Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The case of Tseng I-mei

The torments and death earlier this year of a 91-year-old resident of Taipei’s Huaguang Community provide a laundry list of the inhumane manner in which the government has treated the residents of a community that is no more

I first met Chen Hsiang-ming (陳祥明) on Aug. 27, just as the residents of the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei were bidding a final farewell to the part of the city that had been home to most of them for more than five decades. I had just finished taking pictures of little ghosts, made of cloth, that were hanging from strings next to black-and-white photographs of some of the residents in their youth.

Mr. Chen came over, trembling, the eyes above the surgical mask and underneath his white baseball cap filled with unmistakable anger. Cradled in his arms was a large framed picture of an elderly woman in a dark-red shirt. “Are you a journalist?” he asked in perfect English. I replied that I was. And out came the torrent of pain, the story of a 91-year-old widow’s torments, and ultimate death, in the midst of the government’s efforts to evict the members of the community and raze their homes to make way for yet another glitzy building intended for the supremely rich.

As a small group of fellow journalists gathered round him, Mr. Chen, a graduate of Kansas University, fished out documents from a large envelope and handed them over to me. Among them was a letter, in English, addressed to US President Barack Obama asking for his intervention, or at least his attention. Of course, neither is likely to happen, with Obama busy trying to defuse various crises and conveniently inattentive to any occurrence in Taiwan which might cast shadows on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) supposed peacemaking in the Taiwan Strait. But it is a story worth repeating here, one of the many cases of suffering and injustice that emanate from a community that very soon will no longer be.

Mr. Chen tells his story during a rally on Aug. 27
Like many of the residents of Huaguang, Tseng I-mei (鄭依妹) fled China in 1949 and settled in Taiwan following Mao Zedong’s victory against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Like most “mainlanders,” she and her husband, who also escaped from China, thought at the time that the move would be a temporary one, hopeful that Chiang would eventually retake the Mainland. Of course, history had other plans in mind, and no such retaking ever occurred, which meant that for people like Tseng, Taiwan would be home for the rest of their lives. Ms. Tseng and her husband divorced in 1968, and from then on she lived on her own. Struggling to make ends meet and with very little education, Tseng managed to scrape by enough money to purchase a shabby wood-and-brick house in Huaguang. It became her home, and the city government issued an official street number tag.

The nightmare began four years ago, when the then-87-year-old was sued by the Ministry of Justice for refusing, like many other residents of the community, to relocate after the government decided to go ahead with its plans to demolish the community. Like other residents, Tseng was accused of living in Huaguang illegally. Their refusal to move prompted the government to file lawsuits against them, not only for living there “illegally,” but also in several cases for “illegally” profiting from the small businesses they had established within the community. Some lawsuits ran in the millions of NT dollars. To add insult to injury, those who refused to move were charged a demolition fee, which ran in the tens of thousands of NT dollars. Most cannot afford to pay the fines; those who do so will se their entire life savings vanish. How are they supposed to continue living? Pay Rent?

Many times, as I have walked through the rubble of Huaguang, I have asked myself how the residents could have lived there “illegally” when state-owned companies like Chunghwa Telecom and Taipower provided them with phone lines and hooked their homes to natural gas and electricity. Surely, if operating a small business there constituted illegal profiting, then the very same state-owned companies should also be slapped lawsuits. But of course, that isn’t so.

Intent on fighting for their rights, some of the residents — many of them, like Tseng, elderly, in poor health, and dirt poor — sent a petition to the government asking for humane treatment. Ten days later, Tseng’s house burned down, possibly from arson (Mr. Chen gave me a picture). I remember walking by the charred remains back in late March. I now know who its former occupant was. Tseng died during the Lunar New Year, aged 91.

Her fate is shared by many others, elderly and single individuals who have now been scattered to the winds. Their community is gone, the bonds woven over the decades broken by the distance that now separates former neighbors who have been temporarily placed in housing all over Taipei, mostly on the peripheries.

“This is the way Ma’s government treats its people,” Mr. Chen’s letter to Obama reads. If it were me in his shoes, I, too, would be shaking in anger. (Photos by the author)

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