An initiative that randomly matches Yalies for a midday meal has helped build a sense of community among members of the Yale Club of Hong Kong.
At the height of the COVID pandemic, Hong Kong had some of the most extreme restrictions in the world, including requiring masks outside and limiting gatherings to no more than two people. Like most everything else in the city, the local Yale Club chapter had basically shut down. There were no in-person lunch talks, no panel discussions, no cocktail parties.
The mood in the city was dismal—news articles featured stories of people leaving Hong Kong in part because of the isolation they experienced—but Minh Tran ’09, a member of the Yale Club’s social committee at the time, saw an opportunity.
“I thought, ‘We can do events with two people,’” he remembers.
In 2021, Tran pitched club president Sam Wong ’89 MBA on a version of an experience he’d had as a fellow at the American Chamber of Commerce in the city: informal one-on-one meetings meant to spur connections and camaraderie. Under the rules in Hong Kong at the time, two people—and only two people—could sit together at a table in a restaurant. So, with a hopeful inquiry to its WhatsApp chat and a blinking cursor on a blank Excel sheet, the Yale Club of Hong Kong launched a lunch club.
Forty people signed up immediately. Within a few months, the number had doubled; today more than 100 people participate, eagerly awaiting their monthly matches. At first, Wong tried to arrange the pairs himself but soon the numbers were too high. Yale-China Hong Kong Director Andrew Junker ’08 MA ’12 PhD and Betty Siu Chun Ho, Yale-China’s senior administrative coordinator in the city, offered to help, and, eventually, Jinshan Hong, who studied at Yale as an exchange student from the University of Hong Kong, created a computer program to randomly generate the matches.
“They called for someone who can do an algorithm to get this automated,” explains Hong, a data journalist who has met professors, diplomats, and finance professionals over more than 15 lunches. “I raised my hand.”
The randomness is part of the fun; so is a recommendation that lunch pairs post a photo and a note about their conversation to the several hundred members of the Yale Club’s WhatsApp group.
“It’s a little bit like you’re there with them,” Tran says. “It’s so nice to see people’s smiling faces.”
Tran got career advice from one of his matches. Wong discovered a passion for Chinese art after dining with an art historian. Elizabeth Chan ’15 LLM matched with Junker; their families trick-or-treated together for Halloween. At least two musical groups have formed following lunches. And even couples have been randomly paired—one posted their lunch club photo from their trip to Bali.
The program was supposed to be temporary—six months at most. Now, it’s a permanent fixture of the Yale Club of Hong Kong, and other Yale Clubs and even alumni groups from different universities have asked for help replicating the idea.
The lunch club has been one of the most successful offerings at the Yale Club of Hong Kong, helping build community and inspiring people to create their own initiatives.
“It’s made our bigger events much more popular,” says Wong. “It’s hard going to a Yale Club event if you’ve never met anyone there. But if you already know 10 or 12 people from these lunches, you’re much more willing to go.”
People can connect on a deeper level in a more personal setting, participants say. Conversation topics run the gamut from campus memories to family life to professional paths. At a recent lunch, Wong and Emma Buchtel ’99, a professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, got philosophical, debating the merits of culture and religion.
At traditional club events, “you might talk to someone for three or four minutes,” Wong says. “You’re not going to talk that deeply. This encourages social interaction and gets people with different backgrounds to communicate with each other.”
Chan, who has had about 12 lunches so far, echoes that sentiment.
“This was a great initiative to meet other members on a one-on-one basis and to get to know them,” she says. “It can be harder to do that in a group setting or a networking event with many participants.”
Hong, who describes herself as “somewhat introverted,” says the “program allows me to have at least one chance a month to know a new person.”
And, in addition to the community-building benefits, “it’s just fun,” Wong adds.
Tran agrees. At this point, the club doesn’t formally promote the lunch program. The WhatsApp posts are enough to drive new signups.
“These photos come through almost every day,” Tran laughs. “People want to be a part of it. FOMO is real.”