Frank Wang Reaches Crowd-funding Target #peoplepower


People like Frank Wang, dubbed ‘Bethnal Green’s most popular coffee vendor’, aren’t supposed to win. He has no political power, no financial clout, and he didn’t even have co-workers to call upon to help when he was being pushed out of his business.

So, how did this one individual take on two big institutions: Transport for London, Tower Hamlets Council, and a much bigger business than his own, and win? The answer ... People power!

Frank Wang had worked for 15 years serving coffee outside Bethnal Green station, with a smile. During the winter months he would often give homeless men and women a free hot drink and croissant. Frank was quietly working the only way he knew; work hard, being friendly and being decent.

So when a new café/bar was in the offing on the site of the disused public convenience, Frank was given his marching orders. His contract was a month by month rolling contract, which meant that TFL could say at anytime, ‘Adios. Time to move on’. First, his electricity was cut off, then his generator stolen, his mobile unit vandalised, and racist notes put on his pitch telling him to ‘F*** off back to China’.

But what his detractors didn’t account for was the good will, and heartfelt warmth Frank had generated over many years. Today’s jargon calls it social capital.

A young dynamic woman, Sam Dodd, began an online petition to try and save Frank. Many thousands signed. Soon after, I got involved along with the local entrepreneur Richard Dickinson supporting the petition and lobbying TFL and Tower Hamlets for months. Big institutions can easily wear you down with bureaucracy, and between us we made hundreds, and emails, often to no avail. But slowly but surely others got involved, and a momentum was on our side.

In late August, there was a rally to support Frank. We thought we’d be doing well if twenty people showed up. To our amazement more than 200 people came with banners and posters, all chanting, “We want Frank, we want Frank”.

Within days TFL did an honourable u-turn to allow Frank his pitch back. Furthermore, their very senior team also decided that a major policy change should take place that would move vendors away from their precarious month by month contracts to a fixed-term three year contract.

But the battle for Frank wasn’t over. He hadn’t worked for nearly six months, he had had to sell is coffee machine and unit to pay basic bills. So we decided to Crowdfund for him.

This is the first Crowd-funding many of us have done. And it’s not a walk in the park. We wrongly assumed because Frank had so many supporters we’d easily reach our goal of £10K, and so set up the fund for ‘all or nothing’.

About a month before the deadline we’d only reached about £2.5K. Things weren’t looking good. We all reached out to our contacts, friends and family who might help. A friend of mine, who is also a social entrepreneur, and Birmingham councillor Alex Yip, gave us the breakthrough we so desperately needed and donated £2,000 to the campaign. We began to believe again.

A small team of Frank supporters got together to hand out leaflets, engage with the community, talk to local media outlets, and things started to move again. During the Christmas break things were quiet, but when we came back, we hit the ground running; leafleting, calling around and social media. The media giant Time Out came to our aid yesterday and that collective push got us over the line with two days to spare.

I called Frank to tell him the good news. I could sense the emotional lump in his throat. ‘I can’t tell you how much me and my family appreciate all what everyone has done’, he said, ‘Thank you Simon. It’s difficult for me to talk right now, very difficult’.

It’s been a long journey, and still not quite done. He has to get a more slim line coffee unit, which are conditions from TFL. We’ve still got to source power, which can be relied upon. But Frank will now return, and many local people will be thrilled.

Frank’s victory is a victory for all of us who care about fairness, railing against bullies, and also community - where good people, watch each other’s back and make a stand when things go wrong.

I, like many others can look forward to my coffee in the morning served with a smile and a sense of community.

Simon Woolley