Big Interview: Tony Day and the long and winding road to the Yellow River Soup Kitchen

Tony Day at the Ted talk in China last yearTony Day at the Ted talk in China last year
Tony Day at the Ted talk in China last year
When successful businessman Tony Day gave up on the life he had always known in 2002 for a new beginning, he had only three things on his list firstly to journal his movements, second to carry on exploring meditation and a variety of retreats and to continue some form of voluntary work.

Fast forward to 2018 and they continue to be the three main principles by which he now lives his day-to-day life at home, in China.

Never in Tony’s own imagination could he have visualised how a chance encounter with an elderly homeless lady on the streets of Xi’an would completely redefine his whole existence, which over the course of the last 13 years has seen him founding and running China’s first-ever soup kitchen.

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Today having served over 160,000 meals, through the Yellow River Soup Kitchen, the Leyland lad and former Royal Navy electronics engineer is to receive one of the highest rewards for his pioneering efforts.

Later this year he will be returning to his home country to be presented with an MBE for his services to the homeless in China.

It is an honour, he makes painstakingly clear, he will be accepting not just for himself but for the collective of volunteers who have helped define the charity and made it what it is today

There are two simple motives, on which it is run; providing help to those who need help, and providing a platform for people to help others.

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Yet the extraordinary tale of how this vital charity came to be is one even Tony through the course of an hour’s video call, readily admits is ‘quite insane.’

Volunteers of the Yellow River Soup Kitchen in Xi'anVolunteers of the Yellow River Soup Kitchen in Xi'an
Volunteers of the Yellow River Soup Kitchen in Xi'an

“No normal, sane person would have ever got away with such a proposal, without being laughed out of the building.

“There was/is no strategy, no money, no fundraising, no staff or people, the ‘plan’ was simply not viable, it just shouldn’t work but yet here we are still going week after week for 13 years.”

Running the kitchen has not all been plain sailing and Tony makes point to the challenges that the team have faced. But 12,000 volunteers over its history have kept it going. The running costs of the not for profit NGO stand at £21,000 per year.

For this they have carried out a total of 2106 projects.

The volunteers serve food thrice weeklyThe volunteers serve food thrice weekly
The volunteers serve food thrice weekly

“We are the proof you can do a lot with very little.”

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Describing himself as a workaholic before his ‘career break’, the former financial consultant, who lived in a barn conversion near Lancaster, says it was never in him to just turn his back on his 16 hour working day, five days a week.

He was not searching for a great change nor was it a downturn in fortunes.

The former St Mary’s High School pupil says: “There was no burn out - my career was well established, I had a lovely barn conversion, sports car. I could have enjoyed all the comforts but the truth is I liked working long hours. My life was one on the go - I never stopped and it suited me.

Tony and the camper van he lived in during his travelsTony and the camper van he lived in during his travels
Tony and the camper van he lived in during his travels

“However I had seen an article about a meditation retreat at Gaia House five years earlier, which caught my interest - I had no time to accommodate it but then a few years later I simply had a gap in the diary and suddenly remembered and thought I’ll give that a go now.

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“I went with no expectations and it was very, very different walking in on that first day, it was completely new to me, mainly because I never sat down, let alone still, I didn’t even have a chair in my office.

“During this first meditation, I had this sudden feeling of what could I do or where could I go if I was to give it all up, but the idea of the working it all out, costings/ finances how could I live? It went round and round in my head all night

“But the second day, I let go, I suppose some would like to call it an awakening of sorts it didn’t feel like that to me, but suddenly my thinking changed to ‘if the money wasn’t an issue, what would I do?’.....I came home and immediately, set about selling my business (two business’s), house, car - the lot, in six months.

“It wasn’t very tactful, I admit that. It’s not something I would say I was particularly proud of either.

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“I couldn’t even tell people why or where because there was no plan - which was incredible for a man who had lived his whole life up to that point through goal setting and strategy.

The project also helps serve disadvantaged youngsters - Tony pictured with village childrenThe project also helps serve disadvantaged youngsters - Tony pictured with village children
The project also helps serve disadvantaged youngsters - Tony pictured with village children

“The only logical decision made from that point was to head for France, which was close enough to get home and manage the affairs which still needed tending to.

