My Days at Huaguang: From ‘Good Citizen’ to ‘Disobedient Activist’

One year after the residents of a community in downtown Taipei bid a final farewell to their homes and businesses, a victim of urban renewal shares his account Huaguang’s history and the travails of its people

A migratory existence seems to be a curse that runs in our family.

Sixty years ago, as a result of the Chinese Civil War, my father was forced to flee to Taiwan with the government, travelling across half of China and then through the Taiwan Strait. He eventually settled down in the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei. However, because of the lack of resources and housing, the government was unable to accommodate the sudden influx of soldiers and civilians (in all, about 2 million people fled China to Taiwan). Moreover the priority of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government at the time was still to “recapture the Mainland.” Consequently, all settlement policies were put aside and my father, like many other civil servants, had to build a home using his own money.

Ironically, 50 years later, I was put in the same situation by the same government: I was forced to leave the place where I had lived for more than half a century with my 83-year-old mother. We fled to the mountain areas near Sansia (三峽), penniless, and separated from our family and friends. Fortunately for us, this time it was only a river, two cities, and a small hill away, not half a world. Nevertheless, what I cannot accept is the heartlessness with which that same government treated us. The noble reason for my father’s resettlement to Huaguang decades ago is what makes us criminals now, accused as we are of “encroaching on government land.”

This government has owed my family a shelter ever since my father was forced to flee China sixty years ago.

The “mainlander” elites have received abundant resources from the government. They can afford to purchase grand houses and still have enough left to fund the maintenance of their ancestral tombs and houses back in China. (I fear that the next generation will face an era of skyrocketing house prices and depressed wages. Catching a star will officially be easier than buying a house of your own.)

The Taiwanese who live under difficult conditions can still go back to their ancestral homes in the countryside and find solace in the company of their family members. But for poor and petty “mainlander” families like mine, Huaguang was the only place that gave us a sense of belonging. Even though there is nothing left there now but an empty lot with cold metal fences, and even though our homes and businesses were considered illegal constructions, Huaguang offered us comfort and warmth for the past 50 odd years.

Ever since the demolition of Huaguang in 2013, I have been extremely reluctant to talk about my home, foolishly hoping that this silence would bring me solace and dissipate my hatred for the government. However, the trouble with deliberately dismissing something from your mind is that you leave a blank there. This creates a problem for me: How can I possibly deal with the loss of 50 years of memory?

Aroma

It’s 2a.m. I am nibbling on my cup of brined vegetable instant noodles. It’s now difficult to find that traditional dish at street stands or in restaurants. The permeating, saliva-inducing smell can sift through all the fences that have been keeping me away from my home, and it carries me anywhere, even back in time.

Years ago, I would wake up at 5a.m. to the sound of conversations in the Hochiu dialect. I never really know if those people were having an argument or simply chatting away. Even that early in the morning, the fumes of savory dishes would emanate from the small houses along the alley. Nobody every complained about the smell of braised pork soup.

Back on those days, nine two-wheeled wagons, parked in the alley, were used to serve breakfast to the southern parts of Taipei. Another wagon, this one in front of the gazebo in front of the community village, lay in wait to bring us, the residents of Huaguang, the best breakfast. The packs of children from the community would always bring an egg as they lined up in front of the Hokchiu noodles food stand, waiting patiently for it to be poached in the bowls of noodles. The sole reason for doing so was to save that tiny bit of money. The vivid images surging in my mind still put a smile on my face. The old days …

Back then, one could put all the buildings of the community into two categories: Those with black-tiles rooftops and those with bamboo rooftops. The former were built when Taiwan was still under Japanese rule, solemn and orderly. As soon as you stepped inside, you could immediately smell the fragrance of cypress trees. All these houses were used as accommodation for government officials. For their part, the bamboo rooftop houses were built by “mainlander” immigrants; the assistance and resources promised by the government never materialized.

Since all the houses were connected and the living room was the only possible form of ventilation, once every few years we would have to lay another sheet of bamboo to cover the rotten ones. The problem with having so many layers was that dirt and humidity would get trapped in the spaces in between, and fungi would grow, giving off a strange, sour smell.

Anyhow, that was the smell of home.

Every day at around 5p.m., as a safety precaution all the mothers would move their coal-lit stoves to the alley near the gutter, chatting and gossiping as they cooked dinner. Back then Taipei was filled with single-story houses, so walking back from school I could see streams of smoke coming from Huaguang soaring into the sky. How comforting were those smells! The scent of burning coal and the savor of those delicious dishes prepared by our mothers … those are forever etched in my memory.

It’s been four decades, and every now and then I am still able to smell those familiar scents. They are the smells of a dwindling past, of decaying space, of separation in life and death. And they are the smells of the body of my memory.

Coup d’état

Looking back, I have discovered that the relationship between the people and the government is one of magnetic poles.

