Helping the homeless of Xi’an – the Yellow River Soup Kitchen

Tony Day (right( and three homeless friends.

During the two years I worked as an international volunteer in Xi’an, the city in central China best known for its Terracotta Army, I had contact with several local NGOs. One of them was Tony Day and the Yellow River Soup Kitchen.

The Yellow River Soup Kitchen supports the homeless in the city. The organization was founded in 2005 when Tony Day, a Brit, arrived in Xi’an as a short stop on his way to a meditation centre in India. He had originally planned to visit the city only for a few days but decided to stay a little longer to feed the homeless people he came across in the city. Sixteen years later, he still lives in Xi’an and, along with a large group of volunteers, runs one of the simplest yet most successful charitable organizations in the city.

Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday between 6 and 8 p.m., Xi’an’s homeless people are welcomed in a building donated to the Soup Kitchen by a church in Xi’an. About 70 underprivileged people are given baozi (a kind of small, steamed bun), rice and soup. Groups of volunteers go into the city centre to visit another 40 homeless people and give them food. But this is only part of the Soup Kitchen’s work. A few times a year the team visits the countryside around Xi’an to distribute food, donated clothing and other goods to poor villagers. Every now and then they also organize a sports day for the children in those villages.

British boddhisatva

Of all the NGOs in Xi’an, I have always been most attracted to the Yellow River Soup Kitchen, perhaps because their purpose aligns with my own reason for volunteering: helping people living in poverty. What certainly helped was the instant personal connection I had with Tony when I first met him. We turned out to have very overlapping philosophies of life and I was inspired by Tony’s ‘down-to-earthness’, sense of humour – his mischievous giggles are enormously contagious – and interest in Buddhism. Like me, Tony adheres to the Buddhist philosophy without worrying to much about all the rituals that have been invented around it. He knows how to live life, but also enjoys it: he’s a vegetarian, but he doesn’t turn down a beer every now and then. I saw in Tony an example of what I was striving for myself.

Tony, who had done well in his former life in Great Britain, does not use money from the Soup Kitchen for his own livelihood. When I first met him, he lived in a Buddhist temple in southern Xi’an, where the monks considered him a bodhisattva (an enlightened person who helps others) and refused to take his money for the apartment they made available to him or the food they provided. They wouldn’t even allow him to help clear the table and do the dishes.

No soup for you!

The Soup Kitchen does not prepare the food for the homeless. Instead, they have been buying it from a regular supplier for years. This guarantees the quality of the food and ensures that the volunteers can focus on their core task of distribution instead of preparation. 

During my time in Xi’an, Campbell Soup donated a truckload of canned soup to the organization. Instead of using it for the Soup Kitchen and having to change their logistical process to do so, the organization decided to donate it to the poor villagers in the Xi’an region.

With a group of friends, we spent two evenings carrying boxes and stuffing vans full of soup for delivery the next day. Tony showed the utmost integrity in leading his organization. When one of the volunteers, after hours of hard work, asked if he could have one of the hundreds of cans to take home and try out, Tony looked at him seriously and said, “No, that soup was not meant for you.” As much as he appreciated the volunteers’ help, Tony stuck to his principles in who was entitled to even the last drop of soup. After the incident, I sometimes teasingly compared him to the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. “No soup for you!”  

Winter is coming…

One day in 2011 when the mercury dropped in Xi’an, I got a text from Tony asking if I wanted to help hand out jackets, thermal underwear, and blankets to the homeless. When we arrived at the Soup Kitchen on Friday evening, it was very crowded. Tony said they had fifty volunteers today instead of the regular fifteen. The homeless trickled in and volunteers walked up and down to hand them food. First a bag with three baozi, a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. For those who were still hungry afterwards, we were allowed to hand out extra baozi, a third of rice and more soup.

After dinner, the homeless packed their bags of belongings and shuffled back into the cold Xi’an night. After the last one got a new haircut, we were divided into groups for North, East, West and South Xi’an and the duvets, mattresses, pants, and jackets were distributed, as well as instructions on how to distribute them. At 10 PM our team drove to the southern part of Xi’an’s historic city wall with two cars and a van, in search of the places where the homeless slept: under bridges, in parks and in porches. That turned out to be easier said than done, since homeless people do not have a permanent place to stay, and they tend to change the locations where they sleep. One of the teams easily found 18 homeless people, while after 3 hours of driving and searching both inside and outside the city walls, our team only came to a total of 7.

It was striking that – contrary to what we often see in the West – the Chinese homeless did not seem to have an alcohol or drug addiction but mostly suffer from psychological problems. They were extremely grateful and kind. Many of them, of course, knew Tony well, leading to lots of handshaking, hugs and wide smiles. One of my tasks was to photograph everyone who was given goods to prevent them from coming to the Soup Kitchen claiming they had not received anything yet. This wasn’t an easy task and at times quite embarrassing for the individuals involved. Tony and I decided it was better to ask for permission to take the photos before handing out goods, something most of them agreed to. 

It was a very cold night, and it sometimes was frustrating to know that there were over 100 more homeless people in the centre that we weren’t able to find. But it was a special experience, nevertheless. Tony later informed me that the blankets were distributed over a series of evenings and they managed to eventually get them to all the homeless that needed them.

Please visit the website of the Yellow River Soup Kitchen for more information, photos and videos and details on how to support them. In May 2017 Tony gave a presentation about the Soup Kitchen for YiXi China, a TED-like organization. His personal story can be seen in the video below, spoken in Chinese with English subtitles.