Holy Cafe's Menu of Inclusion

Finding meaningful work for her daughter inspired Maria Sung Law Man Kwan to create a sanctuary for others on the spectrum.


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In the bustling district of Cheung Sha Wan, Maria Sung Law Man Kwan's Holy Cafe crafts meals with a purpose: nourishing not just the body but also the soul. The cafe brightens up the ground floor of an industrial building with its vibrant murals, hand-painted by a talented artist from Maria’s childhood home of Tai O. 

The cheerful artwork embodies the joy that lies at the heart of Holy Cafe, where Maria, a fervent advocate for her daughter and others on the autism spectrum like her, has created a sanctuary for individuals with special needs. There, individuals with special needs can  discover their strengths and find solace from a world that often lacks empathy.

"Because my own daughter is autistic, I understand them more," Maria explains. "But they are all different – in their own inner worlds. They are not all the same; they are all unique, really."

A family business bravely embraces ASD from the start

The inspiration for Holy Cafe came when Maria’s daughter, Flora, struggled with finding work after graduating from a special vocational training school. Maria couldn't bear to see her daughter idle away at home and came up with an ambitious plan: "I thought I'd start a snack stand selling fish balls or something. I love cooking, so that was my initial idea." 

With Maria’s courage matching her ambition, she decided to sell her flat in order to finance her dream.  As fate would have it, a friend told her about a traditional Hong Kong-style cafe, cha chaan teng, that was serendipitously for sale.  The timing worked out perfectly: Maria found public housing, ensuring that she and Flora would have a roof over their heads, and took the plunge.

“It was divine timing. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have all that money anymore, I have a roof over my head. Sometimes you have to think from a higher perspective. I had to take the first step, and try for my daughter.”

To Maria's delight, Flora's self-esteem blossomed at Holy Cafe. She grew comfortable interacting with customers and even struck up conversations with regulars.

Maria's Holy Cafe offers an inclusive setting for her neurodiverse team.

Navigating ASD as a single parent

After losing her husband to liver cancer when Flora was only six, Maria didn’t have an easy time as a single parent of a child on the autism spectrum. However, Maria saw her daughter as a lifeline of hope that pulled her out of the depths of grief. "I just knew I had to be there for her," Maria shares.

Unfortunately, like many other children with special needs, Flora became a target of bullying at school. "She developed a slouch because classmates would laugh at her," Maria remembers. “So, she decided to shrivel up to not be seen." At the age of 12, Flora received an autism diagnosis and was subsequently transferred to a special needs school.

The pandemic brought new challenges as the demands of caring for Flora intensified. "I have to be frank, I used to have a lot more patience for my daughter, but during the pandemic, it really was 24/7," Maria reveals. 

Flora's tendency to watch the news and recite the subtitles, often louder than the newscaster, added to the daily trials. However, Maria found solace in the fact that Flora now channels her late-night musings into conversations with their two beloved cats.

Empowering the special needs community

The impact of Maria and Holy Cafe on the local community is profound. They not only raise awareness about autism but also create employment opportunities and foster a sense of belonging for individuals with special needs.

Two years ago, upon the relocation of Holy Cafe, Eric's father suggested he apply for a job there.  Eric, who would be joining as a dishwasher, was initially reluctant due to his previous encounters with bullying at another restaurant.  However, Holy Cafe's portrayal on social media as a safe and inclusive space changed his mind. Encouraged by this, he informed his father of his wish to join the team.

Maria understands that individuals on the autism spectrum process and learn information distinctively. She recognized that while Eric's loud voice might not be suited for customer-facing roles, his attention to detail was impeccable during tasks like dishwashing and wiping tables. Accordingly, she allocated duties to him that harnessed and honed his abilities. Eric discovered a sense of comfort in the concentrated nature of tasks such as dishwashing, and he valued the contribution he was making to the cafe.

"They may have their own way of thinking, but most can be very focused on a task," Maria explains. She observes and guides her staff for months before assigning them specific responsibilities. 

The positive impact of special needs individuals

Although professional cooks handle the meals at Holy cafe, it’s the staff with special needs that take orders, serve customers, bus tables, and handle payments. They also take pride in packing lunchboxes for underprivileged elders in the neighborhood and other low-income districts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

We need to be like a key to open the doors to their hearts, so that we can enter and understand them as they truly are.

Maria's commitment to empowering individuals with special needs was recognized when she received the One Hong Kong Humanitarian Award from the Rotary Club in 2019, an honor that fills her with gratitude. Currently, Holy Cafe is run by a non-governmental organization. While it already benefits from government funding, Maria is seeking additional government support to expand her venture.

“I want to start a dim sum factory to supply for our restaurant as well as others, and provide more job opportunities to more people on the autism spectrum. I believe they should contribute to society if they can. It’s good for them as well.”

Holy Cafe:  777-786 Yu Chau West Street, Cheung Sha Wan, Kowloon, Hong Kong.