Monday, June 3, 2013

Afternoon Tea at the Losheng Sanatorium

Mr. Huang & Co.
We came upon the property of the Losheng Sanatorium(樂生療養院), as we followed the road signs and climbed half way up the mountain, .  After passing a few empty quarters, I heard talking and some laughter.  We turned the corner, and I saw a few residents sitting around a table.  As the residents also discovered our presence, I saw two big toothless smiles (well, not exactly toothless but with very few teeth left) and heard them say, “Come! Come! Come have some tea with us!  Sit and rest and chat a bit!”  

We walked over to the table and sat down at the empty bench.  

“Let me move this out of your way,” one resident said, as he placed his prosthetic leg beside his chair. That was Mr. Huang Wen-zhang (黃文章) one of the residents at the Losheng Sanatorium.  A native of Gangshan (岡山), Kaohsiung City, Mr. Huang has been living at the sanatorium for the past 58 years.

I wanted to visit the Losheng Sanatorium since I learned of the controversy surrounding the
Taiwanese government’s multiple attempts to evict residents of Losheng, an isolation colony built under the Japanese Era to segregate individuals suffering from Hansen’s Disease, more commonly known as Leprosy or “Tai Ge Bei” (苔疙病) in Taiwanese and “Ma Feng Bing” (痲瘋病) in Chinese.  

Individuals from all over Taiwan and some from as far as Jinmen and Penghu, were taken from their families, mostly when they were children or young adults, as part of the “No Leprosy Movement (無癩縣運動)” enacted by the Japanese government in 1929.  In 1930, the Japanese built the “Taiwan Governor-General’s Leprosy Treatment Losheng Center (台灣總督府癩病療養所樂生院)” on the mountain of Xinzhuang District outside of Taipei.  At one time, the sanatorium was home to more than two thousand Leprosy patients. 

Honestly speaking, the sanatorium was more like a place where lepers were trucked in, dropped off and tucked away, so the rest of society did not have to witness their disfigurements and be terrified of catching the disease than a treatment center.  There were armed guards at the gate, and the sanatorium was enclosed with metal wires.  Those who dared to escape were subject to punishment and placed in solitary confinement if caught. 

“How did you guys get food?” I asked Mr. Huang.  “Someone cooked for us,” Mr. Huang answered, “You see the big chimney down there?  That’s used to be the kitchen.  Someone would come and cook our food over there, and we’d have to go down and get the food and bring it up here to eat.  But, it's usually not enough, so we used to have to scavenge and to hunt animals to get by”.

“I cried all the time when I first arrived”, Mr. Huang then said, “I was 20 years old and never left my family before.  I thought to myself, my life is now over, and I had no idea what was happening to my body and why was I in such pain”. 

“And, where were you from?” I asked Mr. Huang’s friend wearing a yellow cap, sitting across from us.  “He’s from next door!” our third afternoon tea companion answered for his friend, “He’s from Xinzhuang, so they didn’t have to bring him too far”.  

“Yeah”, said the man in a yellow cap, “I just move from there to here”, as all of them burst out laughing.  “However, they still put me in a truck with ‘Sanitary Department’ sign on the side”, the yellow capped man said, “And I could hear the gathering crowd saying, ‘Oh, that’s the dirty truck for Tai-Ge people! Tai-Ge!  Tai-Ge!  Ewwww…”  

Feeling humiliated and cast aside, the residents of Losheng Sanatorium turned to each other, learned to take care of one another and made a small community of their own.  Even though quarantine was lifted in the early 1960s, most Losheng residents never ventured out, as they heard the stories from those who did on being turned away in stores and at restaurants and being turned down by potential employers when the employers learned of their residence. 

The lives of Losheng residents were conveniently forgotten, which in some strange way,
gave them the peace they were hoping for, until 1995, when the central government sold the mountain, where the sanatorium is located, to the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (台北捷運局) for construction as part of the Xinzhuang MRT line.  It was also decided that the Department of Rapid Transit System (ODRTS) would raise the Losheng Sanatorium to make space for the maintenance depot for the MRT trains.  

Without consulting any of the Losheng residents, the government built an eight-floor Huilong Hospital (迴龍醫院) near the sanatorium and requested all the residents to relocate to the hospital.  Most residents refused to be institutionalized again, now that they are cured of the disease.  They also argued that the hospital environment is actually detrimental to the residents’ health.

In 2001, former Losheng Sanatorium director Chen Jin-shen (陳京生) wrote the Taipei County Government Department of Culture, requesting to preserve the Losheng Sanatorium as historical artifact.  The Department of Culture refused Chen's proposal, claiming the MRT constituted a great construction for the county and modernity.  After construction of the depot began in 2002, the Department of Health cut off the sanatorium’s water and electricity in order to forced the residents move to the hospital.  In addition, the first wave of demolition began in the same year. 

When university students learned of the plight of Losheng Sanatorium and its residents, they came to help the residents preserve their homes and to advocate for their rights to reside where they desire.  The students also accused the Democratic Progressive Party government of violating the Losheng resident’s human rights. 

