The old man offers a cigarette to the elderly lady who sits next to him outside the red temple. She refuses. The man is unwell, his face bloated. Around his neck hangs a small device that appears to be connected to a pacemaker. On his head sits an old, olive-green Nationalist soldier’s hat. Behind them, the bulldozers are at work, devouring a community and the lives of its inhabitants.
“I don’t have a home anymore,” the old man says.
Welcome to Huaguang (華光) community in Taipei, the latest target in a series of attacks by the wealthy class against the “have-nots.” The destruction is random, with the Taipei City Government’s “executioner” beginning by tearing down the shabby houses of those who have given their consent.
However, many other residents, whom the Ministry of the Interior says have for decades been illegally occupying land that belongs to the government, are refusing to move away. Many — the elderly, poor and those with failing health — cannot afford to move elsewhere. To make matters worse, the government has slapped some of the recalcitrant residents with lawsuits in the millions of NT dollars, is seizing one-third of the salary of a man whose wife makes her living selling buns for NT$25 apiece, and is suing a local restaurant owner for “illegally” profiting from the local residents over the years.
Pink court summonses have been affixed to the doors, next to other official documents informing the occupants of the date and time by which they must vacate their residence before it is demolished.
Some, hoping against hope, have hoisted Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) flags in front of their dilapidated houses, to no avail. Amid the graffiti accusing the government of lying — 馬扁, a pun on the current president’s surname and the former president’s nickname — or of worse things, surrounded by heaps of bricks and the accumulated accoutrements of decades of living, one cannot help but shiver.
Just outside this microcosm of injustice, seen through the hundred-year-old trees that also stand to be razed, the tall ornate gates of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall stand proudly, a symbol of government indifference to ordinary lives.
The area in question is to be razed to make room for a glitzy neighborhood inspired by the upmarket Roppongi community in Tokyo. One can already see the land developers rubbing their hands in expectation, having finally succeeded in forcing the government to resolve the issue after years of inaction (it began when the Democratic Progressive Party was in office). After all, this is prime real estate.
The issue here is not so much whether the houses should be torn down or whether cities should rejuvenate themselves. The entire community is a fire hazard and is falling apart. Many of its inhabitants are ill and it is obvious they are not receiving proper medical care (much of the unopened mail scattered outside the houses were claims from the Bureau of National Health Insurance, others were from church organizations providing social support).
The problem is that many of those who refuse to move have nowhere else to go. The city government says it will provide social housing, but many cannot afford even the low rent for those. Many of the residents of Huaguang community have spent their entire lives there. This is their home. There is little doubt that as their homes are demolished, a few among them will die. Already, the strain of the recent demolitions is taking its toll and the elderly look gaunter, sicker, and seem to be rapidly fading away.
The residents of Huaguang, along with hundreds of people from civic organizations and youth groups who have rallied for this cause, and the many similar ones that have emerged across the nation, do not oppose progress per se, but they want it to be accompanied by compassion and humanity, two characteristics in which the current government is severely lacking.