A week after more than 1,000 protesters took to the street on March 16 to preserve the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院), some of them gathered at the complex to reflect on their campaign. It was a jovial affair, as young activists chatted with and teased the residents of the leprosy sanatorium. There was even a cake to celebrate the 77th birthday Chen Tsai-tien (陳再添), a long-time resident.
Residents have rarely been so content. The complex was opened in 1930 by the Japanese colonial government to segregate those with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, amid fear that the disease could infect the general population.
“Each one of us has been hurt, rejected and discriminated against. We were afraid of being hurt again, so we closed the door and lived amongst ourselves. It took a long time for us to open up,” says Chen.
Leprosy patients had very little contact with the outside world for the first 40 years of the sanatorium’s existence. That changed in 1973 when a group of students from Fu Jen Catholic University (輔仁大學) came to Losheng to visit the residents and offer care. At first, the students were ignored.
“We were hostile towards people from outside because they treated us like zoo animals,” says long-time resident Tang Hsiang-ming (湯祥明).
“The students were only allowed to visit certain areas because sanatorium authorities didn’t want people to know of the harsh conditions inside. But they didn’t give up. They came every week. Little by little, we became closer.”
The students played music and held dumpling parties inside the sanatorium and every now and then took residents on an outing. Gradually, the patients felt more confident and less ashamed of the disease and their disfigurements. With the arrival of the students and the growing confidence of the sanatorium’s residents, authorities could no longer keep Losheng from opening up.
Over the course of several decades, the sanatorium has become the only home for the residents, a place where they feel safe. They planted flowers and tended a vegetable garden or helped out at households where fellow residents were in need.
“We looked after each other. We were a family,” Tang says.
Then the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) came with a plan to build a maintenance depot on the site of the sanatorium.
In the name of development
In 1994, the central government sold the hill where the sanatorium stood to the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation for the construction of part of the Sinjhuang MRT Line. Losheng residents were not consulted. After learning about the plan, they pleaded their case to the government, but to no avail.
Without consent from the residents, the first stage of demolition work began in 2002. At the time, Lee Tien-pei (李添培) lived with his family of seven at House No. 100 (100號), living quarters built for patients with children. When the building was torn down, Lee’s family was asked to leave the sanatorium. Other families were similarly affected.
Meanwhile, Chen, who lived in Tainan House (台南舍), one of the remaining buildings, watched anxiously as bulldozers flattened his neighbors’ homes.
“We were told not to worry because Tainan House was not slated for demolition,” Chen says. “But every day we woke up and saw bulldozers digging away our home. Our hearts bled.”
Soon, the demolition work caused structural damage to the rest of the compound. Tainan House started to crack, the floor tilted and windows and doors broke. Without communicating with residents face to face, sanatorium authorities ordered them to move immediately, threatening to cut off their supply of water and electricity.