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Socialite becomes a volunteer in Malaysian soup kitchen

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Media captionRuby Khong says her mission is to feed the poor, as Jennifer Pak reports

In the Malaysian capital, Ruby Khong devotes her lunch hours delivering food to the needy, even when the tropical heat and humidity make it hard to breathe.

She and her volunteers drive in an orange and yellow van with the words: "Hunger knows no barriers" printed on the side.

They squeeze between the luxury condos in downtown Kuala Lumpur to arrive at a squatters area that has become so permanent, it has its own name - Bellamy Village.

Ms Khong says initially it was hard to find the needy because they were largely hidden in Kuala Lumpur.

"They are afraid of the authorities so they always hide in the alleys," she says.

Her drive to find and feed the poor has led to the founding of one of Malaysia's biggest soup kitchens called Kechara, which is a Sanskrit word Ms Khong says she borrowed from Buddhist teachings to mean a "heavenly place".

Image caption The soup kitchen now feeds 10,000 people a month across Malaysia

'Unwilling volunteer'

The Malaysian media have ranked Ms Khong as one of the most influential Malaysians and her work earned her a place among Forbes magazine's heroes of philanthropy list in 2010.

However, her journey to become a full-time volunteer has not always been a willing one.

Before starting the soup kitchen, Ms Khong's idea of charity involved dressing up in ball gowns and donating money.

Perhaps this was why Malaysia ranked below its poorer neighbours such as Indonesia and the Philippines in the 2013 World Giving Index, which judged a country based on its donation of both money and time.

The mother of three preferred to dine at luxury hotels, and at one point owned a tropical island in Myanmar with her husband.

"She was a socialite. She would go out clubbing, attend parties and events. She would have fancy dinners with her friends and play tennis. She really indulged in herself personally," says Ms Khong's son, Clifford.

Image caption Ruby says she was initially a reluctant volunteer at the soup kitchen

It's rare for children in Asia to criticize their parents but Ms Khong doesn't seem to mind.

"I admit it. I think being the youngest in the family meant that life was pretty pampered," she says laughing.

"It was always about myself, what I wanted and that continued on for a while until 1994," she says.

That year, she was on a quest for spiritual guidance in India and met a Buddhist monk named Tsem Rinpoche.

"I was decked out from head to toe in Chanel."

Ms Khong says if he had discouraged her from wearing luxury brands, she probably wouldn't have followed him.

Instead, he urged her to use her wealth and influence to do more charity and eventually suggested that she feed the hungry.

"I was very reluctant to give up my weekends with family and friends," says Ms Khong.

She says she only committed herself to volunteer for two weekends out of the year. That was in 2006.

Now, feeding the poor is her full-time occupation.

"Once I started there is no way that I could pull out because these people are there and they need us," she says.

The Kechara soup kitchen has branches across the country in the capital Kuala Lumpur, north of the country in Penang, Johor Bahru in the south and Kuantan in the east.

They provide counselling and basic medical services for the homeless and feed 10,000 hungry people a month.

Image copyright Ruby Khong
Image caption Ruby says she was on a quest for spiritual guidance in India when she met a monk who helped change her life

Asian tradition

It is a small percentage in a country with 30 million people, but Ms Khong's operation is catching the ones who fall through the system.

Wong Yuk Kei is one of them. She doesn't qualify for any of the 200 state-run old folks homes because her children are alive.

The country's welfare system is still rooted in Asian tradition and expects each generation to be responsible for their parents.

However, Ms Wong's children are struggling with the high cost of living in Kuala Lumpur and cannot help. She gets less than $100 (£63) a month in welfare payment. It's just enough to cover her and her husband's medical bills but not much more.

Ms Wong relies on the Kechara soup kitchen for a hot lunch.

On the menu that day in October was hard boiled eggs in curry, green vegetables, and potato with tofu meat on a bed of rice wrapped in pandan leaf. They also had bottled water and biscuits for dessert.

This is food that can be served to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or anyone with religious dietary restrictions in the multi-faith country.

Ms Wong says she enjoys the meals and collects two rice packets from the volunteers at Bellamy Village.

"My husband and I have only eaten lunch from the Kechara soup kitchen for the past four years," she tells Ms Khong in the Cantonese dialect.

The socialite smiles politely and nods even though she doesn't understand the language.

Image caption Wong Yuk Kei and her husband rely on the soup kitchen for food

Positive change

Ms Khong walks further down the unpaved path sporting a stylish pair of flip flops, which reveals perfectly manicured toes.

After eight years, she still sometimes struggles in her role.

She told a local magazine recently that she has a "major hang up" about shaking a strangers hand and hugging, which can happen when people are grateful for the free food.

Her son, Clifford, sees a positive change in his mother. He says feeding the hungry has made her more kind, patient and giving.

Ms Khong's transformation comes at a crucial time when many Malaysians feel that the country's elite is detached from people's suffering.

"It is not about the packet of food but by giving it, it shows them that we care to step outside of our comfort zone," she says.

It's this idea that has moved the socialite from the back covers of glossy magazines, to grace the front cover.

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