It was an unusual theatrical performance that took place on a recent Sunday in Erchongpu (二重埔), a Hakka farming village in Jhudong Township (竹東), Hsinchu County. A group of farmers , many in their 60s and 70s, tilled the land, planted seedlings and harvested in front of a large audience made up of activists, teachers, students and families as well as members from self-help organizations in Miaoli County’s Dapu Village (大埔), Puyu (璞玉) in Hsinchu County’s Jhubei Township (竹北) and other communities facing land expropriation by the government to make way for development projects.
These first-time actors were playing themselves. The performance was as much about portraying their rustic life as it was about giving a firsthand account of a long-running battle to protect the livelihood of farmers.
“I used to eat 25 bowls of rice a day so that I had the strength to farm the land. And you? What did you eat when you were growing up?” an 85-year-old farmer known as Uncle A-hsiang (阿祥伯) asks another farmer playing the role of a government official who informs local residents of the government’s plan to take over their land for a science park.
For the past four months, the Center for Applied Theater, Taiwan (台灣應用劇場發展中心) has been working with members of the Erchongpu Self-Help Organization (二重埔自救會) through a series of workshops designed to voice locals’ stories. The center’s director, Lai Shu-ya (賴淑雅), who has worked with remote villages and grassroots groups since 1996, said the idea behind the community-based theater projects is to encourage residents to express opinions and participate in local affairs and issues. The collaboration with Erchongpu, she added, is the theater group’s attempt to respond to land grabbing and related problems that have plagued the country’s farming communities.
Forced Land Expropriation
“It has been an important learning experience for me. They have taught me what theater for the people is all about … We should throw away theatrical methods and practices so that the true drama of local people’s lives can be revealed,” Lai said. “These farmers are tough, highly organized, disciplined and very close to each other.”
To Liu Ching-chang (劉慶昌), a member of the self-help organization and head of the Alliance for the Defense of Farming Villages (捍衛農鄉聯盟), the strength of their solidarity lies in the community’s long history of fighting against the forced takeover of farmland by the government.
In 1981, the Hsinchu County Government announced the expropriation project in the area to make way for the third-stage expansion of the Hsinchu Science Park. More than 1,000 protestors besieged the science park in 1989, led by the then-county councilor Lu Yuan-kuei (呂源貴).
“We blocked the main entrance, only allowing people to get out, but not get in. The main road in Hsinchu City and the highway were totally jammed,” the 79-year-old former councilor recalled.
Officials decided to abort the science park project in 2000 due to a lack of funds. “But they [the county government] didn’t tell us about the withdrawal,” said Lu Yuan-kuei, who has lived in Erchongpu all his life.
In 2006, the county government modified the development plan and used build–operate–transfer (BOT) to solve the financing problem. The renewed project involves building an industrial zone, commercial areas and housing complexes on more than 440 hectares of land requisitioned from Erchongpu, Sanchongpu (三重埔), Touchongpu (頭重埔) and Kehuli (科湖里).