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A gift of two dumplings sparked an Oahu family’s legacy of giving

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Victor Tan and his family coordinated with Mini Garden Chinese restaurant to get 100 Christmas meals to homeless youth. The meals were delivered to the Youth Outreach in Waikiki.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Victor Tan and his family coordinated with Mini Garden Chinese restaurant to get 100 Christmas meals to homeless youth. The meals were delivered to the Youth Outreach in Waikiki.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Victor Tan and his family, along with Tracey Ngiratebl, right, prepared 100 Christmas meals that were headed to the Youth Outreach in Waikiki. Above, stickers with a holiday message were placed on the meal boxes.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Victor Tan and his family, along with Tracey Ngiratebl, right, prepared 100 Christmas meals that were headed to the Youth Outreach in Waikiki. Above, stickers with a holiday message were placed on the meal boxes.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Above, the Tan family includes Virgil, 13, left; Vincent, 15; Victoria, 20; and Victor, 56.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Above, the Tan family includes Virgil, 13, left; Vincent, 15; Victoria, 20; and Victor, 56.

A hundred homeless, runaway or otherwise at-risk Honolulu youth enjoyed a hot meal on Christmas Eve thanks to an anonymous but never forgotten act of kindness some 5,000 miles and 42 years removed.

Kaimuki resident practitioner Victor Tan and daughter Victoria spearheaded the effort in conjunction with the Waikiki Health Center and Rosanna and Peter Hsi, who have helped provide Christmas dinners to homeless youth through Youth Outreach Waikiki for more than five years.

The food was prepared at Mini Garden Orient Cuisine restaurant on Beretania Street. The meals were distributed via WHC’s Youth Outreach program, which provides meals, counseling and other support services to at-risk youth. Adolescents and teens served by the program had a hand in picking the menu.

“I’m a very firm believer that homeless and runaway youth are in a way victims because it’s not their fault that they are not taken care of,” said Rosanna Hsi. “They need to be helped and supported.”

Tan, 56, said he believes it’s important for all people to partake in good food during the holiday season. The need — physical, psychological and spiritual — is even greater in this pandemic year and can be met only by the compassion and goodwill of everyday people, he said.

For Tan, feeding this particularly vulnerable and often overlooked population is more than simple charity. It’s the ongoing fulfillment of a promise made at his father’s deathbed.

2 DUMPLINGS

Long before he made Hawaii his home, Tan was a world champion acrobat in his native China, a national hero whose precipitous fall from the good graces of Chinese Communist bureaucracy eventually led to his defection to the U.S. Long before that he was the dutiful eldest son of an engineer and a schoolteacher, born in the impoverished village of Bayan and later raised in Harbin, capital of Heilong­jiang in northern China.

Tan’s father, Tan Guocai, was a popular figure in his hometown, a college-educated professional who rode a bicycle (then something of a rarity), sported a fine Russian-made coat and owned a small piano that neighborhood children clamored to see. But the family’s fortunes quickly reversed when Tan’s father appealed to a local authority about their small one-bedroom apartment, which was significantly smaller than that usually provided to someone of his profession and years of service.

“My father tried to talk to them to explain that it was unfair,” Tan said. “But they got mad and threatened him.”

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, when discretion was essential for social, political, even literal survival, Tan Guocai’s penchant for reacting to perceived injustice was perilous. One day, Tan returned home from school to find neighbors crowding the stairwell outside the family’s apartment. Entering, Tan saw his father on the floor, his shirt torn and bloodstained. A short while later an ambulance arrived, but his parents refused to open the door. It came again an hour later, the driver insisting that his father come out, but again they refused.

A month later an ambulance unit grabbed Tan’s father as he met with another official and detained him for a week at a mental institution.

“I was young at the time, only 10, so I didn’t understand,” Tan said. “But I later learned why they didn’t want to go. (The government) didn’t want you to speak up. They tried to shut you up. People who went to places like that were poisoned, beaten, shocked with electricity.”

But Tan Guocai did not relent. He continued to plead his case even as his work disappeared, his involuntary detentions continued and his mental and physical health deteriorated.

“He was just totally different,” Tan said. “Before, he was really bright and happy. He joked a lot. But after that he was mad — not at us, but just mad. He never joked. He was always serious, always thinking, thinking, thinking.”

In 1978, Tan Guocai and Tan’s mother, Tao Daofang, traveled to Beijing to appeal to the central government, a desperate and usually unsuccessful mission frequently undertaken by those who believe themselves unjustly persecuted by local Communist Party officials. By this time Tan was a rising star in his acrobatic troupe. Another brother was also selected to undertake gymnastics training, leaving Tan’s youngest brother in the care of his grandparents.

