Monday, October 28, 2013

Eviction of vendors at Sun Moon Lake

The elderly vendors have until Oct. 31 to vacate the area, or they will be evicted. In their place, a brand new BOT project will be erected, one that will be far more ‘esthetically pleasing’ for the thousands of tourists who visit the area every day

In recent months, protests outside the Executive Yuan in Taipei — youth and the elderly in the foreground, a row of police officers with shields as a backdrop — have become almost as routine as the meetings of Cabinet officials that take place inside the building.

This morning, it was the turn of elderly vendors from the touristic spot of Sun Moon Lake to arrive on a bus, unfurl their banners, placards, and props to draw attention to their plight. The situation that confronts them is one that has become far too common in recent times, where society’s most vulnerable are shoved aside in the name of “progress” and the creation of opportunities for the wealthy to become wealthier.

What a sad sight it was this morning to see men and women in their sixties, seventies and eighties gather with their cooking instruments, sausages, tea-leaf eggs and other wares, people who are now being evicted by a government that no longer wants them to operate their small businesses at Sun Moon Lake. Many of them have been making a trade there over four, sometimes five decades. One, a woman in her seventies, raised four children on her own after her husband died by selling tea-leaf eggs at NT$10 apiece.

Sausage vendor, victim
For years the vendors conducted their trade on government land in the Wenwu Temple area, obtaining permits for about NT$200,000, which forced many of them to get a guarantor and leasing a small spot for NT$1,700 a month. The first blow came in the form of the 921 Earthquake of 1999, which hit Nantou County, where Sun Moon Lake is located, pretty hard. The vendors rebuilt all they could, but the assistance promised them by the government (both DPP and KMT) never materialized and they were left to fend for themselves, eking out a living with small stalls.

Now the government wants them out, and will no longer issue them the permits to operate there. For one thing, officials say, the ramshackle shacks and booths are “unsightly” and must be replaced by something more esthetically pleasing to the tourists — a growing number of them from China — eye. The plan is to evict the small vendors by Oct. 31, raze the area, and build something more modern on top of it. Unsurprisingly, the project will go to the highest bidder and will be — yes, those three letters could very wall stand for abuse — a BOT (“build, operate, transfer”). Gone will be the elderly vendors who over the decades gave the place a local flavor. In their place will be much wealthier vendors who, you can be assured, will be charged much more than NT$1,700 a month to rent the space there. In fact, given what’s been going on in the area, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the bidders were Chinese.

Eighty-four-year-old vendor, victim
One solution comes to mind. If the stalls are so unsightly, why not erect something more modern and help the old vendors move back in, a “win-win” solution that would please the esthetically demanding tourists while ensuring that vulnerable vendors who have become part of the area’s charms can continue to make a living? In fact, this approach was considered before, and then-premier and now vice president Wu “I never broke a promise in 40 years of public service” Den-yih (敦義) did vow do to just that for the vendors. But big money and China got in the way, and compassion was once again thrown out the window, along with society’s most vulnerable.

To add insult to injury, the government is telling the vendors that following the 921 earthquake the area has become too seismically unstable. The eviction is therefore for their own safety, they are told. Apparently, however, the area is stable enough for other people’s — wealthier people’s — structures to be built there.

The vendors are appealing to the EY, but the chances that the project will be reversed are extremely slim. If similar cases observed in recent months are any indication, the vendors who refuse to leave will likely be fined by the government, which only and unnecessarily adds to their plight.

As I’ve written before, nobody opposes progress, modernity, and the beautification of one’s environment, from cities to tourist attractions. But the march must be carried out in the spirit of compassion and humanity, with the understanding that some people, people who often are of little financial means, will be dislocated in the process and therefore will need assistance. This government, sadly, only gives them the boot. (Photos by the author)

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