Sunday, June 02, 2013

Of dignity and the battle for the Losheng Sanatorium

Once again, humanity and the dignity of the individual, of the weakest among us, stands in the way of what the government defines as ‘modernity’ 

The old, musky concrete building, which formed a U and gave onto a small courtyard, was now but an empty shell. The Japanese-style shingle roof, darkened by decades of exposure to the harsh elements, no longer provided shelter to any of its former inhabitants, nor did the metal structure, propped by beams, that had been erected above it — a roof over a roof, really.

The Losheng community
The flimsy green door, animated by a spring that slaps it shut if you don’t hold it, creaked opened. Inside the small room were the remains of lives lived: a mattress, an empty wooden closet, a small light-blue pillow laid on top of a small desk, as if a small child had last taken a nap there. There was a kitchen, or that is, what used to be a kitchen. Lavatories. Another room, this one empty but for a mattress propped against the wall, and a closet that had not been emptied: one of its doors was open, and there were still clothes in it, which gave off the sweet smell of garment that hasn’t been washed, that hasn’t even been moved, dusted, in years. On the otherwise bare wall, a calendar remained pinned, fixed in time. November 2008. Presumably the time when the room’s last inhabitant had left, perhaps in a hurry, or maybe for a more final, irreversible reason.

This was one of several community buildings that, for decades, had served as home to Taiwanese suffering from Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Braving 35-degree Celsius temperature, a tyrannical sun and extreme humidity, we’d decided to pay a visit to the Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院) in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Xinzhuang District (新莊).

Losheng, or “Happy Life,” was built in the 1930s, when the Japanese still ruled the island. The area had been chosen because of its remoteness from everything, where the carriers of this unknown disease, which first manifested itself by the apparition of red dots on one’s legs, before the bacteria moved on to devour the cartilage in one’s nose, then the joints, until the sufferer lost fingers, legs, and so on, could be kept away from civilization.

Residents of Losheng
As Mr. Huang, one of the few remaining residents we sat down with for pu-erh tea, told us, Taiwanese from as far away as Kaohsiung, where he was from, or Hualien, Penghu — Kinmen, even — were all brought to Losheng, usually against their will. After being seized from their homes, the authorities often put them in a small van, on which the contents and monstrous nature of their human cargo were clearly inscribed, which made sure to attract fearful glances and a few insults, and take them to Losheng. The disease, where it came from, what it was, and whether it could spread — all of that was little understood at the time. And as is usually the case, ignorance led to inhumanity. Lepers were monsters, a blight, a curse upon one’s family. They needed to be taken away, forgotten.

We sit down at a small wooden table with four of the about 100 residents who still live in the sanatorium, which sits on a lush, dense hillside. Above us in the trees, the cicadas sing their uninterrupted song of summer. There’s a large aquarium to my left, filled with bright busy fish. To my right, behind Mr. Huang, a large furry animal with a large tail dances furiously in a small cage. It’s a squirrel. Further back, cages are filled with rabbits and guinea pigs. A small black dog, Black Dragon, joins us. Black Dragon has many friends, Mr. Huang tells me, referring to the students and activists who often come to provide help. It’s a good thing Ketty is with me, as aside from Mr. Huang, all the others speak Taiwanese, and Mr. Huang’s Mandarin has a thick Taiwanese accent. I know enough words, and enough of the context of our discussion, to understand some of what they are talking about, but the nuance, the essence of their story, is lost on me, and so Ketty fills the gaps.

Work on the MRT depot
One of the reasons we decided to visit Losheng was that it is at risk of being destroyed forever, as a massive mass rapid transit (MRT) depot is being built at the foot of the hill. Unlike what some would believe, this is not a new issue. In fact, plans for the depot were first made in 1994. Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was president when the first protests took place — protests against the project, which endangered the historical site, and against the forced relocation of the sanatorium’s elderly residents. It was the DPP that decided to build a brand new hospital next door to house the residents, without ever asking them if they were willing to move there, let alone consulting them on what the building — a cold, dark, utterly depressing affair of multistory concrete that we briefly walked through on our way to the old sanatorium — should look like. It was former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Chen’s colorful running mate, who told them — no, berated them — that they should be grateful to the government for building this expensive hospital for them, that surely they wouldn’t want all that money to go to waste. It was Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), currently DPP chairman but premier at the time, who had protesters taken away by police when they showed up at his home, the same Su who today sides, purely out of political convenience, with the same residents and protesters accusing Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT administration of ignoring the rights and liberties of the residents (they are right, except that the DPP is equally guilty).