Tan’s parents spent a year in Beijing vainly pursuing relief from the situation. They were still there in midautumn, when Chinese families traditionally reunite to view the moon at its yearly fullest.

“It’s the time of year when everybody misses home,” Tan said. “They were really sad. They were far from home and they missed their children.”

Homeless, penniless and hungry, the couple spent the evening of the Moon Festival walking the streets, miserable in the present and fearful of the future.

As they ambled down a busy street, a man they had never seen before beckoned them to a restaurant. Confused, they entered, sat and waited as the man engaged a worker at the front. Minutes later a waiter appeared with a plate bearing two hearty dumplings.

The couple was stunned, overwhelmed with gratitude and, once the dumplings were consumed, sated with fullness of heart.

The couple would leave Beijing just before the new year, returning to Harbin having gained not a measure of relief for their year away. Yet, for the rest of his short life, Tan Guocai spoke passionately and often about the kindness that was extended to them that night. For him the stranger’s gesture of seasonal goodwill stood as a testament of the innate goodness of people and a refutation of the cynicism of the age.

17 CENTS

Tan would have his own experiences with deprivation and want.

A standout in the discipline of hoop diving, in which acrobats flip themselves through stacked wooden hoops, Tan became the first in the world to execute a leap through the highest of five stacked hoops. In 1986 he led his troupe to a first-place finish in national competition. Though later sidelined by a torn Achilles tendon, Tan’s individual performance secured the troupe an invitation to the international championships the following year.

The troupe came away victorious, a win that was celebrated across China, but despite being an official member of the team, Tan was denied the pay grade increase, housing and other perks customarily awarded an athlete with his accomplishments.

Over the next year and a half, Tan found himself in a professional free fall as shake-ups and power plays at the upper levels of the troupe led to Tan, an outspoken defender of his coach and the previous leadership, being effectively banished by the new regime. Ostensibly still part of the troupe — and thus unable to seek other employment — but not allowed to perform or earn a salary, Tan returned home to Harbin for the New Year holiday impoverished and embittered.

Despite their high profile, professional acrobats in China at the time typically lived a meager existence. Their time was rigorously apportioned, their pay barely sufficient to cover basic needs, their material pleasures scant.

But for the Chinese the Lunar New Year is a time for celebration, community and a bit of indulgence no matter how modest. A simple rice cake. Perhaps a dumpling.

In 1988 all Tan wanted was a beer to usher what he hoped would be a more fortuitous year ahead. But a bottle of beer then was 60 cents in Chinese currency. Tan’s family had, collectively, 17 cents.

“My father had just returned from the hospital, and all their money went to paying for his stay,” Tan recalled. “I wasn’t allowed to work, so I didn’t have any money.”

And so Tan’s mother dispatched his two younger brothers to the market to see what they could get. They returned with a fish head and tail, from which Tan’s mother made a simple soup.

“Everything that I wanted to eat, we were not able to afford,” he said. “I wanted some beer but was not able to afford it. This is why I know how important it is for people to eat good food during holidays.”

In 1991, Tan’s father died after a long illness. Before he did, he repeated the story of the two dumplings and made Tan promise that he would spend his life helping people whenever and however he could. That promise has become the animating force in nearly everything Tan undertakes.

A LIFETIME MISSION

Tan defected to the United States the following year, landing initially in New York, where he worked menial jobs and eventually reunited with and married his former acrobatics teammate Elena. They later moved to Hawaii; established a thriving practice in acupuncture, massage and Chinese medicine; and welcomed children Victoria, Vincent and Virgil. They have also reestablished personal and professional ties to China and have helped their surviving parents and siblings relocate to Hawaii.

True to Tan’s promise, the family devotes much time to helping others, both here and abroad. Tan founded the nonprofit Hawai‘i Asia Pacific Institute of Culture and Arts to promote cultural exchange, and his family has lent their musical and artistic talents to scores of performances at local nursing homes, children’s wards and other facilities, frequently with Ebb Tides Production Hawai‘i.

Tan’s children have led their own charitable endeavors, planning service trips to remote areas in China, raising funds and collecting goods for a Chinese orphanage, even establishing a sales platform through which ethnic Mosuo can sell their crafts.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Tan led an effort within the Chinese community in Honolulu to donate personal protective equipment to local hospitals, nursing homes, medical centers and other facilities. He and his children walked the streets of downtown handing out masks to business owners and area homeless.

“He is a very socially conscious man,” Hsi said. “He really believes in giving back to the community.”

For the Tans and those who have come to know their story, “two dumplings” is shorthand for kindness, compassion, empathy and outreach.

“Everybody goes through hard times,” Tan said. “That’s why we need to take care of each other.”

Correction: A previous version of this story identified Rosanna and Peter Hsi as restaurateurs.

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