|Wan Zuocheng and Xiong Gengxiang|
A special kitchen is located in an alley, next to Jiangxi Cancer Hospital, in Nanchang, capital of East China's Jiangxi Province. Around meal time, three times every day, relatives of the hospital's patients use the kitchen to cook food and/or boil porridge or soup, and then take the tasty foods to the patients. A husband and wife, Wan Zuocheng and Xiong Gengxiang, have run the kitchen for 18 years. They provide the stove and kitchenware to the public to use at a very low price — a mere one yuan (15 US cents) to cook a dish.
Out of a Breakfast Stall
The kitchen was originally a breakfast stall operated by Wan and Xiong. They used to cook deep-fried dough sticks, which were delicious and well-known in the neighborhood. They often received orders for breakfast from Jiangxi Cancer Hospital for their deep-fried dough sticks.
One day, in 2003, a young couple passed Wan and Xiong's stall. The couple noticed the fire in the stove was still burning, even though Wan and Xiong had finished frying the dough sticks. The couple asked if they could use the stove to cook food for their son. The boy, then a teenager, was suffering from bone cancer. He wanted to eat his mother's cooking while he was hospitalized. Wan and Xiong let the young mother use their stove — for free.
Later on, Wan and Xiong offered the use of their kitchenware, for free, so other families could cook meals for hospitalized relatives. As word spread about Wan and Xiong's warmhearted deed, people who had used their kitchen began referring to the breakfast stall as the "anti-cancer kitchen." Some even called it the "kitchen of love" that made them feel warm — "by stomach and by heart."
Wan and Xiong have never regretted letting people use their kitchen. "Family members of cancer patients have a harder time than us," Xiong says. Besides managing her business, Xiong is willing to listen to patients' relatives talk about their experiences. She believes listening to them helps them feel at ease.
To enable more people to cook at the same time, Wan and Xiong have purchased more kitchenware, and they have expanded their breakfast stall into a larger kitchen. People who have used their kitchen have insisted on sharing the costs, including the money to buy water, coal and other cooking materials. As a result, Wan and Xiong set a price: One yuan (15 US cents) to use their kitchen to cook a dish or to buy a box of rice, and 2.5 yuan (38 US cents) to cook soup. They do not charge for water and seasonings. For people from poor families, the couple refuses to charge the fees.
Day after day, Wan and Xiong, both approaching 70, have run the "anti-cancer kitchen" for 18 years. They get up at 4 a.m. every day to prepare the kitchen. They boil water and cook rice in advance, so people can come to use their kitchen. "Don't think too much. Make sure we have a good meal first," Xiong often says to patients' relatives. It is normal to see Xiong and her husband busy at work, from dawn to late afternoon. They do not have time to prepare their own dinner until after 9 p.m.
|Wan Zuocheng and Xiong Gengxiang|
Keep Stove Fire Burning
From early morning to late evening, the stove fire in Wan and Xiong's "kitchen of love" burns almost daily. To make it easier for others to use the kitchen, Wan and Xiong volunteer to clean the kitchen, sweep the ground and wash the pans and pots. The couple's children have tried many times to persuade their parents to take a break, close their kitchen for a few days and travel somewhere. But the couple always refuses.
Wan sometimes feels "guilty" because he knows working in a kitchen every day is difficult; yet, his wife supports and helps him operate the kitchen. Xiong tells her husband, "It is the happiest thing to run their kitchen and help others."
Even during the most difficult days last year, when people across China were fighting against the outbreak of novel coronavirus disease, Wan and Xiong kept their kitchen open for the relatives of cancer patients. To keep a safe distance from others, and to reduce the risk of infection, the couple could not allow others to enter their kitchen. Instead, they received the ingredients from volunteers; either Wan or Xiong was responsible for washing and preparing the ingredients, while the other cooked the dishes. Once cooked, they asked volunteers to deliver the dishes to the patients' relatives.
Since Wan and Xiong have gotten to know so many cancer patients and their relatives, they have gained a better understanding of the hardships faced by the patients and their relatives. The couple has also come to realize family prepared dishes can provide the patients with better nutrition — and courage to fight the cancer.
|Family members of cancer patients cook in Wan and Xiong's "anti-cancer kitchen".|
Many of the patients' relatives have written their contact numbers on a wall in the "anti-cancer kitchen." The patients' relatives are grateful for the help received from Wan and Xiong, and many have invited the couple to visit their homes. The "anti-cancer kitchen" gives the patients and their relatives a warm feeling of being at home. Wan and Xiong keep a notebook in a corner of their kitchen, and many of the patients' relatives have written their best wishes to the couple in that book. The couple believes it is worthwhile running such a kitchen, as it helps give people the courage to combat cancer, and to strive to be alive.
Last year, the people's government of Nanchang provided money so Wan and Xiong could improve the kitchen. The couple refined their kitchen with glazed tiles, a rain-proof shed and fire-protection equipment. The government also provided them with a subsidy, to help them pay their rent.
Wan and Xiong in 2020 were among those named as the people "Moving China." When the award ceremony was held in Beijing in February this year, Wan and Xiong did not attend because they were afraid patients' relatives would not be able to use the kitchen if they traveled. For the couple, the kitchen is like a fire beetle, which brings light and warmth to cancer patients, who are like fighters in the dark of night. "When one is trapped in the hardest time of his/her life, if someone can lend him/her a helping hand, giving that person some light and warmth, the one who offers help will be happy as well," says Wan.
Wan and Xiong have a son and two daughters. They stress the importance of caring for others to their children. "No matter how much money the children have earned, never forget to help those who are in need," they have told their children numerous times.
As the couple continues to grow old, some people ask them when they plan to close the kitchen and retire. They insist on running the kitchen for public use as long as they have the strength to work.
Photos by Hu Chenhuan and Wang Yuan
(Women of China English Monthly May 2021 issue)
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