“I set off with a ferry ticket from Hull and it was only when I arrived the other side, I came to drive off and realised then I didn’t even know where I was going.”

Tony says it was between 1994

to 1996, through his work and business connections he became involved in two charity campaigns, fund-raising, donating and travelling to Romania to provide and install much needed equipment in hospitals and orphanages.

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He recalls on this significant time as a piece of the jigsaw which would much later sow the seed for the importance of charity in his life.

A friend on his departure from the UK, at the start of 2003, presented him a journal to document his travels on his return.

“I never used to do any writing, I started the day my new life began on May 1 (I left for France) and it is one of the only three things that is on my list now.”

A camper van, small community projects, which included a soup kitchen in Paris, further meditation retreats, even an audience with the Pope with the Mother Teresa nuns at her beatification, remarkably kept him going over 18 months, travelling between France and Spain. He decided he was ready to move on, this time destined for India.

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For an unbeknown reason he felt he wanted to walk the trip; again a twist of fate and maybe a little sense of the planner within him, saw him entrust an agent to handle part of the journey.

“This agent was insistent I made some of the trip on the Trans-Siberian Express and stop in China to see the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, I was quite adamant that China was not part of my journey, I had no need to go to China but I eventually agreed to a three day stop over, three days.”

Tony did not make it to India that year. Three days in 2005 turned to 13 years and counting.

With a little interest in studying martial arts, Tony decided to extend his stay and to occupy his time he searched high and low for a community project but not one could be found.

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The encounter with the female beggar occurred some months later in December 2005. The lady was rather persistent in her demands for financial assistance.

“I refused because I have never felt comfortable just giving money but I could not get that lady out of my mind. During my evening’s meditation I reflected and the next day set out to find her again not to give her money but to buy her lunch. I found her and she turned me down.

“But I suddenly had a sense this was a much greater problem and being unable to find any (with very few) voluntary projects available in China I had decided the night before that if I learnt nothing from the old lady that I would start buying food. At that point I had no desire to start a charity it just sort of evolved.”

He heard there were beggers outside the local church during mass on Sundays, so he went and found Father Stephen Chen asked if he could go and serve food outside the gates to those most vulnerable. That first Sunday, he used his own money to fund 25 meals of soup and dumplings.

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With the help of one or two volunteers, they took to the streets to serve the remaining portions. Word spread and this small group were soon serving meals twice a week.

A year and a half later - St. Francis Church helped build them their own dedicated centre, which is still very much of the heart of the charity.

“We have no personal costs whatsoever, every penny goes into the charity. We have 10 volunteer managers who assist in helping organise our projects and 99 per cent of our volunteers are Chinese.

“It was a completely new concept for people here but the ripple effect it has had, means we are now seeing change with more soup kitchens opening across the country.”

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For the first three years Tony refused any outside funding, “I continued to personally fund it during this period and until it became self supporting.”

Even now only around £1,500 of their donated income is from outside sources. In the main, they thrive off individual small donations.

As well at the thrice weekly meal servings, Yellow River Soup Kitchen, serves to help the vulnerable through dedicated projects, 2106 to date, whether that be medical assistance where necessary to helping those they can back into work and even an annual sports day for disadvantaged youngsters.

They have delivered aid to approximately, 60,000 people in mountain villages, donated more than 110 wheelchairs to the elderly and disabled, supplied and fitted 12 disabled people with prosthetic limbs and helped more than 90 homeless people find work and street children return home

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“Some people say we shouldn’t help them (the homeless people), that they have houses and cars in their hometowns.

“We don’t go judge who is real and who is fake. The truth we know all the homeless people, we know where they sleep, under which bridges or shop doorways after all is that most homeless people are real, we can help them, and that’s what gives what we do meaning…”

“And could there be a simply more better ideal of society than what we have built, where we selflessly for the good of society, share our resources, make donations and give our time and energy without an agenda.

“If there is a better model for society and community, I don’t know what it is.”

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