We walked through that hospital, we saw the KTV lounge on the ground floor, where the security guard sang alone, went up the small elevators, and saw some of the residents there. A home it isn’t, nor can it generate the sense of community that the now depleted old Losheng provided over the years. It’s a hospital, a prison, a place where one goes to die. Since it was completed in 2005, and since May 2008, when the government began trying to convince the old residents to move to the new building (free electricity, who could say no to that?), more than 300 Losheng residents have died, Mr. Huang told us. I couldn’t help but remember the calendar I’d seen on the wall. November 2008. Had the room’s former occupant been forced to move to the hospital, or had he perhaps died as a result of the stress? Why hadn’t he taken his clothes with him? Three hundred people in what, five, eight years? This brought to mind the three residents of the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei who couldn’t, in their old age, fathom the terror of a move, of forced eviction, of government fines, and who had dropped dead just as the bulldozers were raping their homes, the only homes they had ever owned.

Construction continues
The MRT depot could have been built elsewhere, but yes, that would have been more costly. The first site proposed was immediately behind Fu Jen Catholic University, but the residents said no. In the end, it was the old, the weak, the powerless, those who for political calculators have exactly no value, who were the chosen ones. They were disposable, they and the community that they inhabited, which had been home to them over decades, stood in the way, aah yes, of modernity. Who cares whether the soil composition at the site, as some experts in geophysics have already pointed out, is not suitable for such a project, that the entire hill, Losheng included, could one day swoop down like an avalanche upon it? Who cares that large fissures have been appearing along walls, on the floors, of buildings in the area? Who cares that the Losheng Sanatorium truly is a heritage site, even if, by the definition of the (much more recent) Ministry of Cultural Affairs, it isn’t old enough, hasn’t passed the arbitrary 100-year mark that makes it eligible for non-destruction, for preservation?

There are about 100 residents left, out of 400 back in 2005. Three hundred have died, despite the “nice new machines” and “shiny medical equipment” that Lu and Su were so proud of as they contemptuously refused to listen to the wheelchair-bound residents — residents, not patients, as they are cured, they are not contagious, and they are, for the most part, independent. One should see the bedrooms. No green things, as Mr. Huang said, and only a small window on the balcony, which has so many horizontal bars across it that it might as well be a prison. Do they fear that the Losheng residents will jump off the balcony? Why deny them the natural environment that has become their home? Why the attempt to even deny them a view of the hill? Might it be that the architects, the wise government officials who came up with that wonderful plan, fear that by seeing symbols of their old lives, the elderly will mutiny and request to be sent back into nature, where they belong, and where they deserve to spend the few years they have left?

A woman in a red shirt shows up. It’s not even three in the afternoon yet and she’s preparing dinner. Dinner at the Losheng Sanatorium is at four. Since we’re on the subject of food, Mr. Huang tells us of how, in the early years, people from the outside world would bring the food up to a certain point on the hill and drop it there, whereupon the residents would send someone to go pick it up and bring it back. One couldn’t leave Losheng; in fact, it was surrounded by a metal fence, to prevent escape.

Construction, Losheng
The reason why nearly eight years on the protests haven’t abated, why students visit the residents of the sanatorium every week to help them, to talk with them, or entertain them with concerts, is that people, however weak and ailing and forgotten, want dignity. All their lives, the residents of Losheng were treated like criminals, like monsters, forced into a life of isolation. Over the years, as they were cured, and as the world began to understand more about the disease, their prison became their home, and the former inmates, the patients, those who hadn’t died, who hadn’t committed suicide by hanging when the pain of the medical experiments became unbearable, became their friends, their family. This was home. They didn’t even want to go back to their initial homes back in Kaohsiung, in Hualien, Penghu, Kinmen, a world that had left them behind and that they, too, had left behind.

Now that the residents are in their 70s, the government is once again trying to send them to prison to await death. But they’re not dead yet, and some are in fact still quite alive. One of them told us, with no trace of irony, that he hopes one day to take the MRT to Taipei, but added that he would have to be accompanied, as he has little education and fears he would get lost. “I should have a sign on me that tells people where I live, that I’m in Losheng,” he said, smiling the but-two-incisive-tooth-missing smile of Hansen disease patients.

According to Mr. Huang, the government may have decided it will not force them to leave. Whether that is true remains to be seen. But if that is the case, the sustained protests likely played a role in that decision, and would once again demonstrate that a third way, a mobilization that transcends the ossified green-blue divide, is what this nation needs above all.

They asked us if we wanted to have dinner with them. We politely declined, said our good-byes, and went on our way. As we climbed down the hill and left Losheng behind us, we came upon the construction site, the breaking of ground, drilling, sawing, soldering, a gigantic, crushing, cold behemoth made of concrete. A perfect symbol for everything that is wrong with this whole project.

(All photos by the author)

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