“I used to be so shy and lack self-confidence”, Mr. Huang told me, “I used to hide from the university students and refused to speak to them when they came to Losheng.  Through time, I gradually learned that these students are kind, and they genuinely care for us.  They even took us out for day-trips and outings when they can”.

The residents had high hops when former Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮 ) visited Losheng in Spring of 2005, in an attempt to convince the residents to relocate to the hospital.  After less than 30 minutes, the residents’ hopes were brutally squashed when Lu inquired in a condescending tone, “What are these alleged inconvenience you claim you have when you refused to move to the medial facility?”  “But we don’t want to move to a hospital”, said one resident.  “Don’t want to is one thing (不想搬是一回事)”, Lu shot back at the elderly resident sitting on his mobility scooter, “Do you want the country to waste all that money on you?  Can you afford to repay the country? (國家要賠很多錢, 你們願意嗎? 你們能賠得起嗎?)”  The student advocates also went to then Premier Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) resident to plead for the government to preserve the Losheng Sanatorium.  Academics also came out in support for the preservation of Losheng Sanatorium for the historical value the sanatorium has in Taiwan’s public health history.  Premier Su’s response to the students was to have their forcefully removed by the police.  A similar behavior we also observed in recent months under the Ma Ying-jeou administration when student and advocates protest the evictions and forced demolition of various communities. 

In the same year, the Kuomintang Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei(周錫偉) led more than 10,000 local residents for a demonstration with the slogan supported by the DORTS, “If Losheng is not demolished, the MRT cannot run (樂生不拆, 捷運不通)!”  Chou and the local residents went to Losheng, surrounded the compound, yelling the slogan and some even with obscenities at the residents through loud speakers.

Bars on the window
So, when the weakest members of society stood in the way of what the politicians and the government officials contend as “modernity”, the best way these elected officials can come up with to remedy the situation is to bully the elderly residents of Losheng into moving to a county hospital with metal bars on its window, narrow dark hallways and numerous rules and regulations of what the residents are or aren’t allow to do. 

We can do better.  For the self-proclaimed human and women’s rights advocate like Annette Lu, who has herself also been a victim of White Terror, her attitude toward the Losheng residents felt even more offensive.

Last December, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin(郝龍斌) and New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu(朱立倫) jointly announced the Xinzhuang MRT line will be in full operation in July of 2013.  While the maintenance depot’s construction continues, after several suspensions due to unresolved landslide issues.  Premier Jiang Yi-huah insists the construction of the maintenance depot will proceed, with extreme caution.

On March 16th, more than a thousand people, mostly youths, took to the street again for the Losheng Sanatorium.  This time, they reiterated their demand for the government to resolve safety issues before moving forward with digging at the bottom of the mountain where Losheng is located for the maintenance depot.  During the demonstration, 120 individual walked in time with drumbeat and, at the sound of a cymbal, knelt down and touched their foreheads to the ground, as the others did in 2007.

Many experts and academics also pointed to indications (cracks appearing inside of both Huilung Hospital and Losheng Sanatorium houses) of possible future landslide, as reasons for the government to halt construction and remedy the problem first, before proceeding with any more construction.  The cracks continued to widen in an astonishing speed, according to the members of Youth Alliance for Losheng, who had been measuring the cracks for the past few years.

“You know what, after all we’ve been through with this MRT thing, I want to ride this thing when it’s in full operation next month!” the old man in the yellow cap declared.  “Me, too!” said Mr. Huang, “I’m going to ride it all the way to Taipei”.  “I now know protests and advocacy yield results”, Mr. Huang’s friend adds”, I am already a pretty noisy person, so I’ll keep fighting for my right to live here”. (He was actually the most soft spoken among the residents).

Another big laughter. 

After several cups of tea and strawberry cookies, we thought it was time to bid farewell to our new friends from Losheng, as they get ready to for their 4pm dinner.  They even invited us to stay to eat with them, but we declined with great appreciation.

“Come again soon! And come frequently ah!” they said to us.

As I said goodbye to the Ah-Gong and Ah-Ma from Losheng, I couldn’t help but to admire their resilience and positive attitude after all they’ve been through.  They also force us to contemplate on what does modernity really constitute.  Should modernity be defined as glitzy buildings, big shopping malls, fast cars, fast trains and fashionable clothing, or does the essence of a modern society and country also include compassion, especially for the weakest members, humanity, understanding and mutual respect?  When politicians from all political parties laud Taiwan as the model for democracy and human rights, maybe it is useful for them to stop and take a look around to make sure their behavior is in sync with what they applaud or say they advocate.  Anything short of that is hypocrisy, and as much as politicians care for electoral return, one can be sure the young advocates of Losheng will not cast their votes for hypocritical political creatures.

The Losheng residents raise Guinea pigs and rabbits 

The particular house was built on year 12 of the Shōwa period (1938).

The MRT Maintenance Depot (I'm too short to take photo above the wire).

1 comment:

ching chen said...


Many thanks for the detailed article about your visit to the Losheng Sanatorium and interview of the residents there. The pics are helpful for knowing the place.

Yes, indeed for the rights of the resients and the historical value of 8-decade-old structure, the Sanatorium must be preserved.