When the government is willing to follow the will of the people, the two are inseparable. If the government provides its people with a fully equipped kitchen, the people will be able to reciprocate with delicious dishes. Building on the idea of a home, the big family concept will undoubtedly result in happiness of all. However, if an antagonistic relationship is maintained for a prolonged period of time, trust, the adhesive between the government and its people, will disappear and effective communication between them will cease to exist.

Right now, the government and I are in a relationship similar to the one between two like poles: we repel each other.

How I transformed from a so-called second-generation “mainlander” who instinctively voted for the blue camp (i.e., KMT) to someone who now ardently believes in civic power is a story that finds its roots in the establishment of the New Party in 1993.

I was in my thirties at the time, and I was not in the least interested in politics. I spent every hour of the day trying to make a breakthrough in my career. Whenever elections were held, like many people my age I’d make my way to the polling station in my flip-flops and cast my vote, still half asleep. The reason for my state was that election day was always a holiday, so a crazy night always preceded it. Our seeming enthusiasm was in reality merely the impatience and a desire to get it over and done with before meeting up with our friends. The result of the elections did not affect me in the slightest; it brought neither disappointment nor satisfaction. The outcome left me indifferent.

Nineteen eighty-eight, the year president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) died, marked the beginning of a new era of lies and deceit in Taiwanese politics. From the president to senior government officials, these people dressed in tailor-made suits and leather shoes. Gone were the days when important national figures traveled across the country to visit the suffering people and offer them care and compassion. Of course James Soong (宋楚瑜) was an exception, but it wasn’t long before he was forced out of office following the downsizing of the so-called “provincial government.”

It was difficult to understand how these politicians could claim in a press conference that they were “misunderstood” and that their words had been “twisted by the media,” only to turn around and deny ever saying such things — live on television! I was shocked. Even in a community as poor as Huaguang, our belief was that honesty is the best policy.

“The Republic of China is an independent country and does not belong to the People’s Republic of China,” together with “what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong,” were the two fundamental ideologies of the New Party when it was founded. Those were principles that had an inherent sense of righteousness, and they were the reason I joined the party. In the general election that year, support for the New Party surged and the party used it to its advantage, sweeping up over 1 million of the votes. I honestly believed back then that there was hope for reform in our country.

Who knew that the New Party, which took pride in being the “cleanest party of all,” would find itself in the middle of a scandal surrounding the Taipei county commissioner election, get embroiled of internal party conflicts, and see its image sullied by the shameful conduct of individual party members? Disillusioned, I eventually distanced myself from the New Party, and became completely and utterly disappointed with politics. For the next 20 years, I stayed away from politics.

I never trusted politicians who excelled in debates and arguments. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) happened to be one of the best I had ever seen. It went without saying that the KMT was corrupt and that the DPP was on the rise. Nonetheless, I held back all judgment when Chen was elected president in 2000, hoping that some day he would impress us with some real achievements. Several years later, legislators and many members of the DPP still regard “mainlanders” in Taiwan as an inferior group. Some have called us “pigs.” Not only did President Chen fail to stop such discrimination, he joined in the act and made hostile comments such as “Why don’t you ‘mainlanders’ jump into the Pacific Ocean and swim your way back to the fatherland? No one is stopping you!” Needless to say, those remarks hurt many of us.

Looking back to the years when Chen was still mayor of Taipei (1994-1998), he ordered the demolition of many military dependents’ villages, claiming this was for “racial integration.” But if that was really the case, why did he forcibly remove the residents without proper plans for relocation? Moreover, by that time the people of Taiwan were already well integrated, and most of those who came from China in the late 1940s had since married a Taiwanese woman, as my father did. (My mother was from Taichung, and I was a child from a previous marriage.)

This unjustified hatred against “mainlander” immigrants awakened a profound resentment of the ignorance of politicians in me. From mere disenchantment, I eventually joined the “Red Shirts” campaign calling for President Chen’s resignation. This was my first-ever participation in civic activism.

The forced eviction of the innocent residents of Huaguang is the outcome of discrimination against and the unjust treatment of “mainlander” immigrants in Taiwan. It came as no surprise, given President Chen’s history of collusion with the business world, that his government would file lawsuits against the residents of Huaguang for the “illegal” occupation of state property. [Editor’s note: In fairness to the Chen administration, the government did not act on its threat; the demolitions and fines only occurred after the KMT had regained office.]

Over seven years, when the entire Huaguang Community faced government lawsuits, everyone did their best to have their grievances redressed; they petitioned various government agencies and legislative offices, but it was fruitless. The government paid no attention to us, dismissing our appeals with the same old excuse: We had to follow the regulations and go through established channels. KMT legislators, meanwhile, insisted that the matter could only be dealt with by the elected legislator for Daan District (大安). Yet, how could a person as genteel as the KMT legislator representing the district fight against a complication as entangled and conflicting as the fate of the Huaguang Community? Clearly, a no-intervention policy had become the unspoken consensus within the KMT.

At first, many of the 400 or so households within the community, mostly “mainlander” families, agreed to receive compensation from the government (ostensibly for civil servants) ranging from NT$1.5 million to NT$2.3 million in return for leaving Huaguang for good.

