In the company of friends

April 2, 2015

Rui Qiong Wang at the Asian Health and Service Center, where she helps prepare and serve lunch for seniors.

Rui Qiong Wang is a tall, thin woman with smooth skin over high cheekbones, her black hair worn in a bob. Her eyes match the dancing enthusiasm of her limbs, gangly as a teen. A smile plays across her face.

She looks decades younger than her real age, which she whispers in secret.

On a recent Tuesday morning, sunny and crisp after a recent rain, Wang pulls on a pair of rubber gloves as she and other volunteers at the Asian Health and Service Center prepare to serve plates of steamed cabbage and Szechuan bean curd and pork, delivered by a local restaurant.

“My husband died in 2009,” Wang says, her eyes dropping momentarily to the linoleum floor. Then she looks up and her smile returns.

“I found a new home here. I feel supported; it’s an extended family,” she says. “Most people are single. They're also widows or widowers. So I spend time here and feel happy.”

The Asian Health and Service Center has dished up nearly 70,000 meals since its lunch program began in 2009. The lunches bring seniors in to learn about programs and social services, and to create a sense of community.

Sophia Nam enjoying her lunch at the Asian Health and Service Center on Tuesday.

And they do it for half the price of other senior meals programs by partnering with local restaurants to serve familiar fare and with help from a Chinese-American donor who has given the center carte blanche to order from his wholesale restaurant supply store.

“It’s very exciting what Asian Health and Service Center is doing, supporting local businesses and leveraging private dollars,” says Lee Girard, senior manager at Multnomah County’s Aging, Disability and Veteran Services, which sponsors the lunch program.

“Many elders stay home,” Girard says. “They might go to church, but otherwise they don’t socialize much. They isolate. This gets people in and they learn about other services. It’s a great way for people to feel more connected to their community. We’re hearing consistently that they want more days a week.”

Entertainment is projected onto a wall of the Asian Health and Service Center, as local seniors talk, laugh and dine together.

Multnomah County supports culturally-specific meal programs for Spanish-speaking seniors, Russian-speaking seniors and seniors who have immigrated from countries in Africa. But the Asian Health and Service Center feeds nearly twice as many people as all the other meal sites, combined.

The center’s executive director, Holden Leung, credits the popularity to a partnership with Chinese restaurants that serve familiar foods -- rice, sauteed cabbage and bok choy, pork and tofu -- and to the programs that accompany the lunch.

“It energizes isolated seniors; they build friendships,” says Leung. “People learn new ways of living, from food and ping pong to opera. The meal is a way to bring people in.”

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, seniors file in for a 9:30 a.m. calisthenics class led by a Mandarin-speaking YouTube host. Then clients break off for an hour of workshops on topics ranging from art to gardening. Vietnamese-speakers might learn about wedding traditions of the world or pain management; Cantonese speakers learn how to avoid falls and about powerful women of the world; Korean speakers learn line dancing and listen to a lecture about eye disease.

And then it’s time for lunch. The Asian Health and Service Center invested in two industrial-sized rice cookers and prepare it on site. Their partners, Wong’s Kitchen and Best Taste, two businesses on 82nd Ave., deliver the main course.

“It’s a terrific program, seniors get out of their houses. They get together. It’s a good community,” said Fu-Li Wong, a manager at Wong’s Kitchen. “It’s good for business as well; good word of mouth.”

In addition to the senior lunches, Chi Young, 68, also enjoys the group exercise activities offered at the Asian Health and Service Center.

Grace Li of Best Taste said many of the seniors from the center bring their families to her restaurant.

“The elders tell us what’s good, what’s not good. They tell us ways to improve,” she said through interpreter Ting Zhang, who works for the center. Best Taste was the first restaurant to partner with the center in 2009. “Since then, when people go to our restaurant they order food with less salt and oil because that’s what Holden got them used to.”

It feels good to help her community, she said. “The only thing is that we haven’t raised our prices since 2009. A little more money would be good.”

Leung, the executive director, has been able to serve more clients than other lunch programs because he’s isn’t ashamed to ask for help. He takes what people are willing to give, gratefully, and asks for more.

Leung’s most steady and generous support comes from the owner of a restaurant supply wholesaler. The man, who has asked to be anonymous since he began supporting the lunch program five years ago, says he wants to be helpful. It’s tradition.

“I just try to keep it low key,” he says. “My grandfather taught me a lot. We are raised to take care of our elders, to be humble.”

His grandfather had launched a business in 1948, exporting potatoes and onions to Taiwan and importing brooms and carpets. Then the older man had a son, who helped in the store. And the son had a son of his own.

But then the grandfather’s son died, leaving behind his father the wholesaler and his son, who had planned a career in microbiology.

“I didn’t know anything about sales, about accounting,” the wholesaler says today. But he joined his grandfather in his business. When the grandson married, 33 years ago now, his grandfather stood beside him as best man. And when his grandfather died, the younger man took over the business.

His grandmother was isolated after her husband died. She spoke no English and had few friends. “But we knew Holden so we took her over (to the center) one day for lunch and she fell in love with the place,” he said. “My grandfather’s wish was to have a community center. I think the Asian Health and Service Center does that.”

So when Leung approached him in 2000 about donating supplies to offset the cost of lunch, the wholesaler agreed, without question and without limits.

“I have no idea what the cost is,” he says. “We send rice, soy sauce, forks, napkins, plates, cups. Whatever Holden has on the shopping list. I tell him to send it over.”

On this Tuesday, clients climb down from a TriMet bus on Southeast Powell Boulevard and walk in clusters across to the boxy, bright yellow center. Friends gather around tables, some sipping green tea from tall paper cups filled three-thumbs full.

Center staffer Sophia Choy leads a discussion about the art of Bian Lian, a dance defined by the number of masks a performer can change. People critique videos of student performances, analyze the significance of colors, and marvel at the speed at which experts can swap out their masks.

Soon the tables have filled and the smell of rice wafts across the room. Best Taste is delivering today and they place wide steaming platters of tofu and cabbage next to a tower of paper plates.

Chi Young, 68, leans his elbows on a table in the far corner of the room, surrounded by friends he’s made at the center. He learned about the lunch program a few years ago when he was reading the Portland Chinese Times.

“We start about 9:30 doing exercises. I like to do that and get my cardio,” he says. “After lunch, we clean up and play ping pong until about 3. For old people, it’s an all-day event.”

In an adjoining room, Sophia Nam, 83, joins other Korean Americans for the same rice and tofu fare; theirs topped with kimchi and served with neat squared nori.

Nam has come for 13 years for the exercise classes and speakers; especially for the holiday celebrations. “If I stay home, I feel down,” she said. “I come and it helps my mood. I’m so grateful to be here.”