Tang Hsiang-ming (湯祥明) was forcefully institutionalized when he was 19. A promising student at Taipei Municipal Chien-kuo Senior High School, the nation’s top educational institution for boys, he’d been diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Ostracized by his family and community, he was taken to the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院) in 1951 in what is present-day Sinjhuang District (新莊), New Taipei City (新北市).
But the sanatorium was never a place to cure those suffering from the disease. It was meant to segregate them from the rest of society.
“[We] were left to perish,” Tang says.
“In the early days, the main gate was guarded by a police officer. Closer to the building complex, there was another sentry standing on guard who would fire his rifle into the air if a patient walked toward him,” he recalls.
Back then lepers were interred at Losheng against their will. Today they face the opposite problem: the forced eviction from many of the sanatorium’s buildings because the Taipei City Government wants to construct a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) maintenance depot on the site. This time, however, the Hansen’s sufferers aren’t taking the forced destruction of the country’s only public leprosarium without a fight.
HOME SWEET HOME
On a summer day in 2007, a group of former patients led a 6,000-person rally organized by preservation activists, calling on the government to stop the planned construction of the maintenance depot. Almost six years on, campaigners have taken to the streets again, but now most of the sanatorium complex has already been demolished. Landslides, caused by the ongoing construction work, have also caused large cracks in the remaining buildings. Though the residents persist, they appear aged and exhausted.
“Losheng is our home. As long as I breathe, I will continue to fight,” says Chen Tsai-tien (陳再添), who was forcefully removed from his home in 1952 at the age of 16 after he was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease. He has lived in Losheng ever since.
Losheng Sanatorium began operating in the winter of 1930 under the Japanese colonial government. It was designed to segregate leprosy patients from society as a way to control the disease. Under the empire’s leprosy prevention law, patients were subject to compulsory isolation, forced sterilization and abortion.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government continued the policy of forced isolation when it came to power following World War II. Those with leprosy were taken into custody, handcuffed and transported to the leper colony. Those who attempted to evade authorities usually failed because neighbors were encouraged to identify and report those suspected of having the illness. Many Losheng residents, now in their 70s and 80s, remember this early period as a time of darkness, as hunger, fear and death stalked the leprosarium.
Lee Tien-pei (李添培), who was admitted to Losheng in 1949 at the age of 15, says that when he first arrived, each leper was given a food allowance amounting to little more than NT$10 a month, hardly enough to live on. They were consequently forced to scavenge for dead farm animals to get by.
Medical treatments barely existed. Painkillers were among the few medications handed out. To make matters worse, Lee says, the clinic was staffed with unlicensed nurses and doctors who often conducted forced clinical trials resulting in permanent injuries or death.