Of the remaining 200 units, 20 belonged to the original immigrant families and 180 were bought from these families during the 1960s. The latter were mostly workers and apprentices from mid-southern Taiwan with little or no assets. This cluster of illegal constructions had provided Taipei with the much-needed land to accommodate the rapidly growing population that resulted from the high demand for labor. Thus, over past half-century, the government acquiesced to the fact that people live here — it gave the residents a house number, water and electricity, and the right to trade these houses.

Yet, after the decision was made to evict them, the occupants were forced to demolish their homes, while having a third of their monthly wages seized by the government. Families that could not afford to move had to take out loans to cover living cost and those who could afford to move were unable to do so because their bank accounts were frozen.

Needless to say, this fragile community could hardly get itself out of this dilemma, let alone provide succor to others.

Angels

Ever since the lifting of martial law in the late 1980s, we have failed to adjust to the new social order that installed itself after decades of authoritarian rule. The country is therefore in a state of ignorance, leading to constant conflict between the people and the government, regardless of which party is in power.

The ignorance of the ruling party results in a firm belief that as long as it has control over the judiciary and the media, its hegemony can last forever.

On the other hand, the ignorance of the people comes from their incomprehensible trust in the ability of elected representatives to solve their problems, and their failure to appreciate the power and the necessity of unity of the people. We need to make those in office accountable for their blunders and the resulting social injustice in order to keep them on their toes. And we must make sure that they think very carefully before making decisions that can hurt people.

Such ignorance has created a situation in which people have lost faith in grievance mechanisms. Victims are now desperate for angels. Thankfully, as the system failed us, a few brave angels descended in our midst.

However, in the secular world, such people are defined as “rioters,” members of a “violent crowd.”

Three months before the forceful demolition of Huaguang (in 2013), thirty angels came to our rescue. On March 27 and April 24, several hundred more came out to help. These angels in black had innocent faces and the most polite and humble attitudes; nevertheless, they were decisive and accurate in coming up with a resolution.

In November 2012, four months before the demolitions of Huaguang were set to begin, a postgraduate at National Taiwan University visited the Huaguang Ling Shui Temple. The student was helping the Shaoxing Community (紹興社區), whose residents had been sued — also for “illegally” occupying land — when she heard about Huaguang. Hoping to find a way out for Shaoxing, she gathered a group of student volunteers to investigate the Huaguang case.

Such altruism was new tom me. When the demolitions of the Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院) began years ago, I didn’t participate in the public campaign because I did not understand the issue and thought it was just a minor dispute. “Didn’t they receive millions of New Taiwan dollars in compensation? Didn’t the government build a new residential complex for them?” This is how I saw things at the time.

There were other cases.

Soon thereafter came the demolitions surrounding the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project in Taipei. “I heard it was a matter of a disagreement over the selling price. So it was more or less a dispute over money, right?” I believed that the Wang family, which refused to be evicted, occupied a few units within an old building. However, I later discovered that the building the Wang family occupied was independent from the other buildings, and therefore that it was not necessarily subject to urban renewal. Since this was not a governmental project but a private agreement among the residents, I had no interest in participating in social action either.

Then there were the residents of Xindian’s 14th District, whowere accused of illegally occupying government property, just like us in Huaguang. However, without land tenure, it was hopeless. We in Huaguang were in an even direr situation: We had to pay millions of New Taiwan dollars in compensation to the government. At least they received a few hundred thousand dollars each, I was thinking. As usual, I refrained from participating, and even secretly envied them.

As for the many factory workers who lost their jobs due to plant closures, they had been fighting for their rights for over a decade, drifting from place to place. I often saw them on the news. They seemed to have several supporters, so I thought it didn’t matter whether I helped them or not. So I didn’t participate in their campaign. But in my heart, I wished them the best of luck.

Lessons in civic duty

No one could have anticipated that the street protests over the fate of the Huaguang Community would turn into six years of torture under two administrations.

I was born in the era of martial law under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), and I had always prided myself in being a law-abiding citizen. However, ever since the Huaguang incident, I have learned from the students who came to support us that in order to exercise our civic rights, we need to be proactive. It’s not about how loud your are, how many banners you wave, but how much you care for the cause and how much you are willing to sacrifice to achieve your objectives.

Perhaps out of appreciation and a desire to give back to society, I am now a vocal supporter of social issues. I went from being an obedient citizen under martial law to a participant in civil disobedience. The struggles and the misery that I experienced during this period are not something that can be expressed in words.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank everyone who has come to our aid from all sides, including legislators Tien Chiu-chin (田秋堇) and Yu Mei-nu (尤美女), who gave unwavering support throughout the protests. I would also like to thank Lin Yi-hua (林奕華), the city councilor at the time who went against the KMT’s dictates and fought as hard as he could for Huaguang and its people.

 

Wang Yu-chi is a former resident of the now-defunct Huaguang Community in Taipei.

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