a plan!
We then bought several bags of Christmas decorations and earlier, Jason, a friend from Spain had suggested party hats would be a good idea. So 75 Santa hats complete with pigtails (yep I don’t get the pigtails either but they looked good) where bundled into a bag. The idea met with some disapproval from some Chinese friends and I wasn’t really sure if the homeless people would wear them or if they would be too embarrassed to put them on, but on the contrary they loved them, wrestling them off the table in which they where sited and wore them with pride. Some of them wore them for several weeks afterwards too.
Next we needed some form of music/entertainment. As things seem to be, at the last minute a DJ’s equipment was donated for the event complete with Karaoke disks (very popular with almost everybody) and on the night even an Indian dancer gave her time on her way to another show and danced for them for free.
We gave some thought to buying them a small gift, I thought although we had already been distributing clothes and blankets one of the things that we didn’t have enough of was thermal leggings. But surprisingly when we asked them what they needed several people replied all the wanted was a haircut so we remained undecided about the thermals. Not an answer I expected but apparently due to the fact that their hair is usually filthy and often matted together it is difficult for them to get it cut. So we decided that we would organise this for them after December as it was proving difficult to find hairdressers who where willing to do it.
A few days before the party I was out walking when I received a phone call from a man called Jim Wright from the USA, whome I hadn't previously met, but he told me that he had spoken with his children and grandchildren back in the United States and had told them instead of buying them presents for Christmas he wanted to donate the money to charity. They agreed. Jim was teaching English at a University in Xi’an and had heard of the work that we were doing and asked what could he donate to the homeless people, within a couple of days 75 brand new pairs of thick thermal leggings arrived at my apartment.
It never ceases to amaze me the generosity and willingness of the people that hear of what we do and come along to give in whatever way they are able. It also is no longer any surprise that whenever we need something it just appears from somewhere, sometimes even without the need to ask, as has often been the case this past year and half.
So we had the room, the time - 25th December 7pm until it finished, the decorations, the food, music and entertainment and finally a gift.
Most of this had been organised within only a couple of days. On the day of the party I arrived around 4pm to set things up. As I began blowing up balloons and fixing the decorations in a large, cold, empty room, listening to a small personal stereo I began to wonder if everything would come together. An hour passed, I was still on my own, no cake, fruit or DJ equipment had arrived, my pile of balloons was only very slowly getting bigger and the batteries for my small speakers had long since departed. A little anxiousness naturally took hold, so I relaxed the best I could and opened a new packet of ‘multi-coloured waiting to be inflateds’ and continued to inflate them.
Then the fruit finally arrived followed by a few volunteers and slowly things started to take shape. It was a cold and wet night so we couldn’t be sure how many people would come but as 7pm neared our guests began to arrive, and the room soon filled, they quickly donned their hats and took their seats in anticipation. At first for them to be seated as usually we fed them outside and they would crouch on the floor as they ate. We had decided to serve them, as usually they would queue for their food but the layout of the room made this difficult, which actually turned out to be a blessing, as Karine from France remarked the experience of serving them all individually as they sat and waited made it all the more special for both the homeless and the volunteers.
Several bowls of soup were enthusiastically drunk by everybody, then the huge charcoal fired pans began to brim with bubbling Jiaozi and they were served in cartons with chop sticks and soy sauce. Then came the cake enough for everybody, which was met with whoops of glee as the lighting was dimmed to light the candles, then the fruit. The music played, the Indian dancer came and did her routine being met by surprise from an audience not accustomed to being entertained, followed by the Karaoke. A memorable act was a blind man who regularly comes to the soup kitchen accompanied by his wife, who did a few songs to the delight of his audience. Then finally the present.
The end of the evening brought about cheers and applause from one and all, certainly not needed but nice to know that they had enjoyed the evening and giving us an idea of what they may enjoy should we organise any other such events in the future.
It was a special night for everybody, homeless and volunteers alike and I have been told a first here in China. Karine said it was the best Christmas she had ever had, and many of the comments from the homeless where equally remarkable, one man saying that it was the best meal that he had had in years and another that he will remain happy for a very long time just reflecting back on the evenings events, something they still talk of 8 months later.
It was a very simple act and easy to organise, yet it touched many people deeply in many different ways.
Some of the volunteers said to me that I must feel very happy about the evenings events and the way it was received by all, the atmosphere was amazing so warm, relaxed, happy and friendly but I wasn’t happy, I was far from happy, for me the sadness was overwhelming. As all our guests left and as we cleared the room of all the decorations, it just left an emptiness outside and inside. Yes, it may indeed have been a special evening but it was just around 60-70 people and just one night. At 9.30pm when the party finished all the homeless were all back on the freezing streets of Xi’an again with nothing but full bellies and warm memories - that aside it was just another cold winter night on the streets. When I eventually got home I cried. I have to come to terms with the fact that it is just a little thing that we do, we can strive to do everything in the best way we possibly can and gradually increase the number of people that we reach but with 1.3 billion people in China it will sadly always be just a little thing that we do.