Cyndi Yong is the founder of Petaling Street Community Care, a community group that provides free meals to the homeless in Kuala Lumpur. Once a guide for VIP tourists, she now serves the least of these in the name of Jesus Christ.
A petite lady with a wide smile, Cyndi Yong’s stature belies her fearless nature. To ex-gangsters, discharged prisoners, addicts and the homeless, she’s Mummy Cyndi — a maternal figure who gives them a warm meal, conversation and dignity.
But Cyndi’s story is not of a woman giving out of plenty. A single mother raising an 11-year-old daughter, Latreia, the former tourist guide is living on welfare assistance while waiting for the tourism sector to reopen. Yet, she has chosen to be generous in spite of the little she has.
“When I was at my lowest, I could very well have jumped off the balcony of my apartment. But Romans 8:28 is a promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I hung onto that word and then began looking for others worse off than me whom I could bless,” she says.
When the pandemic hit, Cyndi lost her source of income overnight. With her savings running dry, she lined up at food banks to feed her daughter.
Cyndi used to be a walking guide for international VIP tourists, but when COVID-19 hit and tourism shuttered, so did her flow of income. Six months into the pandemic, she’d almost emptied her savings and had a daughter to feed.
“In the tourism sector, we’re used to shocks: H1N1, SARS, MH370. Usually, things revive after a few months and so I thought COVID-19 would be the same. When my savings ran out, Latreia and I lined up at food banks. There is no shame in looking for ways to feed your family.”
The emotional toll on Cyndi, however, was real. Petaling Street had turned into a ghost town, dark, dank and devoid of activity. The only life was in the form of the homeless who’d found shelter beneath the 1800s architecture and in the storage cupboards of stalls. It was overwhelming and her heart broke.
As weeks turned to months with no end in sight, Cyndi learned that generosity comes from those you’d least expect
As a single mother, Cyndi was entering one of the hardest seasons in her life. Latreia was only nine at the time, and she had to keep seeking ways to settle their daily meals.
She reached out to family and her church community when things were especially rough, but was often ghosted. “I understand they would have been struggling as well, but even replying with a kind word or prayer would have made a difference,” she says.
It was also in this season that she realised the generosity of those who had little. “I once walked into a large, established kopitiam I used to bring my VIPs to when we visited Petaling Street. The owner knew me and after chatting a bit, I mentioned I was thirsty and asked if I could have a drink. I thought he’d freely give me a glass of water, or perhaps a coffee or tea, but he waved me off and said, “We don’t do things like that around here.” That was hard.”
Later that day with Latreia, she spotted a beef noodle stall and asked how much a bowl would cost. RM10, the vendor replied. With only RM5 in her pocket, she asked if he would be willing to prepare RM5 worth of noodles for Latreia and her to share. Surprisingly, he agreed.
“When the bowl came, it was a full portion. I was surprised and grateful, then asked if I could have an empty bowl so that we could share. Gruffly, he ordered me to give the bowl to Latreia and proceeded to make another full bowl for me.”
And when it came time for her to pay, the uncle (whom she did not know and had never brought tourists to) refused the RM5 and sent her on her way. She’s never forgotten this uncle’s generosity, and it gave her hope.
In the midst of her own despair and hopelessness, God opened her eyes to the needs around her
One day in May 2020, she took a walk through Petaling Street at 3am. Standing under the famous Chinatown arch, she knelt to pray. For more than an hour, she travailed for the revival of this iconic street.
“This place is a symbol of tourism here in KL. If it’s dead, it means tourism is dead. At 430 am, I heard the sound of trumpets in the spiritual realm, and I knew that the walls were coming down,” she shares.
With newfound vision, her eyes opened to the striking needs of the homeless community in the area. Many of them were elderly and had nowhere to live, scrounging for food and surviving on the compassion of passers-by. If she was having it hard, she felt they were having it much worse.
“I’ve always had a heart for the elderly. So when I saw them wandering through Petaling Street or curled up on flattened cardboard trying to sleep, I was heartbroken. I asked myself, “Is this what God wants me to do since He’s given me the burden for the elderly since I was in primary school?”
“Chinatown is where my heart is because these streets were where I made my living, and where the hardcore poor are.”
A woman of action, Cyndi got straight to work. At the time, she would go to hawker stalls or food banks around closing time and ask if they had any leftover food to spare for her and Latreia. Sometimes, the vendors would give her four or five packets of food.
Instead of keeping the extra food for the next day, Cyndi would head over to Petaling Street and give away the remaining packets to the homeless. “I’d offer a food packet and sit (or squat) with them as they ate, listening to their stories and journeys that had brought them here. When you listen to them, you realise there’s so much you don’t know,” she says.
As she realised the magnitude of the needs around her, this feisty woman decided to take it further. She sent requests for usable materials and food sponsors to friends and acquaintances, and as word spread, the community was moved by compassion.
In the blink of an eye, she was feeding 50 people a day and by November 2020, she decided they needed a more dignifying set-up. “When we distributed the food, they’d just squat right there and eat; I wanted them to be able to sit down properly and have their meals with dignity,” she says.
Spurred on by Cyndi’s heart for the homeless, local community members joined hands to bless those in need
Several months earlier, Cyndi had stopped by a small kopitiam for a coffee, eggs and toast. An elderly uncle and a little rough around the edges, he was manning the place but didn’t seem to care about making a profit. When he treated her to her meal, Cyndi recognised a kindred spirit.
They became friends over time, and Cyndi even organised a surprise birthday for him attended by members of the press. “He didn’t have much of a crowd, so one November day I asked if he would allow me to use his kopitiam from 10am to 2pm for six days a week. It would be a stop for the homeless to come and have a drink with toast, or some eggs. And I would bring other tidbits like curry puffs, nasi lemak or kuih-muih,” she says.
He agreed without much hesitation, and one week later the initiative kicked off. As news spread, around 50 to 100 people would come for a free meal. But there were rules set out by Mummy Cyndi, such as washing your own plates and utensils and greeting the elderly uncle and those around you.
“We really moved the community. Just two weeks after we started, some people approached us and asked if we needed labour. And so with funding from donors, we covered the cost for them to repaint the entire interior, upgrade the toilet and install a shower. We’d also give a set of clothes to those who had nothing so they could come, wash themselves and feel clean. It’s about restoring dignity and worth to their lives.”
Her ministry is not just to the homeless, but also to members of the local community hit hard by the pandemic
In the course of her work, Cyndi also came across members of the local community who were struggling. She shares the story of an established composer with an illustrious career.
“He would perform at five-star hotels and on cruises; he wrote songs for famous Malaysian singers. But since the lockdown, he was very down. He couldn’t perform and companies were late in paying his copyright fees, so he went into depression,” she says.
He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but Cyndi would faithfully invite him to sit and chat with other friends in the community and not withdraw into his room. “Eventually, he came down to his last few possessions and an organisation was helping to pay for his rented room; he would come to me for a meal.”
Moved by his situation, Cyndi felt she wanted to do something more meaningful for him. She shared his story with others in the community and together, they obtained an organ for him to keep himself busy and rediscover his joy in music.
“Again, we moved the community to help those who were distressed and couldn’t pull themselves up. We tried to look out for one another, to help one another and hold their hands to get through these difficult times together.”
“I was accused of attracting the ‘trash of society’ and three months later, we had to stop our work at the kopitiam.”
As the work stabilised and took form (Petaling Street Community Care was established in November 2020), the owner of the shop lot housing the kopitiam was allegedly unhappy. According to Cyndi, she began receiving accusations of attracting the ‘trash of society and virus carriers’, both terms she vehemently opposes using.
“How can they be trash? They are human beings just like us, with a past and stories. And not once in my entire time doing this has there ever been a cluster of COVID-19 cases due to our activities,” she maintains.
After some back and forth, she was ordered to stop. In February 2021, she moved a few doors down near a hotel no longer in operation, but after a while was also asked to halt her street feeding project. The unhappy owners would call the local authorities, she says, but the officers who came were often kind and understanding.
More than a year later, Cyndi still faithfully provides meals every other day and rotates between Chinatown, Chow Kit, Brickfields and Pudu. Her work is funded by donors, both regular and one-off. It’s a mobile set-up, but she still insists that they sit down and eat. “I set up my own tables now,” she says with a grin.
More than feeding the body, Cyndi shares the good news of Jesus Christ in dimly-lit alleys and on sidewalks
“Did I tell you about the Tamil convicts,” she asks before diving straight in. On one of her night walks, she came across a few stragglers, new faces in the area. “Eh, mari sini! Mahu makan kah?” Offering them packs of fried rice, she asked for their story.
It turned out they were all discharged prisoners. Having served their time, they had been released but had nowhere to go. KL was now very unfamiliar to them, having been in prison for so many years. One only had a photo of his wife and son from over a decade ago but had no idea how to locate them.
“I couldn’t help very much and their BM was also quite broken, but I wanted to share with them the truth that if anyone can help them, it’s God. After thinking hard, I played some Tamil Christian songs for them on YouTube. They were riveted.”
Not wanting the opportunity to pass them by, she called a friend who spoke fluent Tamil and asked him to share the salvation message. All four men gave their lives to Jesus and Cyndi baptised them (using bottles of mineral water poured over their heads) that very night.
“People often ask me which church I go to. I tell them, “I bring the church to the streets.” Do you warm the seats of your church or take what you’ve been taught and bring it outside the four walls? The Bible is clear when we welcome strangers we could’ve been serving angels (Hebrews 13:2). That’s how I see it.”
Today, Mummy Cyndi is fuelled by compassion to feed the hungry, care for the homeless and save lost souls
Cyndi Yong is the kind of lady you’d probably meet once in your lifetime.
Throughout our meal, she would leave nothing uneaten on a plate, from slivers of carrot to deep-fried curry leaves many would have discarded without a thought. She knew every wait staff by name and encouraged them in their work.
Cyndi’s struggles have taught her to be grateful for all that God provides, whether it’s food, human connection or experiences. At the same time, she wants to always pay it forward, to sow compassion and share God’s love with the least of these.
“I relate well to the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17), who gave up her last bit of flour and oil to feed Elijah. All I had was a little flour and oil, but God used it to bless so many people with a project that is still going on. And just as He also provided for the widow with flour and oil that never ran out, He has provided for Latreia and me until today.”
When she first started feeding the homeless, she was told it wouldn’t last three months. More than two years later, Mummy Cyndi’s work hasn’t stopped.
For this faithful follower of Christ, it all circles back to the truth in Romans 8:28, that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.
To find out more about Cyndi’s work with Petaling Street Community Care, click here. If you would like to contribute or sponsor meals for the homeless, contact Cyndi at 016 641 8877.